Resiliency Schmasiliency... When Is this Over?*

By Dr. Jadis Blurton, The Harbour School, Hong Kong


This chart was sent to me by a friend who is a psychologist, and he did not know its original authorship. I loved it and include it here with apologies to the author for failing to appropriately credit him or her.

In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As a psychologist, when I dealt with clients who were grieving, they often thought that there was a steady progression from stage to stage. You could see them contemplating, “Okay, I’m in the anger stage now and in two weeks I will move to bargaining, then a month or so in the depression stage and onward to acceptance!” I always had to explain that although it would seem as though these stages formed a nice predictable progression, just the opposite was the truth. Not only is the order variable but nobody is in only one stage at once or for any long period. People’s emotions ricochet from bargaining to denial to acceptance to anger to depression. The best that can be said is that people seem to progress from being “often” or “mostly” in one stage to being mostly in another. Although, as anyone who has grieved can tell you, often years later when one feels in the acceptance stage most of the time, it is possible to be suddenly triggered into another stage by a sudden occurrence either good or bad.

So although I loved the chart above, my first thought was also that it gives the false impression that we all progress from the Fear Zone to the Learning Zone to the Growth Zone. We might think, “Well, here’s me recognizing that we are all doing our best which is in the Learning Zone, so pretty soon I’m going to be keeping a happy emotional state and spreading hope, which is in the Growth Zone.” Of course, whether or not we do most of the things in the Growth Zone may also reflect what we were like before we entered the COVID crisis. (I am reminded of Joan Collins’s famous quip that “after a certain age you get the face you deserve,” and my delight upon hearing it because I actually deserve to look like Jane Fonda.) Alas, not everyone is going to emerge from the experience of COVID19 and quarantine with all of those positive personality traits, especially if they didn’t have them in the first place. And, more importantly, most of us will find ourselves bouncing around from being empathetic one minute to snapping at our spouse the next, all in the same day if not the same minute.

The chart is a way of thinking about the direction we want to go, not a map for getting there. And, unfortunately, we also have to look back at the stages of grieving, because we are all grieving. We have had small losses like the in-person Renaissance Faire or the school play, but we also have some huge losses such as dangers to family or friends and changes in our jobs or society at large that may never revert to what we thought of as normal. I am embarrassed to say that for me one of the biggest losses is the freedom to travel. And this grieving process is exacerbated by anxiety for others we know, for others we don’t know but have empathy for, and for ourselves. This virus is invisible, which makes it so much more scary — part of the reason the movie Arachnophobia was so terrifying is that the spiders were too small to easily see!

So we need to acknowledge that these are not easy times, and we need to look back at the stages of grief and recognize them when we see them in ourselves or our family. Sometimes that will make us laugh. When my mother died and I was devastated, I was on a flight back to the US and a four year old child was going up the aisle slapping seats. Now, I love kids and normally would have found a way to play with that little girl. Instead, I felt a moment of rage at her and her parents. Luckily, that made so little sense that I laughed out loud because it was such a clear example of the Kubler-Ross stage of anger. When you find yourself being unjustifiably angry or easily frustrated or weepy, give yourself a break and understand that what you are feeling is grief.

I thought I might provide a few tips again, to help get through this next phase of what has turned out to be a worldwide time of challenge.

1. First of all, I can’t think of a single time in history or even in human evolution that large numbers of nuclear families were required to stay separately together inside the cave for long periods of time. It’s just not something we expected to do, evolved for or trained for. We are social beings. As much as we may love our family, spending all day every day with our kids or our spouse has the potential to be really challenging. From tantruming two-year olds to stubborn teens, too much closeness can be exhausting. Distance is built into our society for a reason and extended families exist to help provide respite to parents and to kids. (As an empathy exercise, by the way, when you are frustrated with your teenager, imagine being stuck within shouting distance of your own parents for months at a time when you were a teen.) So be patient with yourself and the others in the family. Take those extra breaths before reacting and remember that you are being asked to do something that has seriously never been part of the human experience.

2. Schools are trying to alleviate that stress as much as possible by providing classes all day just like a regular school day, but that still leaves much unstructured time after school. For Term 3, we are working on figuring out some fun virtual after school courses that will be free and that will allow kids to explore more of their “outside” interests. Hopefully those courses will involve being away from the screen as part of the activities. This will also provide more of a smorgasbord of interests so kids can explore their creativity and skills in different areas, which is something they would be doing either at school or through other entities if everything weren’t closed. But if you don’t find something that interests your child through our courses, look elsewhere online and create an after-school class of your own. (You can even take it with them. My granddaughter and I are taking a Coursera course in Anatomy.)

3. The most important thing you can give to your children is a healthy, sane, happy self. But the second most important thing you can give them is a healthy, sane, happy relationship with your spouse, especially if you are both in the same house. That means you actually have to spend time and effort nurturing your own mental health and that of your relationship. I usually tell couples that they should plan to spend at least three or four hours a week together — half an hour a night or two 2-hour date nights — and in Hong Kong I get the inevitable argument that that amount of time is simply not possible because people are too busy. So you’ve never had a better opportunity, and the stakes and challenges have never been higher. Spend a few scheduled hours a week playing cards, walking together, cooking, or whatever you like to do (no, sex doesn’t count) and while you are doing it — talk! Don’t talk about plans for the kids or the living room, don’t argue about important decisions. Just talk, like you did when you were dating. (If you were in The Matrix, would you take the red pill or the blue pill?) It is probably also good to talk to each other about the feelings you have because of the virus, but stay away from complaining about family issues. (Complain about those at a different time, but that doesn’t count towards your four hours.) And remember also to schedule time for yourself alone — read, meditate, take a bath, listen to music. Finding a place to isolate is difficult but not impossible, and you cannot be your best self with your kids if you can’t remember who that self is.

4. For kids, taking a couple of weeks away from creating meaning is not the end of the world. But taking months off can be very debilitating and can lead to heightened anxiety and depression as well as lower self-esteem. Create opportunities for your kids to do good things — making a cake for someone less fortunate, sewing masks for people who need them, even creating holiday presents for other family members or helping another family member with a task. The feeling that comes from helping or being kind is very powerful and creates changes in the brain that actually rival and last longer than ice cream. When we think of what is missing from kids’ lives by not being in social situations at school, one of the most important is the sense of community and opportunities for kindness that exist there. So now you need to find opportunities for kindness at home: Have your three-year old read a story to the baby or the dog, have your seven-year old create a picture for the neighbour or make brownies for your family, introduce your teenagers to politics or activism, or encourage them to join online volunteer groups. An hour spent helping others is an hour feeling good about yourself.

5. Obviously, one of the big threats to kids’ development right now is in the area of social skills. Learning to read body language, understanding social norms, even getting a good joke are all things that we learn by being around others who are not necessarily part of our family unit. This is a good time to play online games with extended family or friends overseas (try, but it’s also a good time to play board games with family members. Remember those? They have pieces that move around and things like dice to direct the moves. Or, if none of those are handy, try things like Pictionary or Charades. In other words, after you schedule time for yourself and time for parents together, also make sure to schedule some dedicated family time that doesn’t require a television screen.

The world is changing as a result of this pandemic, and it is easy to see only catastrophe. It will affect us socially and economically and it may involve losses that we mourn. But it also creates new opportunities for change, and prepares us for the future. This is our first worldwide pandemic, but it probably won’t be our children’s last, so lessons learned this time around will help them in the future. We may change the way we work and play. We may re-envision healthcare or other societal challenges. We may appreciate each other more, remember our blessings better, and learn to operate with patience and ingenuity when confronted with unexpected trials. Like any major change, when we are at the other side of it we may find ourselves surprised at how much we have grown as a result and celebrate the new ways we have found to interact and support each other.

Copyrighted by Jadis Blurton
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