The COVID crisis is being fought on two fronts, medical and economic, but most people are suffering psychologically. The word “existential” rarely comes up in normal everyday life, but the crisis has created all the symptoms of existential dread: a sense of futility, anxiety about the human condition, and a deep fear of death. This comes as a shocking occurrence, and if there is such a thing as existential healing, now is the time for it.
Questions about existence baffle people, and there seems to be no reason to confront them until the last moment. One of the reasons that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 book, On Death and Dying, was seized upon by millions is that she drew a map of grief that showed dying patients that the inevitability of death wasn’t terrifying in the end. The five stages of grief outlined by Kübler-Ross—denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance—coincides with what is seen in hospice care. The prospect of death for most people leads to acceptance.
But there is a sixth stage of grieving that applies right now: meaning. The most fortunate patients go beyond acceptance to see that their lives had purpose, that existence is meaningful, and therefore that death lost its final power, which is fear and dread. This is the healing that I think should be embraced now. The actual deaths caused by COVID-19 are outnumbered by the cases of fear and dread being experienced on a mass scale. One way or another, we have all entered the grieving process.