Melanie Verwoerd | Lockdown Day 6: We are all grieving

Police at a roadblock in Khayelitsha. During these stressful times, we should try to be compassionate toward each other, says the writer. (Gallo Images, Brenton Geach)
Police at a roadblock in Khayelitsha. During these stressful times, we should try to be compassionate toward each other, says the writer. (Gallo Images, Brenton Geach)

One thing we know for sure is that this fearful plague will not last forever and when it is all over, those of us who survive will inevitably find some form of meaning in it, writes Melanie Verwoerd.


Last Thursday evening on the Money Show, Bruce Whitfield played a recording of a teleconference that Grant Pattison, the CEO of Edcon hosted with suppliers.

Pattison explained the dire financial position that Edcon finds itself in because of the lockdown and the high likelihood that they would not be able to honour orders or payments.

Towards the end of the teleconference it became too much for Pattison and he broke down in tears. After the clip ended Bruce Whitfield was also overwhelmed by emotion and had to take an ad break in order to compose himself.  

I’m sure that everyone who listened to that, shed a tear as well.  

The world is scary at the moment and is getting scarier as we are entering Day 6 of lockdown.

Things don’t feel normal, because they aren’t.

Our routines are disrupted. We can no longer socialise. We have no idea how the world will look when all of this is over, or when it will be over.

Business owners don’t know if they can pay workers, suppliers or refund customers.

Self-employed people don’t know if they will have any work. Workers don’t know if they will get paid and if they will be able to put food on the table.  

From everyone I speak to it is clear that the novelty of being at home is beginning to wear off and that people are starting to struggle emotionally.

People are finding it hard to sleep, tempers are fraying and depressions are on the rise.   

On the night before lockdown, I was finally over my 14 day quarantine and quickly drove to my sister’s house to deliver Spekboompies that her kids wanted to plant.

In return she was to lend me some ridiculously complicated puzzles. My sister has her elderly father in-law staying with her and (rightly so) didn’t want to take any chances.

So she left the puzzles outside the gate and we shouted a brief "hallo" from two meters away in the dark, while my darling little nephews hovered at the back.  

As I drove away, I had my own little meltdown. It was day 15 of isolation for me and the idea of another three weeks felt just too much as I struggled with the image of my sister and nephews behind a gate. 

The streets were eerily quiet and I became overwhelmed with fear of what could happen in the next few weeks in the country I love so much. 

I wept as I prayed that not too many people would die.  

At home, I told myself to get a grip, since I had so much to be thankful for. My family had survived the virus, my house is comfortable and has a big balcony from which I can see the mountain and sea.

I trust that my clients will still want to see me when this is over and until then I have a mortgage I can live from.  I’m very aware that I’m extremely privileged in comparison to the majority of people in South Africa and Africa. 

Still the sadness kept hovering.  

The next day I read an interview with David Kessler in the Harvard Business Review.

Kessler worked with Elizabeth Kübler-Ross who became famous for identifying the five stages of grief.

(Kessler has subsequently identified a sixth stage).  

The penny dropped. We are all suffering from some form of grief - individually as well as collectively. 

We are grieving for our world that has changed. We are grieving because we fear economic uncertainty. We are grieving because people are dying and we don’t know if it will happen to us.  

Kessler points out that we are most prone at the moment to what he calls "anticipatory grief".

This is what we feel when for example a family member gets a terminal diagnosis or when a hurricane is heading our way.

The virus confuses us.

We know something bad is out there, but we can’t see it. It destroys our sense of safety and this causes us to feel anticipatory grief - on a scale never felt before.  

Unless we are already in our 80's, the closest we got to this global sense of fear in living memory is perhaps 9/11, but even then it was more contained to the US.  

So, if you are feeling anxious, short tempered, sad or down, know that you are not alone - there are millions of people experiencing similar emotions.

The question is, what can we do about it? 

Of course if you are struggling with depression or feel suicidal you should seek help immediately.  

However for the rest of us, Kessler says that we need to find balance in the things we are thinking.

In stressful times we tend to create images of the worst scenarios - people I love dying, never having a job again, riots in the townships, the country never recovering.

Although we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the negative scenarios, it is important to balance them out with positive thoughts, such as "no one in my family has died yet and maybe no one will. The world always recovers economically again."

(It helps if you stop watching the news!) 

According to Kessler it is also important to calm ourselves and to come into the present when we feel overwhelmed.

He says: "... people are always surprised at how prosaic this can be. You can name five things in the room. There's a computer, a chair, a picture of the dog, an old rug, and a coffee mug. It's that simple. Breathe. Realise that in the present moment, nothing you've anticipated has happened. In this moment, you're okay ... This really will work to dampen some of that pain." 

It also helps to let go of what you can't control.

Focus on what you can do. Like washing hands, keeping away from other people etc. rather than getting annoyed about your neighbours who go shopping five times a day.  

Kessler also reminds us that everyone is taking strain at the moment.

So it is important to treat others with compassion. If someone becomes short-tempered or moody, give him/her the benefit of the doubt rather than biting back. S/he is most probably also scared and anxious.  

Archbishop Tutu said to me once that his biggest weakness was that he cries too easily.

I think his crying during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave us all permission to cry because there was a lot to cry about - as there is now.  

So it is totally in order to have the occasional cry at the moment - but then follow Kessler’s advice and pick yourself up again.  

One thing we know for sure is that this fearful plague will not last forever and when it is all over, those of us who survive will inevitably find some form of meaning in it, which by the way, is Kessler’s sixth stage of grief.  

I’m sure we will talk about this in weeks to come.

In the meantime: stay safe; stay positive.  

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland

See www.melanieverwoerd.co.za


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