As I write this at the beginning of July, deaths from COVID-19 here in the United States have topped 130,000. Globally, over half a million people have died as a result of contracting the virus. While we’ve all seen these numbers (and others equally as frightening) people in our country continue to refuse to wear a mask, isolate, and practice other behaviors that have slowed the rate of infection and even eliminated the virus entirely. 

How grief stops us from doing the right thing

Numbers alone are obviously not convincing people to take healthier actions. While some of this might have to do with politics, or selfishness, more and more I’m seeing people responding in a way that smacks of plane old denial and in a bigger sense, grief.

Other experts have already done a great job analyzing how denial, and the other stages of grief, are impacting us where COVID-19 is concerned.  In short, there are so many layers of grief affecting us right now. People are out of work and struggling to make ends meet. We’re grieving our government’s lack of response. We’re grieving the loss of social nearness. And for many, we’re grieving the deaths of friends and family.

Grief causes not only denial, but anger, bargaining, and depression as well.  We’re mad, so let’s protest against wearing a mask. We’re bargaining – let’s reopen bits of the economy at a time, or just have a smaller party. We’re depressed because we’re separated from friends, from family, and co-workers.

We’re also grieving ambiguous loss, a term coined by Dr. Pauline Boss, to describe the emotions related to the uncertainty of how a relationship with a loved one will be changed forever due to separation. I’ve written about it in my own book as it relates to families where long hours at work or frequent business travel creates physical distance.

No matter what type of grief, the emotional toll is real.

Control is a common response to anxiety

For many of us a side effect of this grief, and of course a response to the situation overall is major anxiety. When can I go back to work? When can my kids go to back to school? When can I travel? How will I pay the rent? Endless questions like these all trigger feelings of anxiety.

 Any therapist will tell you that the primary response to anxiety is an attempt to gain control. One easy way to do that is to refuse to do as you’re told. Don’t wear a mask. Don’t isolate.

But this response to anxiety rarely works. Unfortunately, the more we try to control a situation, the more frustrated we become when it doesn’t change in the way we want. And so, the endless cycle continues. It seems hopeless, frustrating, and polarizes us, causing even more distance.

So, what can we do? As a therapist, I know it’s helpful to use a tool called cognitive reframing to try to view this situation through a different lens. Reframing can shift a person’s point-of-view, and when that frame is shifted, the meaning often changes causing thinking and behavior to change along with it. With that in mind, perhaps it would be useful to think about the similarities between WWII and our current virus situation as a possible way to reframe this problem.

How can we see COVID-19 through the lens of WWII

During a period known as the Blitz, the German army bombed London nearly every night for nine months. Obviously, the citizens of London were terrified and traumatized. Windows were blacked out. Restaurants moved into cellars. People hid in the Underground stations. 43,000 people died. During this horrific time, parents shipped their kids off to total strangers in the countryside to try and keep them safe. They would do anything they could to save their kids from at best, trauma and at worst, death.  They knew that civilian deaths were climbing (and eventually 40 million civilians would die during WWII) and they chose to do anything possible to keep their own families from suffering that same fate.

If I could, I would ask people to reframe COVID-19 using the experiences of families during WWII and the Blitz. Consider the virus as a known enemy, like an enemy soldier that could either kill someone in your family or leave them with serious long-term health issues. During a session, I might ask someone if that soldier were hiding at a bar, or a sporting event, at a birthday party or at a church….would you still go? Would you risk having that soldier follow you home to potentially harm or even murder members of your family?

Reframing the virus as an enemy soldier

Think about WWII, when citizens of London were asked to black out their windows, turn lights off, and try to keep the landscape as dark as possible to make it harder for a German plane to find a target. This was done for the sake of the greater good, to try to keep them safe to live another day. What would have happened if someone in your apartment building had decided they did not want to be told what to do, and decided to leave a light on? Obviously, the German pilot could have targeted that building based on that one light. And destroyed it.

Our own behaviors – our own participation in collectively “turning off our lights’ can save lives, not to mention protect the mental health of our friends and family, reboot our economy, and a host of other benefits. Reframing using our lessons from WWII might help more people understand that the impacts of their individual behaviors are worldwide.

Given how many people were refused testing in the early months, I have no doubt our current data is under-reported. Our numbers are climbing above those of many wars right now. We need to think of this virus as an enemy soldier, and do whatever we can to protect our family, our friends, and our community from possible disaster.

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