Donald Morrison: Welcome to the Republic of Grief

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A longtime family friend and Berkshires visitor recently came down with the coronavirus. She sounded fine from the hospital. A few days later, she was gone, leaving a big hole in our lives.

You may have one of those holes, too. Or soon will.

This epidemic has been tied to around 180,000 deaths, including more than 50,000 in the U.S. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 40 percent of respondents said they knew someone who had contracted the virus.

A Morning Connect survey found that 8 percent of Americans had a friend or family member who'd died of it. The polls were conducted two weeks ago. The numbers are no doubt higher now.

There will be a memorial service for our friend when things get safer. Until then, we'll just have to grieve together, online — where we do pretty much everything these days.

It was online that I found a small measure of solace. Wouldn't you know, there's a website called grief.com. It is run by followers of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the Swiss-American psychiatrist who came up with the now famous "five stages of grief." You know: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, acceptance.

I always thought those sounded a little glib, imprecise. Not anymore. I've realized that these stages rather neatly describe the grief we're all experiencing in these anxious times. We've become a Republic of Grief — united not just over vanished loved ones, but also lost incomes, disrupted lives, curtailed freedoms and a shattered sense of security.

As we struggle to cope, we seem to be following the Kubler-Ross script:

Denial. Hey, this virus thing is no big deal, China is far away, some malaria drug shows promise as a cure, a vaccine will be ready soon. We've got the best health care system in the world.

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Anger. We're deeply annoyed that we can't go to work, to school, to get a haircut. Jacob's Pillow and Shakespeare & Company have canceled their seasons, and other cultural outfits may follow. The Olympics are off. Major League Baseball is on a ventilator. What a summer, what a bummer.

Bargaining. OK, if we agree to stay home a couple of weeks, wash our hands for two "Happy Birthdays" and combine our trips to the supermarket, things will be fine, right?

Sadness. This is getting tragic. The shutdowns aren't ending. The bodies are piling up. The markets are tanking, the deficits soaring. We've lost the world we knew. Life will never be the same.

Acceptance. Maybe it's time we can start thinking about what comes next — what mix of testing, tracing, masking and social distancing will let us reopen the economy, rebuild our lives.

Kubler-Ross died in 2004, but not before designating grief expert David Kessler as her successor in their grim but necessary mission. Helpfully, Kessler has added a sixth stage to the list:

Meaning. We can take inspiration from those we've lost, he says, build memorials to them in our hearts and our communities. We can move forward in ways that will honor our loved ones.

So, let me make a stab at honoring the life of Ellen O'Keefe, who died April 19 in Boston. She leaves a legacy of professional achievement, personal fulfillment, exceptional kids and grandkids, golden Berkshire summers and cozy Adirondack winters.

Also, irresistible optimism, inspirational kindness and more friends than anyone I ever knew. It is an honor and an inspiration to have been among them.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and advisory board member.


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