I. After this
I’m writing the day after a second three week lockdown was announced here in the UK. While there was an inevitability that the first three week period would be extended, and for many it is a relief, it was another reminder that life has changed beyond recognition for most of us.
In many ways, the daily routine of my life hasn’t changed so profoundly. I work mainly from home and thanks to Zoom and Facetime, I’m still able to be with counselling clients. I’m hoping to resume counselling at school, though via email not video. Supervision, my own counselling, training, mindfulness, quizzes, occasional wine drinking with friends and extended family conversations are all happening on screen in my house. Sometimes it’s energizing and a welcome distraction; at others it’s draining and a reminder of how odd everything is. I’m constantly attending to the space around my computer, to make it more comfortable for me and to make it more appealing for the people looking in; it seems I’m still keeping up appearances.
Overall, four weeks in, I am adapting to a new way of working and spending time with people who don’t live under my roof through a screen. It’s okay. I’m okay. Life with those who do live under our roof is also okay. We’re lucky enough to live in a house with lots of rooms (I’m so glad we never got round to knocking all those walls down to create that wonderful open plan kitchen…) and mine and my partner’s slightly-dysfunctional-in-normal-times levels of self-sufficiency have been passed on to our three teenaged children; we’re all fairly low maintenance in our expectations of entertainment from eachother (the back-catalogue of ‘Glee’, Fifa and Netflix dystopian fiction are sustaining the teenagers so far). Food matters more than it ever has, and the satisfaction of restocking the fridge after a socially distanced supermarket shop or the brilliance of a ‘click and collect’ is something I’ll try to hold on to ‘after this’.
So that’s the good news. And of course we need it. It feels like a duty to attend to the news from ‘out there’, but it feels impossible to let it fully in. Judging by the commentary I see on social media and in my online conversations, my compulsion both to be informed and to selectively screen out news is common. The dominant responses veer between fear, anger and distrust (directed at politicians and at ‘the bad others’ who aren’t following the rules or exploiting the situation) and a determination to be positive, to ‘make memories,’ to count our blessings, to clap and cheer (for the NHS, the carers, the drivers, ‘the good others’ who are sacrificing themselves to save us all).
There’s a rhetoric of punishment and reward to mirror this judgement and reverence: fines and public shaming for the baddies; promises of medals, badges and even knighthoods for the goodies. I’m not standing outside of these responses looking in: I’m having them all, sometimes at the same time. For example, I was moved to tears at Boris Johnson’s speech after his discharge from hospital. It was a well-crafted speech and designed to land emotionally. I was also relieved that he was recovering, and perhaps reminded of times I’ve felt relief when people who I care about have come out of hospital. This doesn’t mean I don’t also feel anger about many years of political decision making which has left our country ill-equipped to deal with this crisis; I have a profound sense of distrust about how and why decisions are being made now, and how decisions will be made about the future. These feelings also arise from more painful memories of when people I cared about did not recover and the part that the politics of health and social care played in those circumstances. And that sometimes illness cannot be cured.
The public and the private, anger and compassion, fear and optimism co-exist. One set of responses do not cancel out the other. So I’ll keep clapping on a Thursday, hoping for Boris Johnson’s full recovery while hoping for his imminent political downfall. People are complicated.
II Grieving an unknown loss
While none of us have experienced this set of circumstances before, many of us have felt what we’re feeling now. For me, it comes closest to grief or anticipated grief, for a loss we’re fearful of. We’re familiar with Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s exploration of the grief experienced by a group of people with terminal illness and the much-cited ‘stages of that particular grief’: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are not linear or universal, but they offer a helpful description of what many of us are experiencing now. I’ve recognized lots of responses to our current situation in terms of thsi grief response:
denial: the rush of adrenaline after the first lockdown announcement was enough to get many of us into action and to reshape our working and domestic lives. I was very struck by the online photos of children sitting at home school desks on day one of school closures.’ We can do this, we’re fine’, they seemed to say.
anger: there’s an understandable need to try to squeeze the square peg of what was into the round hole of what is, or into the imagined triangle of the future. When the peg just doesn’t fit, when reality erupts into denial, we can feel angry and irritable (see the later photos of children parked in front of televisions and parents asking for teachers to be given pay rises). When these feelings arise, we’re being reminded that something has in fact changed, despite our best efforts to block out that reality.
bargaining: ‘It should have been/could have been different’ is both a reasonable critique of political decisions and a grief response; this is the ‘if only’ of bargaining. Most of us are in no position to know what decisions were made when, why things seem out of control; but that doesn’t stop us having extremely strong reactions, including, perhaps, our own sense of guilt and helplessness.
depression: People are tired – sleep is disrupted, dreams are intense; decision making can be hard (shopping lists take days and never seem right) and though I’ve got nowhere to be there still doesn’t seem to be enough time to do whatever it is that I can’t decide to do.
So what of ‘acceptance’ and the ‘sixth stage’ (coined by David Kessler) of ‘making meaning’ in grief. I’m nowhere near being able to integrate this experience, to allow it to be fully felt and resolved. It’s impossible to get close to acceptance or to make meaning while everything is so volatile.. Like every other stage, the timing and expression will depend on who you are and what you’ve lost. The ‘stages’ of grief can happen all at once or not all. I don’t know which of my losses are for now and which are permanent; whether there’ll be things I’ll be grateful for, things I won’t want back or things I’ve gained.
III Getting busy in other people’s feelings
While this is the most collective experience we’ve ever had, none of us is experiencing it in exactly the same way. And while I maintain that we’re all grieving, or anticipating grief, the way we experience and express that grief is as diverse as we are. That can compound feelings of alienation. We might be all in this together, but we might not find our experiences or feelings matched or mirrored by those around us. Someone’s ‘keep calm, and carry on’ mantra might appear on a timeline when you’ve just heard about someone’s mum dying on their own and you want to curl up in a ball and howl. Or someone might be raging about the latest press briefing when you’ve just got back from the supermarket in need of silence to settle your jangling nerves.
Of course, these misattunements (the way our moods and experiences are misread or overlooked by those around us) are part of our everyday experience. Now however, with many us in such a vigilant state, we need to work harder to find tolerance for others and support ourselves. So if Bob on Twitter keeps posting 5G conspiracy theories, or Betty on Facebook posts her daily timetable of self-improving activity, it might be enough to be curious about what’s being emotionally expressed (Bob’s fear, Betty’s need to be in control); then notice what you’re feeling in response and support that emotion rather than get involved with Bob’s or Betty’s business. The same applies to those living in the same household as you. Respond to the feelings that someone else’s behaviour elicits in you before responding to the behaviour (obviously I’m not referring to abusive behaviour here). Where separate rooms, walls and doors are in short supply, put in a breathing space between you and those you live with and do what you need to support yourself.
And when you’ve done that, give this a listen, it’s lovely: