Brexit – the Five Stages of Grief

So there we are the deed is done, the majority of the UK public has voted to leave the European Union. The Parliamentary system is in tatters, both of the major political parties are searching for leaders to lead us country through this quite revolutionary landscape. No vision, no plan, no hope, no nothing to give us any certainty of our collective futures. Us Brits like to do things slowly, deliberately and with some degree of certainty. Therefore it’s easy to see how cataclysmic this result is for the nation.

For the 48% who voted to remain in the EU the result has provoked all manner of wailing and gnashing of teeth. There is an appetite to mobilise against this injustice that has been foisted upon them. However, from my recent discussions with clients, friends and colleagues, there is a profound sense of loss for a country, values & culture we all felt we knew? Have we lost our belief that the UK is an outward looking, inclusive and progressive European country?

Collective Grief of the 48%

My own reflections from recent events are that many of us (plus some that voted leave and are regretting their choice) are experiencing a profound feeling of grief? In other words a loss, bereavement and grief for what we once had. We know that the events of the past 10 days mean that things will never be the same again, maybe like the loss of a close friend or loved one? It may also be a future that you feel powerless to change and did not vote for? Indeed I have witnessed these comparisons to my previous counselling work and my time at the Samaritans and Victim Support. Supporting many people going through a profound sense of anger and shock or “why me, I don’t deserve this”. Even the loss of a smartphone or cherished childs toy can promote this feeling of profound sadness and grief at the loss of something dear and irreplaceable.

To take that hypothesis further we can use the Grief Cycle model developed and first discussed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the 1969 book “On Death & Dying” (in On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss – 2014). The model promotes a simple five stages that may well help to put some context around how some may be experiencing recent events. Moreover within the contexts of the five stages of grief.

Five Stages of Grief

  • Denial  Denial perhaps best described conscious or nonconscious refusal to accept facts, information or reality, etc., that are relating to the situation concerned. In this instance the UK EU Referendum. Denial is a normal reaction to rationalise overwhelming emotions that can go some way to protect us against uncertainty. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediate shock of the event/loss. We block out the words and hide from the facts of the effects of the decision and perhaps any negative outcomes. We can easily become fixated upon stage when dealing with the sense of loss. We see the aftershocks of the referendum results still reverberating on social media and in the press. The events of the referendum are not easy to avoid or evade, as there is knowledge that things will never be the same again here in the UK.
  • Anger –  Anger can manifest in many different ways. In the case of the referendum, arguments, protest marches, blame, petitions, a second referendum etc etc. The people who voted to remain are now having to deal with the emotional fallout from the referendum, they may be angry with themselves, with others and especially those close. We have read about inter-family/community conflict as a result of groups voting one way or another. Of course knowing this can help keep detached and non-judgemental when experiencing the anger of someone who is very upset. However, with these highly charged emotions around, this result can make rational debate seem a distant fantasy. This anger may be aimed at inanimate objects, complete strangers, friends or family. We can feel guilty for being angry, needless to say, this makes us more angry at an outcomes that “we did not vote for this”
  • Bargaining – Traditionally the bargaining stage for people facing this level of social & economic change can involve attempting to bargain with whoever they can. We have heard about a group of business people banding together to ensure that Parliament change the legislation to make triggering article 50 possible (mechanism that starts leaving the EU).  This can  buy “reflection” time as a strong bargaining chip. Perhaps that there are many of us that feel we can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise? For example “how can the leave and remain voters work together to unify the country?” when facing this magnitude of break-up of the political and social order of the country. Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially if it’s a matter of life or death. Perhaps this is the weakest line of defense to protect us from the painful reality of the vote of the referendum.
  • Depression –  Sometimes referred to as preparatory grieving, the dress rehearsal or the practice run for the aftermath of leaving the EU. Needless to say, this means different things to different people. This stage maybe best described as a form of acceptance with some emotional attachment. It is perfectly natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, uncertainty, etc at what may be ahead of the country we thought we knew and could rely on. This stage may show that the person has at least begun to accept the reality of the situation. Sadness and regret of the fact we will no longer be a part of the European Union predominate a sense of depression in the case. We worry about the costs to us, our jobs, our families and our communities. We worry that, in our grief, we have spent less time with others that depend on us. This phase may be eased by simple clarification and reassurance. We may need a bit of helpful cooperation and a few kind words or more to the point a clear vision, strategy and plan for how we are going to move forward as a unified country.
  • Acceptance – Lastly, this stage can vary according to the people involved and the person’s situation. Although broadly it is an indication that there is some emotional detachment and objectivity. We will hope to enter this stage and must pass through their own individual stages of dealing with the grief at the events. Coping with this collective sense of loss is ultimately a deeply personal and singular experience. However, in this case it may well be beholden to our politicians & leaders to help the country focus upon helping the remain voters see the future as being different and in a positive light. The continual political infighting, uncertainty and sense of inertia will only will prolong the natural process of healing.

I hope that this simple but effective model helps put those difficult emotions that the 48% may well be feeling presently. Of course many will not feel like this at all and have shrugged the whole matter off and moved on. However, the collective conversations had over the recent past suggest that many are experiencing one or at least some of those debilitating stages of grief and bereavement.

Lastly………

Whilst writing this post last week there has been some acknowledgment by Boris Johnson (of all people) that the country seems to be in a state of “contagious mourning”for the referendum results. Perhaps then the people of this country need to feel that there is hope to be able to move through these five stages successfully. Without a vision and a plan we may well be stuck in a place that is bad for people, business, communities and the economy as a whole.

It is this acknowledgement that the 48% may be feeling a collective sense of grief for a country and culture the once knew, that may help us move forward in due course. However, the current malaise and political vacuum will only exacerbate the anger, fear and frustration of the sense of bereavement experienced by many. So for all those people who voted remain, give yourself some slack and acknowledge the stages you may be going through as a natural progression. Its part of a process of moving forward and making it a landscape and country we will all feel collectively proud of once more.

David Dean is a principle work and coaching psychologist focussing on creating clarity & the vision for careers, business and professional development. Helping to make your career a nicer place to be. Check out Bright Sparks Coaching for more information and contact details.

References

E. Kübler-Ross, D, Kessler (2014) “On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss” Simon & Schuster UK

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