Statue of weeping angel

Stages of Grief during COVID-19.

Are you still struggling? Me too.

So much loss and pain and fear within myself and among humanity. I’d been trying to wrap my brain around what I could say about it but it all seemed like more blah, blah, blah, just like the blah, blah, blah that fills the airwaves and my inbox every day.

Then my son Matt sent me a link to a podcast he listens to regularly: The Art of Manliness. In this particular episode, the host, Brett McKay, interviewed David Kessler, a grief expert and collaborator of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross–creator of the five stages of grief.

You may be familiar with the stages, which ebb and flow, not in any sequential or linear order: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

In this interview, Kessler said what we’re experiencing during this pandemic is grief. All of us, except those rare individuals (if they exist) who are somehow immune physically, socially, and emotionally to what’s happening to our world, are experiencing grief.

We’re experiencing pandemic grief.

It certainly feels that way to me.

Kessler goes on to assert that we’re the first generation to have “feelings on feelings.” In other words, “I feel X about this situation. And I feel Y about my X.”

No wonder this is so difficult!

Kessler doesn’t name the second level of feelings, but in many cases, as it is for me, that feeling is guilt: since I have it so much better than others, I feel guilty about and un-entitled to my negative emotions.

I believe it’s a form of survivor guilt. I recognize it from Matt’s rumble with a brain tumor when he was eleven, and it persists for me today. He was, and is, so much better off than many, many other brain tumor survivors. How can I possibly grieve for what was lost when I have so much to celebrate? Deep in the thicket of bringing my memoir into existence, I fight that war often.

And I find myself fighting with my first and second-generation feelings about COVID-19:

  • I lost my disability income last September and my appeal was recently was denied. I’m not able to produce any sustainable earnings. But how can I feel sad when my husband is still employed and we’ll never lack for food and shelter?
  • I’m afraid of getting infected, but I rarely have to leave my house. How can I worry when so many others put their lives on the line every day?
  • I feel hopeless about the future of the book industry, and worried that I’ll never get an agent for my memoir. But how shallow can I be to even think about a mere book when people are dying?
  • I’m distraught over my good friend who is extremely ill with COVID-19. But how can my feelings even compare to what his family is going through?

You get my drift.

Kessler’s advice is to “Stay in your first generation feelings,” allow yourself to feel without judgment. If you do this, he says, the feelings will pass through you in a few minutes.

I’m not sure that “passing through” happens so easily, but I’m going to try that this week.

I’m going to feel whatever I feel. I’m going to sit with all of my feelings and acknowledge them. I’m going to accept them whether they pass through me or not, and my goal will be to go easy on myself: self-acceptance is key.

I hope naming this collective expereince as grief helps you to go easy on yourself. I hope you can sit with your feelings today, accepting them for what they are. I hope you can grieve in whatever way you need to. And I hope that gives you solace.

Above all, I hope you are safe and well. If not, know that I grieve for you, as does the world.

There was much more in the interview that I’d like to share (including a sixth stage Kessler added) but, because there’s so much we all have to process every day, because of all the blah, blah, blah, I’ll save those thoughts for another week.

What about you? Does this pandemic experience feel like grief?



  • Karen DeBonis

    Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, the entangled mix told in her memoir "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" forthcoming in spring 2023. Subscribe today to receive Chapter 1: A Reckoning.

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  1. Debi Lewis on April 22, 2020 at 12:33 PM

    This was so helpful for me to read today. Thank you, Karen!

    • Karen DeBonis on April 22, 2020 at 6:42 PM

      I’m so glad it found you at the right time, Debi. Thanks for letting me know :)

  2. Bill Callahan on April 22, 2020 at 1:28 PM

    Props to you Karen for sending out thoughtful and helpful comments. I agree that a sense of grief is pervasive, and some of it is anticipatory, the feeling that communal activities that are such a part of our culture are nowhere on the horizon. Or when they do come back they’ll be very different from what we’re used to. I don’t want a new normal, I want the old one. And I’m grieving it’s passing.

    • Karen DeBonis on April 22, 2020 at 6:41 PM

      It’s so great to hear from you, Bill! Did you listen to the podcast, or are you just prescient? Kessler mentions anticipatory grief, and says our minds tend to fixate on worst-case scenarios. He suggests conteracting that by imagining best-case scenarios. It’s easier said than done, but maybe the new normal will have some element we never considered, and maybe we’ll like it! (I haven’t done that work yet, to be honest, so I can’t share my vision.) But I want to honor your grieving and your honesty. Props back to you for calling it like it is.

  3. judy lawless on April 22, 2020 at 1:54 PM

    Thanks for sharing this great explanation. I have my ups and downs through this, sometimes feeling hopeful, sometimes the opposite. I do little things to help, like making face masks and crochet mask buddies. I weep for those who have lost the battle, those they’ve left behind and those that risk their lives to save others. I worry more about spreading the virus unknowingly every time I go to the store or have any interaction with someone outside my home. Did I stay far enough away? Why didn’t I put on my mask? Did I frighten them when I spoke from behind them to ask for help finding something? There are still so many unknowns about this virus. And now I weep for the 22 and counting people who died on the weekend at the hands of a lone gunman in our Province of Nova Scotia. And yes, there are the feelings of guilt because I’m healthy and in a safe place right now.🤗❤️

    • Karen DeBonis on April 22, 2020 at 6:30 PM

      It sounds like grief, Judy. And of course, it’s compounded by the horrible, senseless shootings in Nova Scotia. Just remember to honor your feelings when they arise–all of them– the good, the bad and the ugly. Be gentle with yourself–you have much to process. And I hope your good health and safe place continue to nourish you.

  4. Sheba Olenik on April 22, 2020 at 1:57 PM

    There is a silver lining in all of this…no traffic, low fuel prices, cleaner air, low noise pollution. Families slowing down, enjoying the more simple things. Walking, hiking, bike riding, board games, looking at photos from years past. Making memories that will last forever. Watching nature, the flowers, birds, wildlife, sunrise, sunset and the stars.

    The hardest part for me is not being able to be with my kids… each lives in a different part of the US. So when things “clean” up, I’ll be traveling to hug then all.

    • Karen DeBonis on April 22, 2020 at 6:24 PM

      I think the hardest part is not being close to loved ones and I’ll be traveling for some hugs, too, Sheba! I think there are silver linings for many of us indiviually, as families, and even for us as a society. But for many, there are no silver linings. Not that there won’t be lessons to be gleaned (I think there are always lessons), but the reality is too tragic. I think the best hope for many will be to come to acceptance in whatever messy, imperfect form it comes. That’s part of my grief–feeling so sad for others. Stay safe and enjoy those hugs!

  5. Maura Rampolla on April 22, 2020 at 8:09 PM

    Good article Karen! We’ve been talking about grief in our home and the stages. And the feelings about the feelings is so present and so unhelpful! Thanks for articulating that. Stay healthy and safe. xo

    • Karen DeBonis on April 23, 2020 at 10:00 AM

      Thanks Maura- appreciate your comment! Glad you are having those important discussions. You stay safe as well. XXOO

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