5 stages of pandemic grief

I’ll start with disclaimers.

1.       I am not mental health specialist, if you need help please contact your local mental health helplines.

2.      I’m writing from my personal point of view.

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For past few months world has been facing SARS-CoV-2 outbreak that causes COVID-19. Considering that not much was initially known, and many people are simply scared, the outbreak of moderately mild disease created massive chaos globally.

The #pandemic proves that more attention is needed in field of global health and research. As much as scientists are trying hard to communicate and create international collaborations, many politicians simply ignore the fact that we live on one planet. The nature doesn’t respect the man-made boarders and only together we can make the progress in fighting off the pandemics.

But what does it mean to individuals?

I would like to share with you my perspective as last year international #PhD fellow, who has training in infectious diseases and does research in field of immunology. With such background, many of my family members and friends consider me an expert in this situation.

Why I am saying that “they consider me and expert”? Simply, because #COVID-19 is a novel virus, the literature in this field is only being produced greatly now and it is hard to keep up with it, even during lockdown.

At the same time, it creates a lot of pressure that comes along with expectation of being expert in any “virus-related” field, such as “what is the wave-length of UV light to kill a virus?” Please, don’t get me wrong! I am not writing here to complain about the questions of concerned friends and family! I am happy to answer to the best of my knowledge or simply look up the information, if I find time.

And here we come to my point of this article. If I find time.

#Mentalhealth is sometimes about prioritizing yourself more than other people and setting up healthy boundaries.

During past few days, when lockdown was slowly starting in South Africa, I was going through wide range of emotions, which after a while started to remind me of 5 stages of grief.

Denial: Before WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, I was chatting to my family members, who were slowly driving themselves into panic by reading a lot of media-spiced articles. I was trying to find any legitimate reports and at the same time I was still doing my work as a final year PhD fellow – my own research. I was trying not to focus on global situation, of quickly spreading virus and misinformation and put the invisible wall between my reality and reality “out there”.

Anger: With the global situation progressing quite fast, but locally receiving no support from local leaders I moved on to anger, and frankly I believe many of us did feel it too. Whether it was uncertainty in regard to job stability or lack of action from local authorities or simply (like in my case) cancelling plans. It might sound selfish, however, being angry is one of human emotions and it also needs to be felt.

When I had to cancel my local and international flights, bookings etc. I did feel angry and frustrated. As much as I couldn’t do anything about it and from stoicism point of view, I should just move on to acceptance of my current situation, however, I believe it is simply being human to feel angry as long as we don’t hold on to it. The other thing that was making me angry was world panic, which was translated into panic of family members, that me (and many other scientists) had to confront. Since panic buying, stocking up on medical supplies, masks and gloves by general population, led to shortage of medical supplies in hospitals and lack of food on shelves, my own relatives were understandably scared. Having read various literature on use of masks and gloves, I was trying to explain why masks won’t work, I was trying to share WHO guidelines via social media and still it wasn’t enough.

Bargaining: During few days spent between home and work, while preparing for 21 days lockdown in South Africa, I myself was trying not to give in to global panic. I was subconsciously questioning each ache of my body, which then I had to confront with facts – I am not sick. I tried to help as much as I could as a human being and that led me quickly to the next stage of pandemic grief: depression.

Depression: On contrary to regular mental illness, this type of depression is strictly related to current reality of feeling hopeless and useless. The social media being flooded by both correct and incorrect information, the fluidity of situation, where some information from yesterday might be changed today or tomorrow and constant fight with misinformation is exhausting. As scientist you do feel obliged to help in current situation, however the only way possible (sharing most updated and accurate information) seems to be failing in flood of rubbish. Unfortunately, living in world of social media and 24 hours news channels that are hungry for extraordinary information and attention, the world of news is losing its primarily sense of purpose – sharing accurate information. This combined with uncertainty about future leads to helplessness. I believe, many of us might feel that way today. Being scientist or not, the lack of vision of stable future can be paralyzing. Therefor, I recommend moving to the next step – acceptance.    

Acceptance: At this point, we should stop looking at the news, accept what we can’t change – SARS-CoV-2 created massive hysteria, pandemic and economical crisis. We should find a goal and stay focus. I don’t mean looking for big goals now, we all as humans need to re-adjust our 5- and 10-year plans. We need to account for global crisis. The economy will be bad in upcoming years. Many businesses will go under, but where is the new gap on the market? How I can survive upcoming months? I believe that focusing on small steps now is more important than ever. For some people this lockdown is time to work on new skills, but this can be overwhelming to others.

Personally, I wish I had time to “learn new skill”, but I don’t and that’s OK. We can’t change what happened, the pandemics of moderately mild disease changed our world. Now it’s time to learn the lessons we were supposed to learn and growth as a community.

It is ok to be in ANY stage of the pandemic grief.

It is ok to feel sad or angry and long as you are moving forward allowing yourself to feel your feelings.

It’s not over yet, the biggest economical crisis I believe is still on the way, but what is important it that we remind ourselves as scientists that first and foremost we are humans and we need to take care of our mental health first, before we can move on to helping others. Please take care of your mental health in this hard time. If you need direct help, please contact your local mental health hotline.

Stay strong! 

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