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Column: The current phase of mourning

We’ve been doing this for two months now.

At first it was scary, but there was a sense of determination and perhaps a bit of adventure. The Island needed to adjust in many ways: to new and different rules of engagement (as in limited to none), to an influx of second homeowners, to an IGA challenged for coveted goods, and most of all, to a terrifying tragedy shrouded in mystery.

Well, we did it. Our Shelter Island town leaders stepped up admirably. The second homeowners who normally do not arrive until Memorial Day became absorbed into the early Shelter Island spring.

The IGA created a new routine that worked and the shelves filled up. People stayed home, but also walked, ran and rode bikes, and usually waved and left space for each other. Everyone learned to Zoom. We listened to our governor and watched the grim statistics get better, although they still remained upsetting.

And we monitored the Shelter Island COVID-19 cases, grieving the two deaths and hoping everyone else would recover.

O.K., so are we done yet? I know I am getting tired of it. Those of us with multi-generational living arrangements may be getting weary. Those living alone are starving for contact. Couples are complaining about too much togetherness. The novelty of a Zoom cocktail party has worn off quickly. And the kids — why can’t they see their friends? Enough is enough.

While we may not be like those people we see on TV marching to the state house with guns, we all just want to return to our old lives. We may not have thought of our lives as particularly wonderful at the time, but now we want them back.

When the visionary psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross first wrote about the five stages of grief, she probably didn’t realize how far-reaching her theory could apply. These phases (which by no means apply to all who grieve) are 1) denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression and 5) acceptance. The early stages are represented by denial and anger, while bargaining and depression define the middle or second phase. I would suggest that the second phase is where many of us are now.

Here are some examples of bargaining: I’ll give up my kids’ camp if only school can start in September. Or, I work in a restaurant and really need to work — I’ll be careful — just let it open. Or, the roots of my hair are atrocious — just a little color won’t hurt anyone.

But when the reality sets in that bargaining doesn’t work and we can’t get our way, depression can follow.

Yes, depression is common at this stage. It doesn’t mean that the person is clinically depressed, but the feelings of hopelessness, sadness, dread and fear are a normal part of this phase of mourning. We are mourning many things: the tragic deaths, the life that we had and cannot return to, and a world that might forever be different.

As a summer homeowner, I love Shelter Island and always will. I’m truly grateful that I was able to bring my children and grandchildren here to escape what was a terrible situation in New York City. But I mourn the life I led in New York with friends, restaurants and theaters. I loved being able to walk everywhere and never minded the crowds on the street. That has all changed. And it makes me feel very sad. But everyone has their own favorite aspects of life that will be no more. It can be painful to think about it.

Kubler Ross’s final stage is acceptance. That of course is the “new normal” that people talk about. We don’t really know what it will look like and how we will be able to integrate our former lives into this. Most of us will find a way to manage it as we lead lives that may look different from the ones we know. 

However, for now, a hopeful way to lead our lives is to look at the summer that is approaching on Shelter Island and be grateful for all the things we can enjoy — beaches will be open assuming we all distance responsibly. Our favorite restaurants are providing take-out. The new pizza place is coming and the Tuck Shop is opening. Online Zumba is becoming a sensation. People have made new friends on the IGA and Post Office lines. And all this rain has brought a beautiful spring and probably a gorgeous summer.

As summer turns to fall, we will know more than we do now about what the new normal looks like. And eventually, as Kubler-Ross maintains, we will move from the mourning phase into acceptance. It is times like these when people learn how resilient they actually are. We will find a way to make it work.

Note: For emotional assistance during this time, New York State has a free helpline and can be accessed at 1-844-863-9314. Additionally our town social worker, Lucille Buergers, can be reached for a confidential consultation at 631-749-0302, ext. 151.

Nancy Green, a retired clinical social worker is a member of the Shelter Island Mental Health Team along with Ryan Sultan, MD; Town Social Worker Lucille Buergers; Senior Center Director Laurie Fanelli; and Mental Health Professionals Bonnie Stockwell and Jessica Colas