As you get older, there’s a tendency to lose things: your hair; your athletic physique; your phone; your vocabulary; your memory. When you finish combing your hair, the comb always has strands of something gray. You try not to stand sideways in a full-length mirror. You always want to have two phones so you can call the one you lost. Sometimes in the middle of a conversation, you realize you are standing there with your mouth wide open with nothing coming out, as the word you are looking for has evaporated. Often you stand in the bedroom for a good minute or two trying to remember why you came upstairs. You can’t remember what you forgot!
Aging can be all about loss. Probably it’s meant to be that way to prepare us for the big loss; loss of our life.
In the time of a raging pandemic, it doesn’t make any difference how old you are. Everyone experiences loss. Some lose their jobs and income. Others lose their homes. Everyone, respectful of others, loses their freedom to socialize as usual. Increasing numbers lose their health. Many, the numbers skyrocketing daily, lose their lives.
People have different responses to serious loss. There are those who jump off a building to their death as the stock market crashes. There are those who shoot the other players after losing at poker. There are those who fuss and fume eternally after losing their job status. There are those who withdraw into the woodwork after losing their reputation. Then there are those who grieve their loss.
Elizabeth Kubler Ross was a Swiss-American psychiatrist who gave us the “five stages of grief.” Over the course of her vocation, her specialty became working with the terminally ill. She understood dying as a normal part of the life process and how important it was to treat it that way. Her experiences with the dying and their families led to her book “On Death and Dying.” Many see her work as a forerunner to the hospice movement we have today. Perhaps one could say she was the first “death doula,” a growing field of those trained to be end-of-life coaches and guides.
As outlined in her book, the five stages of grief are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Initially she suggested that this was a usual and progressive pattern. Later she agreed that they need not happen in that order and some stages might even be skipped. Her five stages need not be applied only to the end of life. We can see their application to other kinds of loss as well.
For instance, I’ve been thinking about the reaction of the president to the loss of the recent election. Although (to put it mildly), he is not my favorite president, I do try to give him the benefit of the doubt. When he seems to do things erratically, loses his temper and tweets at two in the morning, I ascribe it to poor sleep habits. He tells us he averages four hours of sleep a night, and his tweeting habits tend to confirm that figure. Four hours is considered sleep deprivation and is associated with poorer memory, lower attentional capacity, worse cognitive skills and impaired self control.
If we look at the stages of grief, it might appear that the president in his election loss is experiencing all of them at the same time, except acceptance. He has been in denial since months before the election, even encouraging his supporters to chant 12 more years. He continues to say he won, even as court case after court case is thrown out.
He is angry! He fires those who have been seemingly disloyal, like Christopher Krebs, director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency. He lashes out at his attorney general. Still, as the days stretch out with no good news in sight, the anger seems to be turning into depression, as the president moves more and more out of the public eye and onto the golf course with friends. Of course, withdrawal into depression has its consequences for a nation muddling through its worst health crisis in generations.
Bargaining? He’s been trying bargaining, calling election officials on the phone and inviting Republican decision makers to the White House.
The president is suffering! His supporters can be angry about it. His detractors can say he deserves it. But we all might learn something from it.
The root of suffering is desire, wanting to grasp something that you can’t have.
This president has so much ego invested in his position that he ignores all the norms of presidential progression and the significant and immediate needs of the American people. His ego is too large. He believes himself the “best” at most everything. His attachment is too great. He’s holding on to the presidency as if his life depended on it.
Attachment is the root cause of suffering. It’s why there are death doulas, to help us “let go,” (and for those who believe), “let God.”
One wishes the president had a guide, a coach, a doula, a spiritual adviser, a friend who could help him with a process of accepting loss. Given past history, that seems unlikely. Those who have been honest with him have not lasted. Others have learned, even family members, his attention span is short. Without a coach, or divine intervention, one worries what the next two months will bring.