Once upon a time, when stay at home orders were new and Sweden wasn’t the only country with a government talking about “herd immunity”, I wrote a post about fresh air and its importance to our wellbeing. I also promised to write a follow up.
Oh, how young and naive I was back then. No problem, I though. I know exactly how it’s going to work I thought.
Little did I know what I was letting myself in for. If I had, then maybe I wouldn’t have been so gung-ho, making rash promises all over the place.
Anyway, here’s What I promised back then:
A couple of
years months weeks later, here’s what I’ve found out.
When access to fresh air comes with strings attached: the 7 stages of grief
To be clear, I am talking about the loss of:
Immediate and unrestricted access to just going outside for some fresh air in order to improve our mental and physical wellbeing.
I understand that with a bit of forward planning and a lot of vigilance many people can go out of the house for exercise, even in the COVID-19 era.
But having to apply forward planning and a lot of vigilance is not the same thing as immediate and unrestricted access. Just the thought of planning and vigilance can be time-consuming, stressful and overwhelming.
They become a barrier holding us back from going out and improving our health.
When you can’t just pop out of the door FOR WHATEVER REASON, it’s a HUGE culture shock.
Unfortunately, a significant minority face it all the time, because they suffer from anxiety or illness or because they live in physically unsafe environments.
I am one of the lucky ones, because up until now under circumstances where there haven’t been highly contagious viruses floating about, I have been able to just go out for some fresh air. The only thing I needed to plan or be vigilant about was taking my house keys with me.
All that said, here’s my take on how restrictions to the freedom to go outside to get fresh air relates to each stage of the grief process - at least as far as stage 4. I very much doubt anyone’s got past stage 4, yet.
Stage 1: Shock and denial
The description: You’ve just heard the terrible news, and the consequences are so great that you just don’t want to take it in. It’s just too much to take in, so you really don’t want to believe it.
How it relates to restricted outdoor movement: In the case of lockdown, this happened probably over a period of days. News started coming through of a virus spreading through China. Maybe at first it seemed a long way off, even as parts of China shut down. Probably most of us thought it wouldn’t affect us. Eventually it started to dawn on us that it might spread - and then it did, fairly quickly.
Some time in early March came the realisation we’d have to shut down.
Probably about the same time toilet paper started to disappear from the shelves.
Stage 2: Pain and guilt
The description: Once everything has started to sink in, it starts to hurt. The feeling of loss actually brings physical pain. This may be too hard to deal with
How it relates to restricted outdoor movement: Now comes the mental anguish of realising that you can’t go where you want, when you want. You are probably also worrying whether this will ever end.
Stage 3: Anger and bargaining
The description: Now you start to get angry and lash out. You want to hold something or someone responsible. You need something to focus on, so you try to find something to blame.
How it relates to restricted outdoor movement: Some sources of anger are more logical than others. If you are female and have wanted to go out for a walk or run at night, but have had to accept it’s not safe for you because of the way some
males other people behave, well, that to me is a logical source of anger. As far as viruses are concerned, you might be angry at food markets, cruise ships, airports, holiday makers, the government. The list is endless.
Stage 4: Depression, reflection and loneliness
The description: You understand the change to your life and you realise past times are gone.
How it relates to restricted outdoor movement: You think back on those times when you could just pop out so easily. You picture yourself sitting inside, staring at 4 walls, or being constantly stuck indoors with the same people all the time.
Stage 5: The Turn
The description: With time, you reach the point at which you start feeling better
How it relates: Maybe you’ve settled into a routine: you’ve planned and practiced vigilance so much that it’s become automatic. Perhaps you’ve found a way of doing exercise indoors that suits you.
Stage 6: Reconstruction and working through
Description: this is the point at which you really adapt your life to accommodate the new reality
How it relates: We’ve really arrived at the New Normal
Stage 7: Acceptance
Description: You’ve started to move on with your life
How it relates: You understand that there are many seasons of life and history. You can remember the good times fondly.
Is it really that simple?
When I first started thinking about this culture shock we’re going through, I took the reliability of the 7 stages of grief model for granted as a therapeutic tool. I thought that if we understand our loss, if we can name our feelings, that can only be helpful, right?
So we can go through the stages and put words to our feelings, talk them through, and move on. That’s what I assumed when I started looking at this.
It turns out it might not be helpful. Let’s take a step back.
It’s widely assumed that the 7 stages of grief model was devised by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (quick note: it started out as a 5 stage model). However, Kubler-Ross was actually trying to describe the emotional arc of people diagnosed with terminal illness. She was not trying to describe the experience of people who have suffered loss as such. She was trying to capture the experience of those facing the end of their own lives. As the TLC Group pointed out, her work could in fact better be described as the 7 stages of receiving catastrophic news, rather than the 7 stages of grief. Nevertheless, over time the model has become widely accepted as a model of grief.
Professor Robert J. Kastenbaum has argued that there is no actual evidence that people do move through the stages.
He also pointed out that the resources, pressures, and characteristics of the immediate environment which can make a tremendous difference to the outcome, are not taken into account in the model. By this, I assume that he means things like whether you have a supportive family who understand what you’re going through, what other problems you have to deal with at the same time and so on.
In that case, the idea of using the 7 stage model to describe our relationship with the fresh air might be ineffective.
But it’s harmless, right? Well, maybe not.
Where a model is as widely-known as this one is, it very easily sets up expectations that you should behave in a particular way or feel things in a particular order. That brings with it feelings of guilt and adds an extra possible layer of stress on people who don’t feel things “in the right way” or move through things “in the right order.
A “right order” that never actually existed in the first place.
It might also tempt us to try to coerce people into fitting into the model. That is, the model that might not actually apply at all.
The $1,000,000 question: can the 7 stages of grief model actually help us to move forward?
Well, it depends how you treat it.
If you think it’s a fully-fledged therapeutic tool that you can use to make yourself or someone else get over stuff quickly without a counsellor to help you, then in my opinion, the answer is probably no.
If you use it as a system of prompts to help yourself give voice to your feelings, knowing that it might be helping other people in the same way then, in my view, it could be helpful if used with patience and compassion. In other words, in the right environment.
Whatever happens, it must not become another tool for putting pressure on people to conform to expectations or behave in a way that is convenient for others.