Stages of Grief in a Pandemic

I have been angry and depressed a lot lately, and I have been reflecting on how the stages of grief made famous by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross might help us figure out how to navigate a pandemic better. The five stages of grief Dr. Kubler Ross described are: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. These stages are not linear or in any particular order and are most often thought of in terms of dealing with grieving the death of a loved one. But they can be helpful in understanding any kind of significant loss, including the loss of freedom, normal routines, contact with friends, family, etc. caused by Covid-19.

Denial: we have all been in this stage from time to time in the last few months, from the President on down. Denial is a normal reaction to bad news. None of us wants to believe a loved one is gone forever or that our health and ability to do normal activities has been drastically curtailed. I remember hearing the news that the Arnold Classic, a huge annual event with huge economic ramifications here in Columbus, Ohio had been cancelled. It was the first real evidence we had a serious problem, and I found it hard to believe when I heard that news. In retrospect it was a great decision made with courage and great insight by our government leaders. An event of that size that brought thousands of people to Columbus from all over the world would have been devastating to Ohio and made the death toll from the Coronavirus so much worse.

Denial is a normal reaction to bad news. It’s a defense mechanism that helps shut our bodies down the way novacaine numbs your gums to withstand the pain of a tooth filling or extraction. But denial is a stage, not a destination. We need to go there to survive a shock, but we can’t pitch a tent and stay there as a way to deny reality on a long term basis. Unfortunately the U.S. has failed in our response to the the pandemic because key leaders, including the President have hindered essential responses to the virus by denying the reality of the crisis. People who follow the lead of those who ignore the uncomfortable advice of experts from the medical and scientific communities are living in denial and get stuck in the grieving process, which in this case has deadly consequences not only for them but for our whole society.

Anger: Like spoiled children we all feel some level of anger when told we can’t do something we really want to do. I was really mad in the spring when my all time favorite sports events were killed off one after another in just a few days in March. College basketball tournaments died first and then in rapid order March Madness and the Masters golf tournament. In a blink of an eye my favorite few weeks of the year were felled like dominoes lined up back to back.

Students and families were robbed of graduations, final sports seasons for seniors dropped like flies, wedding plans trashed and countless other special occasions died painful deaths. And as the whole rest of the school year was cancelled and our economy shuttered the frustrations and anger increased exponentially as weeks dragged into months. Since it’s hard to be angry at an invisible enemy our anger got directed at public health officials who were just trying to do their jobs, at courageous governments leaders who made difficult and unpopular decisions to shut down any and everything we enjoy doing. Throw that kind of anger into an already politically divided society and you have armed protestors descending on state houses and the homes of public health officials, and that anger gets misdirected into rebellion against simple requests for the good of us all like wearing masks.

A friend of mine expressed that anger well when he said he rebelled at being told he had to wear a mask at a local retailer. His response, more fitting for a child than an adult, was to wear his mask on the back of his head. His argument, like those who decry the loss of their personal liberty, was that if asked to wear a mask he would have complied, but when he was told he had to that offended his personal freedom.

Depression: As our ability to deny a loss or lessen the pain with anger prove ineffective it is easy to fall into depression. When we feel powerless to change a situation and helpless to do anything about it depression is a natural and normal emotion to feel. And because we are still not good at talking about mental health issues it is easy for this one to be compounded by denying our depression. I was at the doctor this week and had to fill out a medical history and check any previous or current illnesses, and when I came to “depression” and “anxiety” I was reluctant to check those boxes even though I am currently in therapy and taking medications for both. When we are already feeling down or overwhelmed by other life issues or crises throwing a pandemic into the mix is like putting gas on a fire. Depression and its cousins, fear, worry, and despair in some degree are affecting us all just now, and as we are seeing a new surge of cases it is easy to play the blame game, go into victim mode and be overwhelmed.

Multiple grief over jobs, chronic illness, loss of contact with loved ones and friends, and support communities, loss of physical closeness and contact with others all compound the tendency to despair and surrender to our frustrations. Zoom contacts with friends, teachers, business colleagues, congregations and other significant contacts are a godsend, but they cannot replace real live human contact. Even those of us who are introverts are admitting we need people.

Bargaining: In the case of physical death and mortality this stage is characterized by promises to do x, y, or z if we or a loved one can just live a little longer or a miracle cure can be found to postpone the inevitable. In pandemic grief I’m not sure what this stage looks like. For some of us it may be if we are spared from this plague we will change our ways and correct some flaw in our lives. It may be a bargain for a loved one to be kept safe from the virus in spite of their risky behavior. This stage can take many forms; so it’s just good to be aware of when we find ourselves in that deal making mode with God or whomever we are negotiating with.

Acceptance: There’s no timeline or “normal” prognosis for how long it takes to get to the stage of accepting a loss we are grieving. Every person and every situation and relationship is different. Sometimes when we know a loved one or even oneself is dying there is time to do anticipatory grief, to be prepared, to say good bye, to make peace with the coming reality. Other times loss is sudden and unexpected and all the grieving must be done after the loss of a job or a relationship or a life. But regardless of the circumstances or timeline, good grief moves us toward a state of acceptance and peace with a new reality. This stage does not mean there will not be days when anger or denial come surging back like Covid-19, but those pangs of sadness become less frequent and less painful the more accepting we are of our new normal.

And so it is with this nasty virus. The more we can accept the reality of how pervasive and deadly this disease is, the better we can cope on a daily basis and the sooner we will be free of its hold on our lives. If we are impatient and fall back into denial and angry foolish behavior we jeopardize everyone’s life and prolong the hardship both personal and economic.

Acceptance does not mean being happy with the new reality. I am not happy that my parents are dead but I have learned to accept the reality that I am now an orphan and the oldest living member of my family. Am I sometimes angry or depressed about that, sure, but that doesn’t mean I refuse to believe all those things are true. Am I tired of wearing a mask and debating if it’s safe to go shopping or to see my kids, you bet. I’m exhausted by having my routines in life screwed up for over 3 months and for the foreseeable future.

I know that our collective denial in the early days of the pandemic cost us many lives. I know that on-going denial of the cold hard facts by the President and misinformation by his favorite news outlets is going to cost more lives and economic hardship. If wishing could make this virus go away it would have disappeared months ago. If firing the messengers who bring us inconvenient facts would change reality I’d be all for it. But that’s not how viruses work, and the sooner we as a total society accept the reality of our situation we will begin to win this fight. And if we don’t the awful history of how people rebelled against masks and restrictions during the Spanish Flu in 1918 and created a second and third wave much more deadly than the first will be repeated. So please friends, wear your mask. It won’t kill you, but denying the need to do so may kill us both.

Prayer for a 55th Class Reunion

Gracious God, two score and fifteen years ago to the surprise of our teachers and relief of our families the class of 1964 walked across the stage at Wapakoneta High School. Just five years later our fellow alum, Neil Armstrong, walked on the moon. Now some days we struggle to just walk across the room. The circle of life seems to spin faster each year like a spaceship re-entering the atmosphere as it returns from space.

But we are here together again tonight, and we give you thanks for the chance to renew friendships, to reminisce about old times, to complain about our ailments, to brag about our grandkids or to exercise a little poetic license and make up some stories.

We are a class that will never forget where we were seventh period that November day when we heard about President Kennedy’s assassination over the school PA system. But we also cherish memories about decorating for prom, band shows, musicals, FAA projects, cruising through town on Friday nights, or our senior picnic. For it all we give thanks, even the painful breakups and the embarrassing moments. We survived our mistakes and learned important life lessons from them; and we’re forever grateful we grew up before cell phones and social media could record and spread around our stupider activities.

We remember the thrill of getting a driver’s license, of picking up a class ring that we were anxious to share with our “steady.” We also know there were some immature cruel and unkind ways we treated some of our classmates. Forgive us those indiscretions and help us now in 2019 to find ways to promote civility and understanding in our badly bruised and divided country and world. Remind us that how we live our lives every day does matter, even and especially as the elders in our society.

Many of us are now the matriarchs or patriarchs in our families. Help us embrace that role, to celebrate the freedom that comes from retirement. We are no longer responsible to bosses and careers and that’s liberating. We have more time to do good in small and large ways, to commit random acts of kindness wherever we are. Hold us accountable, Lord, to be the best we can be each and every day you give us to keep walking on spaceship earth. We graduated a long time ago from high school, but we are still students of life and mentors to those who walk behind us.

Yes, Lord, we have walked many miles in the last 55 years, but we aren’t done yet. We don’t know how many more reunions we have yet to come, but we know we have this one. Help us make the most of this present moment—to rejoice and laugh together again over things we took too seriously back then, including ourselves.

We want to pause and remember our classmates who have “graduated” into the higher education realm of eternity. We pray your blessing on them and on those who are unable to be with us tonight for whatever reason. We give thanks for those who gave of their time to organize this reunion. We give thanks for the food we are about to share and ask your blessing on it and on the fellowship we share as we break bread together.

As our alma mater says, “Wapak High School we (still) adore thee and we’ll guard thy sanctity. Our gratitude we offer as we roam through many lands.”

Amen

As Tempus Fugits

I started writing this piece on May 29, and the fact that it took me a week to get back to it is exactly what it’s about. Each month when the calendar says we are near the end of another month my sense of urgency/panic about where time goes and how fast the circle of life is spinning comes around again like Haley’s Comet, only much more frequently. Aging certainly changes one’s perspective on time. I remember clearly being impatient with the plodding of the clock when I couldn’t wait to be 16 and able to drive. The summer I was 15 I was only a few months away from that magical age of freedom and responsibility that comes with a driver’s license.

That summer of 1962 was worse because I was one of the youngest in my class at school. My birthday is in October, but way back then one could start kindergarten at age 4 if your 5th birthday came by the end of the calendar year. That age difference didn’t matter for me at age 4 or even 14, but when all my classmates and friends were driving months before I could the age discrepancy seemed like an unbridgeable chasm.

I also had my first serious romance that summer. That was exciting. But the fact that Marcia lived 5 miles out in the country not so much. I was in great physical shape that summer because I rode my one-speed Schwinn out to see her about once a week; but that was the extent of the advantage of my long-distance romance. While my friends were dating and cruising through town on a Friday night I was dependent on my dad to drive me and Marcia to and from the local movie theater.

I do remember one of my very best one-liners from that summer. One night after I had walked her to the door I returned to the car and on the way home my father asked if I had kissed her. When I proudly said “yes” he, perhaps reliving his youth vicariously through me, asked “where.” And without missing a beat I replied, “On the front porch.” I don’t think he ever pried into my love life again!

I took two years of Latin in high school, and one of the few things I remember from that dead language is “Tempus Fugit” which means “time flies.” I know the earth has been rotating at the same speed for millions of years, and each day contains the same 24 hours give or take a few milliseconds. In more poetic form that means “525,600 minutes, how do you measure a year in a life?” according to the lyrics of “Seasons of Love” from the musical “Rent.”

But no matter what kind of arbitrary numbers we create to mark the passing of time we all know that sometimes tempus does fugit at supersonic speeds and other times it flat out crawls. When a four year-old is waiting out the last few days before Christmas it is not the same time for the child or parents as it is for two lovers away from all other responsibilities luxuriating in the mystery of real intimacy, even though by clock time they are the same.

I used to love amusement park rides that spin at high g-force speeds. There was one called the “Tilt-a-Whirl” and another where the floor dropped away when the ride got up enough speed that centrifugal force plastered the riders to the wall. I don’t remember the name but it was essentially a human centrifuge. I don’t do thrill rides anymore, partly because real life is scary enough, but also because I am feeling like my life is spinning too fast already for me to keep up with it.

Just for fun I took the number above from “Rent” and multiplied it by my age. I didn’t add in extra minutes for leap years, but the number is plenty big enough already. I have lived or at least existed in this life for something over 1,314,000 minutes! I’m sorry I did that calculation. (Note: a friend just checked my math and corrected this number. It’s really 38,106,000!). No wonder my body feels like its warranty has long since expired! But that important question from “Rent” seems more important each day. How do you measure a year in a life or 40 years or 72.5? We humans seem to have a propensity for wanting numerical values on such things.

In Academia there’s a constant tension between quantitative and qualitative research. That distinction shows up currently in the overemphasis on test scores in primary and secondary education and in the priority given to STEM schools (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Those skills are obviously important in our postmodern world where employment and most of life depends on technology. Case in point: the friend who corrected my math above is an engineer. But if the STEM curriculum is overemphasized at the expense of education in the humanities where critical life skills are learned about social sciences, human history, interpersonal skills, the arts, and cross-cultural competencies just to name a few, we do so at our own peril.

Human beings are more than human doings. We are more than complex human computers that can be upgraded solely through a mechanistic and quantitative approach to the relationships between minds, bodies, individuals, societies and eco-systems. We are spiritual beings made for each other, to be in community, and there are no mathematical formulas for how to do that.

The answer “Rent” gives to how to measure a life may be simplistic but is nevertheless true on a fully human and spiritual level. The “Seasons of Love” song concludes as the title suggests by asking “how about love?” and concludes with the refrain “Remember the love, give love, spray love, measure your life in love.”

At 38,000,000 plus minutes and counting I am still trying to more fully and abundantly learn how to “give love, spray love. Measure your life in love.” Sounds a lot like Jesus doesn’t it? The only quantitative thing about Jesus’ teaching is that he summed up the whole Judeo-Christian philosophy in three short phrases: “Love God, love your neighbor and love yourself.”

Parable of a Broken Flag Pole

We have a 20 foot flag pole at our house that has been flagless for the last 6 months or so.  The rope on the pole broke last fall and I have not fixed it, quite frankly because I couldn’t figure out how to get up to there to string a new rope through the little pulley at the top.  I have a ladder that might be tall enough, but leaning it on a round pole that is only an inch or two in diameter would be foolhardy.  I thought about calling our electric company to see if they could do it with a cherry picker truck, but I didn’t think they would do it.  And if they did I didn’t want to pay for whatever it might cost.

On Easter Sunday my brother-in-law who is very creative at fixing things and solving mechanical problems was at our house for lunch.  We were asking his advice about some home maintenance issues which didn’t include the flag pole.  But when we happened to walk by it I was reminded of that issue and asked Don, almost as an afterthought, if he had any ideas about how to get a rope to the top of the pole.  He took one look and asked me if I had a step ladder.  I said, “Yes, but it’s only 6 feet tall.”  He asked me to get it anyway, put it by the pole and climbed up where he proceeded to reach up and remove the top section of the pole and lower it to me so I could put a new rope on it; and then he replaced it.

I was both relieved to have a problem solved and embarrassed that such an obvious solution had never occurred to me.  After all I’m the guy who installed that pole several years ago and should have remembered it was in 3 parts that can obviously be easily separated for repairing a broken rope.  Don solved a problem in 6 minutes that had stymied me for 6 months.

My problem was that I had only been seeing the big problem without ever looking closely to see how that problem could be solved by breaking it down into smaller parts.  I wonder how many other of life’s big problems could be solved by such a wonderfully simple strategy?

 

Memories

dadonwayoutMy father died one year ago today.  On purpose or not I was too busy to think much about it today, but I do miss him.  I don’t miss the 2 hour drive to go visit him, but I miss knowing he was there even if he often drove me and my sisters crazy.  My dad and I were never very close, but in his later years I learned to accept him and forgive him for the things that bothered me about his attitude toward life.  He was too rigid and authoritarian – maybe things I haven’t accepted in myself?  We didn’t agree on theology or politics or child rearing philosophies, but in the end none of that stuff really mattered.  He was my father, and I literally owed my life to him.

He really did do the best he could to be the best person, father, husband, Christian he knew how to be. And like all of us he fell short of the mark regularly.  Like all of us he had to survive some difficult things in his life.  Unlike me and most of us he survived a near-death experience in a North Atlantic plane crash on his way home from World War II.  He didn’t talk about that experience and I regret that I never cared enough to ask him about what had to be a life-defining moment.  So I can only speculate on how the death of his crew mates in that crash or the 12 hours he spent in the water before being rescued affected him.  I know I have no right to judge him for his shortcomings and regret the distance I helped create between us by doing so.

All such life events have a ripple effect on everyone touched by them.  From that awful experience came my Dad’s conversion to Christianity, which led to my own growing up in the church and my career choices and how my faith and values have been shaped.  In many ways I am who I am now because of the engine that failed on that B-17 seventy-four years ago.

A friend told me after Dad died that someone had told him once we don’t really grow up until we become orphans.  I’m not sure I’ve made much headway in the last year, but I have a new appreciation for how fragile and temporary life is.  Things that once bothered me don’t seem so important anymore.  Maybe that’s a baby step toward maturity?

Thanks Dad.

Blinded by our expectations?

One of the most consistent  things about our interactions with Jesus is our failure to recognize who he is. We too often are caught unaware and when it’s too late we sing a sad refrain with Mahalia Jackson, “Sweet little Jesus boy, we didn’t know who you was!”  From his birth in a barn to his hanging out with sinners, to his  refusal to defend himself in the garden or before Pilate, Jesus refuses to show up how and where we expect him to. His entry into Jerusalem  is not in a stretch limo  befitting a king but in a beat up old Volkswagen beetle. The crowds who shout “Hosanna!” on Sunday change their tune to “Crucify him!” only five days later because he isn’t the conquering hero they were expecting.

Those expectations are understandable for people who were oppressed and dying for liberation.   We might guess  those strangers who lined the streets of Jerusalem had not spent time with Jesus. Their failure to recognize who he really is may be understandable.   But what about those disciples who are closest to him who had spent three years listening to his teaching and watching the way he healed the sick and comforted those who were excluded by society?   They too deny and betray and hide when their expectations are not met.  Have they never heard the words of Isaiah who tells us that the Messiah will not be a worldly ruler but a suffering servant?  (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).  Or like us have they chosen only to hear and believe what they want?  We are expecting Rambo and we get Gandhi instead!

Even Mary Magdalene who stood by Jesus at the foot of the cross and was one of the first to go to the tomb doesn’t recognize Jesus on Easter morning!   This woman who was one of the most devoted and loyal disciples  mistakes Jesus for a gardener!  (John 20:11-18).  How could someone who owed so much  to Jesus fail to recognize him at this most triumphant moment?  Is it not because of her expectations?  She went to the tomb to minister to a corpse and instead is the very first to encounter the resurrected Christ!

How often do we fail to recognize Christ in our midst, in the least of God’s children around us? Whom do we expect to encounter  when we go to the tomb this Sunday? Will we recognize the risen Christ?  What we know from past experience is that he probably won’t appear the way we expect him to. So let’s go with eyes and hearts wide open  to see what our amazing God is up to this Easter!

Solving Big Problems

tigers-boulder-plaque Pious platitudes and self-help advice on how to cope with life’s challenges are a dime a dozen. It’s easy to think lemonade when life dumps a load of lemons in your lap, but when the obstacles blocking our chosen or desired path in life are a million times bigger than a lemon it’s a lot tougher to know what to do.

I never know when inspiration or a life lesson will appear, but I got one recently when I least expected it. I was watching the Phoenix Open golf tournament on TV and learned about an unusual golf moment that occurred at that event 6 years ago. I’m a big golf fan; so I’m not sure how I missed this for that long, but here’s the story.

There is a plaque in the ground near a large boulder along the 13th fairway at the TPC Scottsdale course that commemorates the day in 2011 when Tiger Woods hit a wayward tee shot that ended up with a large boulder blocking his next shot toward the par 5 green. Commentators estimated the rock weighs close to a ton, and with his ball lying perhaps 3 feet from the rock there was no way even for Tiger to hit the ball over the rock. That would mean taking an unplayable lie and a one-stroke penalty for almost every golfer in the world.

But Tiger had two things going for him that most of us don’t. He knew the rules of golf very well. Two earlier interpretations of the rules of golf were relevant to Tiger’s predicament, and he wisely appealed to a tournament official for a ruling. The first ruling states:

“23-1/2: Large Stone Removable Only with Much Effort
Q. A player’s ball lies in the rough directly behind a loose stone the size of a watermelon. The stone can be removed only with much effort. Is it a loose impediment which may be removed?
A. Yes. Stones of any size (not solidly embedded) are loose impediments and may be removed, provided removal does not unduly delay play (Rule 6-7).”

The rules official determined that the big rock was not “solidly embedded” in the Arizona desert and could therefore be moved legally. But there was one large problem. Remember the boulder weighed 2000 pounds. Enter ruling #2”
“23-1/3: Assistance in Removing Large Loose Impediment
Q. May spectators, caddies, fellow-competitors, etc., assist a player in removing a large loose impediment?
A. Yes.”

Now many serious golfers may have known about those rules, but very few of us have a large and strong enough group of friends and fans to move a 2000 lb. impediment! Tiger of course always has a large gallery following him around the course, and several fans volunteered to help. With a bit of effort they were able to roll the stone away, and Tiger then had a clear shot to advance his ball toward the green.

If you’re thinking “So what? This is just a silly game rich people play for ridiculous amounts of money!” I get that. I also know Tiger is a controversial figure; so please bear with me and suspend whatever feelings you have for him as a person or a golfer. The life lessons I got from this story would be true no matter who was involved. One of the reasons I have persevered for decades as a not very good golfer is that the game has taught me more times than I care to remember how important it is to take responsibility for my mistakes, try to keep my composure when I hit multiple balls into the same lake, learn from the past, let it go and move forward and deal with the current circumstances I can’t change.

This particular story reminded me that we all encounter obstacles, large and small in our lives. Some of them look as insurmountable as a 2000 lb. boulder, and when that happens we have choices. We can give up, take whatever penalty is involved, and proceed. Or, we can stop and assess the situation and explore whatever alternative solutions there might be that are at first not apparent. One of the many things I love about my wife is that she is a problem solver. I, on the other hand, am more of the “this will never work, I give up” school.

One of the reasons I give up too quickly when life drops a boulder in my path is that I tend to only rely on my own resources and knowledge to look for solutions to a problem. That is very ironic since I spent 18 years promoting and teaching collaboration earlier in my life. (I’m sure there are psychological issues at play here, but as Scarlett O’Hara would say, “I’ll worry about those tomorrow!”) I do know that to ask for help carries with it a feeling of weakness or inadequacy for me. There’s a little voice in my male ego that says I should be able to figure this out on my own, and far too often it seems easier to just give up than to admit I need help.

I know how foolish that attitude is, and the Tiger Woods rock story helped me see that again. First of all Tiger realized the big rock was not “imbedded” in the sand. Too often I see a big problem and assume it is unsolvable when it really isn’t. Secondly, if Tiger and his caddy had tried to move that rock on their own it would have been hopeless. Even if his playing partner and his caddy joined in they would have been wasting their time and risking injury. But by drawing on his knowledge of the rules and the resources of others at hand the problem was solved. None of those people who helped move the rock could play golf as well as Tiger. Even in his declining years he still scores better than most of us amateurs can ever dream of. But the combined strength of the crowd provided something that only they could offer at that moment. Sure Tiger could afford to hire a back hoe to come in and move the rock, but that would have broken the rule by delaying play. He knew the rules and he knew to ask for help first from the rules official and then from the gallery.

So, even if you have no interest in golf or Tiger, we can all remember the next time an illness, a family crisis, a problem at work, or in the community, or even routine problems like car trouble, or frustrations with technology that won’t work—don’t surrender to the problem too quickly. Problems are often not as “imbedded” as they appear. Assess the problem, inventory the resources at hand to address the problem, know what’s possible, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.

If you want to see a video of Tiger’s friends in action go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w4lVCF8c5zk.