When I’m out walking my dogs — which happens more frequently than it used to — I look at the houses in my neighborhood. And I wonder: What’s going on in there? And in there? Is there a drama playing out in that house around the corner? A comedy? Or some combination thereof? Is it like my house, with adults trading kid duty like batons in a relay race? Are there piles of Legos, random art projects, and discarded snack wrappers scattered all over the kitchen table? How many people have lost their shit today?
The phases of quarantine grief look something like the Kübler Ross stages of grief. But there are some notable differences. Instead of denial, my first stage of quarantine grief was panic. For about 10 days following the report of the first COVID-19 death in my city, I had acute, throat-closing moments of terror. I wanted to understand, to research, to gather as much information as I could about a virus that no one had a grasp on yet. Steve and I devoured every news story, every model, every chart in an attempt to fit the puzzle pieces of our life into this new reality. There were rumors about the National Guard marching toward Washington state, ready to close the borders. At one time, it would have sounded absurd, but we didn’t discount it. At that moment, it actually seemed plausible.
The second stage was the “We’re All In This Together” phase. How liberating to not have to get up and hustle out the door every morning! Let’s sleep in, eat breakfast when we feel like it, and work (occasionally) in our loungewear! We looked for ways to continue some semblance of our normal lives, through Zoom get-togethers, birthday party parades, and “walk-bys,” where friends plan to “accidentally” be outside when the other is out for their zillionth walk of the day. I got all caught up in doing these donation collection drives, propping myself up by doing for others. It felt euphoric at times, like we were all … you know. In this together.
One of the stages of grief is anger, and I’ve definitely started seeing that recently. I am more prone to emotional outbursts — hell, aren’t we all? I may have shoved my beloved in the chest today when he disagreed with my discipline style. I may have yelled “Go away for a minute! I need space!” to my second grader, who has regressed to a toddler’s level of independence. Seething anger is what’s driving the protests against government restrictions, and singular acts of defiance, like refusing to wear a mask at a store, or wiping one’s nose on a grocery worker.
One stage that we’re experiencing here is something I’ll call isolation insanity. Evan, for instance, made a fort out of some blankets and the linen closet at the top of the stairs. You don’t have to be a therapist to figure out that the kid is desperately trying to create a room of his own, as Virginia Woolf would say. And while I appreciate his attempt at self-care, our dog is afraid to go under the blankets and just sits there, looking confused.
I’m not the only one feeling territorial about my space, though. Yesterday, there was a guy in a convertible BMW parked in front of our house. He had his window down, and was having a loud conversation. It irritated me, so I put my Bluetooth speaker in my open window and cranked Pantera. All that did was make him roll up his window. So I enlisted Evan in a scheme to drive him away. “Go get your really loud whistle,” I told him. “We’re gonna play outside.” Evan is no dummy. He knows I hate that whistle, so I outlined my plan to make BMW Guy move. “Isn’t that kind of mean?” Evan asked, reasonably. “Yes,” I said. “But that’s where I am right now.” Way to model good behavior, Mom!
Depression, of course, is a part of pandemic quarantine. For me, it switches off with anger. I no longer feel like we’re all in this together. Stories of selflessness and generosity no longer have the power to lacquer my day with glowy goodness. I might feel better for a moment, but the feeling has no legs. I don’t want to have Zoom happy hours anymore. I don’t bound out of the house when I see people I know walk past. I don’t want to talk about the latest infection model, or reopening scenarios.
My kids are definitely feeling down — and why wouldn’t they? They miss their friends, they miss school, they miss going and doing the things that defined our family: socializing, exploring, and traveling. They loathe doing online school — especially Evan. For a kid that loves screens as much as he does, he fights like a confined tiger when it’s time for his online Mandarin class, or his 30 minutes of DreamBox. “I hate this!” he says over and over. “I do too,” I reply. But there’s no choice. There is where we are.
In Kübler Ross’ grief stages, acceptance is the final one. For quarantine grief, I’d characterize it more as resignation. Acceptance is a place of hard-fought peace. That’s not where I am. I can’t accept that we’ll be doing this forever, but I am resigned to the fact that I can’t get my hair cut, or go to a restaurant, or go see my family for weeks yet. I cannot accept that summer camps might be canceled, and I’ll be at home for a total of FIVE MONTHS with my increasingly de-socialized kids.
Evan and I were outside this morning, half-heartedly flinging a basketball toward the hoop when our new neighbor and her son walked by. Her son is the same age as Evan, but he goes to a different school. She and I exchanged pleasantries, and marveled at how many similar interests the two boys have. But the two boys? They hid behind us, or stood with their backs to each other, and whined, “I’m bored.” What the hell is that? I can’t accept that. In just two months of isolation, my son has forgotten how to talk to people?
I did my graduate school interview on Tuesday, for acceptance into a master’s program for couple and family therapy. One of the faculty members monitoring our breakout group asked if we had any questions. And I, being a longtime reporter, had written a long list of them. I asked what it was like to teach during a pandemic. And also, whether this shared trauma we were all experiencing would make its way into coursework.
The curricula, he told me, was driven by research, and theories that arise from that research. Still, he predicted that the emotional fallout from the pandemic would be profound. “We are going to have epic levels of suicide, drug addiction — you name it. And Americans are touch-phobic anyway, so this lack of human contact? It will be devastating,” he said.
“That’s true,” said the other faculty member, a woman. “But therapists must fundamentally believe in the power of human change. You cannot go into this field as a pessimist. You won’t survive.”
So maybe that’s the final stage of pandemic grief: Hope. To survive, you have to have to believe that things will get better — or at the very least, that you’ll be able to leave your house someday. I’m not there yet. Maybe tomorrow.