If your candidate lost, you might experience what Elisabeth Kübler-Ross defined as the five stages of grief. Though these were created specifically to relate to how people relate to death, I see many of these same stages already in play on this post-election day.
- Denial & Isolation
The first reaction to the election results is to deny the reality of the situation. “This isn’t happening, this can’t be happening,” people often think. It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. Our heart rather than our head rules our belief system. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock of the loss. We block out the words and hide from the facts. Against the better judgment of everyone around us, we can’t help but entertain fantasies of things somehow working out. We fantasize about recounts, or criminal convictions, or even assassinations. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain.
As the masking effects of denial and isolation begin to wear, reality and its pain re-emerge. We are not ready. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be directed at anyone or anything. We feel guilty for being angry, and this makes us angrier. We lash out at others on Facebook or in person. Again, we react chiefly from our heart and not our head.
The normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control. Examples of this stage might include:
- If only the third party voters had voted for our candidate…
- If only I had gotten more involved with the election …
- If only _____ had won the primary …
Rationally, we may know that the person or action is not to be blamed, but we need to try to make sense of what just happened. People start reaching for any excuse.
Depression, like anger, also surfaces in many different forms. For example individuals might feel tired all the time, not wanting to do anything but lay in bed, feeling disconnected from people even when you are with them, being on the verge of tears most of the time, have trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, loss of appetite or overeating, increase in drug or alcohol use and (the big one) hopelessness. Hopelessness is the most pervasive and debilitating. It is the thing that leads us to believe that nothing will ever be or feel different than it is right now. Hopelessness makes it feel like you will never move on and that nothing will ever work out for you in the future. We worry about the possible consequences of the election results even though no actual action has taken place. We worry that out day to day activities will suddenly be suddenly upset. We worry about the threats to our belief systems and our way of life.
Finally, this is the phase in which we are able to make peace with the loss. It doesn’t always come on suddenly; it often happens gradually, little bit by little bit. Acceptance doesn’t always involve harmony and flowers – there is almost certain to be lingering sadness. Acceptance entails making peace with the loss, letting go of the relationship and slowly moving forward with your life. Sometimes it feels like this phase will never come, which usually means you’re still struggling in an earlier phase. Some never reach this stage, and never see beyond their anger or denial. This is not a period of happiness and must be distinguished from depression.
Acceptance does not mean passivity. Acceptance releases the power that your life circumstances have over you. When things don’t go your way, you don’t become paralyzed by negative emotions such as anger, fear, resentment, or regret. Acceptance also isn’t the opposite of caring. You may still care about the political issues that were important to you and you reinvigorate yourself in finding ways to overcome them. However, you won’t spend every moment thinking about what went wrong with the election.
Coping with any loss is ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience — nobody can help you go through it more easily or understand all the emotions that you’re going through. But others can be there for you and help comfort you through this process. The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it only will prolong the natural process of healing.
Remember, grieving is a personal process that has no time limit, nor one “right” way to do it.