It’s unfortunate that many of us were ushered into adulthood via a global pandemic. Personally, I felt so resentful– I felt like it was unfair that I couldn’t be a “normal” young adult, because so much of that crucial developmental time was spent locked inside, while people died en masse. I felt robbed, and I felt guilty and ashamed for feeling that way, because so many others around the world weren’t as protected as I was– people lost family members, members of their community, and even their own lives, all during a globally traumatizing experience that felt like a whirlwind of confusion all of the time.
It seems people’s feelings about the pandemic are so strong and conflicting that we all collectively have agreed to avoid processing them. Whenever conversations about the pandemic emerge, we shut down and skirt around the topic– or worse, we devalue our pain and the pain of others, in order to deal with it. That level of acceptance is a beautiful representation of how resilient we can be in the face of hardship, but there’s beauty in discussing our experiences with this global event that changed our lives. I think there’s beauty, too, in discussing how to grieve those changes– especially the changes in our sense of self.
I’ve found that doing so by using Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grief as a framework has helped me process my own thoughts. While my understanding of these stages is limited, I’ve found that the framework at least helps me to organize my thinking. Grieving the parts of us that we wished could stay but couldn’t (due to global chaos) is difficult, and an important process that should be talked about. That said, let’s talk about it.
Noun: Failure to acknowledge an unacceptable truth or emotion, or to admit it into consciousness, used as a defense mechanism
I knew that the pandemic was “happening” when the world shut down almost overnight. And yet still, I tried so, so hard to pretend it wasn’t happening. I tried to carry on with my normal activities, and it felt like everyone else did too. At work, the solution was to just do everything we always did, but virtually. People were still traveling, assuming that the world was just overreacting– and if I could have afforded it, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have been traveling either. I wore a mask, but was skeptical about its effectiveness and annoyed that I had to wear it. All these feelings were a response to avoid dealing with the upheaval of my normal everyday life, and my sense of self attached to it.
I denied that my anxiety was increasing again, and I denied that my physical activity was declining again – the idea that the hard work I did to improve myself physically and mentally had gone out of the window, was too much for me to process, so I just didn’t bother. I binge-watched “Tiger King” and CNN, and I skirted around my anxiety every time my therapist brought it up.I didn’t want to admit that this global event was affecting me. The (relatively) mentally and physically-healthy version of myself that I was so looking forward to experiencing in my mid-20s was disappearing, but it was easier for me to stick my head in the sand. Admitting that I wasn’t working out or journaling would have meant admitting that I didn’t feel safe going anywhere or working through my emotions, and that would have been admitting that Covid was actually affecting my day-to-day life. Still, that denial phase was so important because it’s a necessary stage of grief, some even call it protective.
Sometimes I feel angry about denial because it felt like it halted the progress I could have been making to feel like “me” again. But, if I hadn’t been in denial, I seriously doubt that I would have made it through certain parts of the pandemic. And frankly, it wasn’t reasonable for me to expect myself to stay as close to the “best” version of myself as possible during a global pandemic that arguably changed the world anyways.
Noun: A strong feeling of annoyance, displeasure, or hostility; A strong feeling of displeasure and belligerence, aroused by a wrong; Wrath, or Ire
Speaking of feeling angry, we have to start processing all the anger we feel towards the Covid pandemic. Personally, I was raging almost constantly for a while– I was angry at the virus, angry at the people who didn’t respect the virus enough to stop traveling, angry at the people who wouldn’t wear masks, angry at the scientists who seemed to have a different response to the virus everyday, angry at the workforce that wouldn’t give us time to process the literal global catastrophe… I was just angry. Even still, I was angry at the pre-Covid version of me that didn’t seem equipped to handle a global catastrophe.
I felt this sense of rage towards the version of me that couldn’t have predicted how serious things would get, because she wasn’t prepared. She just, in my mind at the time, sucked! I was angry at how fragile the world made me feel, and I was angry that all of this was happening during my 20s– a time when I was supposed to be out having a hot girl summer.
The world seemed so unfair, and I was angry at that. People I knew who seemed to party through the whole pandemic never got Covid, while folks who tried their hardest to stay inside got Covid (or even died). I even resented everyone around me for grieving during the pandemic too– trying to convince myself that my feelings were valid because they were stronger than everyone else’s. There was no comfort because everyone was going through the same pandemic too, and even that felt unfair, which only added to my anger.
In my processing of this anger, I realize that I was angry that life forced me to let go of an image I held for myself– or maybe I’m only angry that at the slightest inconvenience, I let that version of me go. Some days, I’m angry that I didn’t fight harder for that version of myself. Other days, I’m angry that the world fell into disarray and it felt unsafe to even leave home. All I can do most days is tell myself that either way, the anger is valid.
Noun: An agreement between two or more parties as to what each party will do for the other
Verb: to negotiate the terms and conditions of a transaction
I tried to bargain, too. I believed that if I just continued on as if nothing was happening, I could still come out the same Pre-pandemic me. I thought I would just journal, exercise, and meditate my way through the pandemic as if nothing had changed– as if I wasn’t watching the death toll increase daily on CNN like lottery numbers. As if I wasn’t hearing ambulance sirens regularly, and as if I wasn’t living in a somehow ghost town version of Manhattan. I thought that I could hold on to the 22-year-old me as if she hadn’t left.
The first bargain I tried to make centered around my passions– my motivation to conduct the research I was once so passionate about dropped heavily, and I tried to negate that by forcing myself to research anyways. I even told myself that all I needed was for the pandemic to end, and I could feel like a researcher again. I started to bargain around my body changes too– “I promise I’ll never eat chocolate again, and I’ll lose this weight if the pandemic ends tomorrow!!” Or even “If this pandemic ends soon, I’ll hit the gym right away! No breaks or hesitations!” And ugh, the bargaining I attempted around my mental health? All the things I promised I’d do for my mental health if the pandemic ended, and if the world went back to normal. Man!
I know that I would (and might still) have done anything to get pre-Pandemic me back, without realizing that she wasn’t suitable for the future I envisioned for myself. At my most radically accepting (this is difficult), I choose to believe that I needed to lose the pre-pandemic version of me to get to the version of me I truly wanted. In this space, I imagine that my bargains were “struck down” because I was actually cheating myself out of the deal I really wanted and needed. At my most neutral, I accept that bargaining is something we do when we want control over a situation that warrants grief.
Noun: Feelings of severe despondency and dejection
This stage is probably the easiest to define, while it’s likely not easy for anyone to talk about. This is the stage I feel I see the most often: Whenever you ask others how they’re doing, they just shrug and don’t really say much. Even when others would ask me how I was, I convinced myself that it wasn’t worth talking about because everyone was feeling the same.
I felt depressed because pre-Covid me was gone– but I didn’t want to acknowledge why she was gone. I didn’t care to talk to anyone, so I self-isolated more and more– which made the depression even worse. I got into pointless arguments frequently, and I was so numb I couldn’t even cry to mourn the loss of the normalcy I was so looking forward to experiencing in my 20s and beyond.
Attempting to combat this depression, I tried to convince myself that I was just another spoiled American who wasn’t used to chaos and instability, and that most people around the world could adapt more easily than those of us who lived a relatively plushy life could. But that line of thinking only made the depression worse– not only did I feel depressed, but I felt unjustified in feeling that way. It was a vicious cycle.
Oddly, I appreciate this depressive state, because it showed me that something was lost. And, you can’t find or rebuild yourself if you don’t ever realize it was lost in the first place. If I had never cycled through this really, really tough phase and if I didn’t feel the depression, I wouldn’t have gotten a sign that something was wrong. And funneling through these emotions led me to finally accept the reality of the situation.
Ac·cept·ance – Accepting the Post-Covid You
Noun: Agreement with or belief in an idea, opinion, or explanation; a willingness to tolerate a difficult or unpleasant situation; the action of consenting to receive or undertake something offered
It’s still not always easy to accept that the ‘us’ that existed before Covid is gone, or has changed– it’s hard to accept that we’re different people due to an unforeseeable global pandemic. While Covid may not necessarily be over, I think I’ve accepted that things have changed for me, both internally and externally. And it’s important to settle into that acceptance for a while, because it can be used to propel us into building the version of ourselves that we want to be after the pandemic (that is, if we stop experiencing all of these major historical events).
When I think about the pandemic, I think about this little cartoon I saw that explained grief. Basically, the cartoon noted that our grief never really goes away– instead, we grow around it. It makes a home for itself inside of us, but we make space for other things too. And that was a beautiful illustration that we can still make space for whatever comes next. Maybe we can reclaim those lost parts of us, or maybe we can use the bits and pieces to build something new.
And when I talk to others about the pandemic, I am careful: We lost countless lives to this global catastrophe, so sometimes our feelings about “my sense of me” don’t take precedence, and it’s that simple. Still, this event changed so many lives, in small or not so small ways. And while so many of us are still reeling from the pandemic in ways that render us unable to talk about it, I think it’s important that we remain as open as possible to talking about it, with trusted people, when the time comes. Granted, we’ll all arrive at that point at different times but when we do, I sincerely hope that we’re open enough to talk about it. And to accept that things have changed, giving ourselves grace, and working toward building a new version of us.
Vanessa is a third-year graduate student studying Psychology at Rutgers University, with a passion for all thing’s wellness, research, creativity and empathy. In her spare time, Vanessa enjoys learning guitar, reading and writing fiction stories as forms of expression and vulnerability. Vanessa can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.