DABDA: the five stages of grief

Posted by Michael Dale Kimmel in Columns 26 Jul 2020

“You know the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance?” asked Dr. Emily Landon, a coronavirus expert at the University of Chicago medical school. “I think the American people are in all five of them.” (as quoted in The New York Times, July 19th, 2020)

I think Dr. Landon is right; I’d like to give you my take on DABDA (Denial/Anger/Bargaining/ Depression/Acceptance) as it applies to the COVID-19 situation we’re in now. In my experience as a psychotherapist (and former grief counselor for San Diego Hospice), the stages don’t always happen in a fixed order and we often experience more than one at a time.

Let’s start with Denial. Denial is often our first reaction to something awful. With COVID-19, it may sound like, “This can’t be so bad. Maybe it’s a hoax. I’ll bet it’s just like the flu.” Fox News and Donald Trump are avid practitioners of denial. When we’re in a state of shock, denial helps us to not let in more information than we can handle. To stay in denial, however, isn’t helpful, but it’s where many of us began the COVID-19 grieving process: we don’t want to admit that our world has experienced a huge shock, so we try and block it out.

For some people, Anger is their favorite phase of grief: it gives you the illusion that you are powerful and can do something about your losses. With COVID-19, a good example of this are all the “Kens” and “Karens” who throw hissy fits when asked to wear a mask in stores and restaurants. It’s easier to get angry than it is to feel sad or scared. You can be angry at Trump, the virus, Dr. Fauci, the governor, the mayor: but, underneath anger is always hurt and pain. Eventually, most of us are able to let go of a majoritiy of our anger and feel the losses that COVID-19 has brought to our lives.

With Bargaining, we think that, somehow, we can make a deal with God (or whomever) to get what we want. One client told me, “Maybe if I eat really well, stay home all the time, meditate and exercise every day I won’t get COVID-19.” You may think that this sounds like common sense, but, in a way, it’s like “Let’s Make A Deal”: if I do this, almighty Universe, will you give me that?” If you’re ever been in a bad situation – pulled over for DUI or something serious like that – you probably said something like, “Please, God, if you get me out of this, I’ll never drink again. I’ll go to an AA meeting tomorrow, I promise.” That’s bargaining.

Depression seems to be where many of us are right now. My practice is full of people who feel depressed about how Trump is mishandling the pandemic, how some people won’t wear masks, how a vaccine seems so far away…you get the drift. Plus, we’re depressed over what we’ve lost: vacations, parties, hugging friends, hooking up…and we feel sad because of everything that we’ve had to give up, for who knows how long. Depression is a natural response to a great loss, however, if it feels overwhelming or you’re having thoughts of suicide, please get professional help.

Acceptance sounds awfully Buddhist, doesn’t it? It’s not the same as feeling good. You can accept the reality of COVID-19 without feeling okay about it. Acceptance sounds more like: “This is the way it is right now, I don’t know how long it will be like this, but this is the situation now. ”We learn to live with the COVID-19 situation, as it is, finding new ways to experience joy and happiness, often surprising ourselves.

No matter which of the DABDA stages you’re experiencing, I invite you to slow down and notice. Have compassion for yourself: treat yourself kindly. This too shall pass and we can grow and benefit from it.