Written for Allegro magazine, official journal of AFM Local 802 NYC.
Although I currently reside in Los Angeles, I am a real New Yorker at heart. I lived in Queens when I was
young, went to high school in Brooklyn, practiced diving in the Bronx, and lived in Manhattan for nearly
a decade when I taught at Juilliard. The only classes I ever missed teaching in that time were in the
months following the 9/11 tragedy. I led the crisis intervention and disaster management teams for
Merrill Lynch in NY on a full-time basis. I also provided grief counseling for the widows and families of
the Cantor Fitzgerald financial firm which lost more than 600 of their employees. I am a decorated Army
veteran, but I cried in my apartment in midtown every night for months after the attacks. Whenever I
hear Bridge Over Troubled Waters, written by a musician from Queens, I still lose it.
I was fortunate to be in the city and able to help a lot of people cope with the tragic event. However, the
COVID-19 pandemic situation is even worse than 9/11. We have already lost many more of our fellow
New Yorkers than in the attacks, and we will continue to suffer even more loss of life for too many
months to come. For the rest of us, it will cause profound pain and unwelcome changes in our lives and
careers. However, the one thing I know about my fellow New Yorkers is that we are very resilient. We
have been through lots of tough stuff before. We will persevere through this ordeal as we have always
done. The city will assuredly bounce back and so will the music industry.
In the meantime, musicians need to cope with the unfathomable losses that you are experiencing due to
the COVID-19. You may be furloughed or possibly have lost your job entirely. Your orchestra season is
most likely over. Festivals, sporting events, and camps may not be happening this summer. Others have
taken their career entirely online. Teaching remotely and conference meetings pose new technological
challenges. You may also be working remotely, with children at home, and no help. Financial hardship is
a major concern.
My goal of this article is to introduce you to a framework that may help you deal with this pain and
change. The framework was written by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who studied patients that were terminally
ill. She published a book in 1969 describing five stages that many of the patients experienced. We can
apply these stages to our losses and sufferings.
The first stage is shock and denial. This is when we initially go numb and refuse to accept what has just
happened. Our minds get overwhelmed and go into a confused fog, unable to process the information.
We can feel temporarily removed from the reality of the unthinkable situation.
The next stage is anger. Once the initial shock wears off and we start to absorb the new reality, anger
starts to set in. We get mad about what happened and the way it will change everything in our lives
from now on. We may blame health professionals, the community, the government, or higher powers
for the tragic condition.
The third stage is negotiating with what has recently happened. This is trying to come to terms with the
extent and scope of the disaster. At this point, we might develop the false hope that everything will
soon be back to normal if we behave in a certain way. This is a desperate attempt to resolve or fix the
problem somehow with our minds.
The fourth stage is going into a state of depression. We can feel hopeless after losing the regular
circumstances with our careers, personal relationships, pursuits, finances, living conditions, preferred
activities, and interests. Sadly, with the global pandemic it’s like we all belong to a club that we never
wanted to join, and we are paying way too much to be in it.
The fifth stage of the process is acceptance of the new reality. There is a new normal that we all need to
get used to. The fog, anger, and depression will start to recede as the mind begins to accept what is.
Once you acknowledge that fact, you can start to move on. You can begin your new life, and continue to
grow and evolve as an individual. However, it is normal to cycle through these five stages multiple times
during the grieving process.
In the meantime, it will help to understand that the initial shock was due to a profoundly chaotic event.
Unfortunately, we are still living in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. This is a state of collective
confusion and instability. Chaos is defined as a disordered condition in a highly complex system,
involving many interdependent parts, like countries, governments, and people.
Chaotic events are predictable for a while, and then appear to become random in nature. Although
chaos is impossible to predict, it’s helpful to know that it follows a pattern of repetitive behavior which
has an underlying, organizing principle. There’s actually some order in chaos.
According to Chaos Theory, in order for an event to be chaotic, three conditions must be met. First, it
needs to be highly dependent on what happened during the initial stages of the potential disaster. This
is known as the Butterfly Effect: the radical idea that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can result in a
tornado in Texas.
The second condition of chaos is the irreversibility of the event. The process only moves forward. After
different colored paints are mixed, you cannot undo what was done and separate them back into the
individual colors.
The third condition is that the event will be repeated periodically, but in a somewhat different way.
After it goes through one cycle, it will return to the original starting point. Then it will begin a similar, but
unpredictable course. However, with each successive iteration, especially with some form of outside
intervention, it will diminish in its intensity and scope until it becomes extinct or relatively
inconsequential (like Polio).
The organizing principle is this: in an interdependent system, a change in the early state can result in
vast differences in a later state. The evolution is determined by the initial conditions and what was done (or not done) early in the developing crisis. Since chaotic events involve the complex interactions of
many parts, they are highly unpredictable over time. There can be no certainty about how they will
affect the system, only that it will continue to change.
In reviewing each of the chaos stages, here are some ideas of how to handle them.
Stage 1:
If you are still in a state of shock, disbelief, and denial, take your time to come to terms with reality. This
is a good time to catch up on sleep. Comfort and take care of yourself. This is not the time to think about
long term issues or make important decisions.
Stage 2:
If you’re still experiencing negative emotions, such as anger or fear, take time for them to heal. You can
help the process by looking for forgiveness rather than blaming, focus on courage instead of fear, and
develop sincere gratitude by counting your many blessings.
Stage 3:
When you feel ready, begin to rationally address the extent and scope of the chaotic event. Pay
attention to ways you try to bargain with the situation in your mind. Remember that you cannot change
the situation, but you can control your behavior.
Stage 4:
When you are ready, you can devise an effective plan of action to navigate your tendencies when you
feel depressed. This should include self-care efforts to exercise and eat healthy. Be mindful of
procrastination and find ways to build routines. Stay informed through trustworthy sources, but avoid
bingeing on the news, dwelling on problems, or focusing on things that are out of your control.
Stage 5:
When you’re able to get up and get moving, you will feel ready to accept your new situation, and you
can make the best of it. Try to envision the COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity that can come with
benefits. It will eventually subside. In the meantime, let go of any attachments you still have to what is
out of your control. Embrace the chaos as the new normal.
We are just at the beginning of the profound changes ahead of us. It may continue to be difficult for
quite some time before it gets better, but it will never be the same. You need to imagine yourself in this
new reality, and rather than just surviving the horrible conditions, start to envision yourself thriving.
Focus on what you can control. Engage in self-care: healthy habits and routines. Eat well, exercise, and
stay in touch with close friends, colleagues, and loved ones. Keep in mind that you are not alone in this
grief! Many people find great comfort in sharing their unique stories with each other.
As someone who was the head of disaster relief at Meryll Lynch in NYC after 9/11, I have a lot of
background in helping people find the new normal. I will be posting stories often on Instragram
@winningonstage. In addition, I have also created a free PDF download on my website:
www.winningonstage.com/covid19 entitled, “Tips for Managing COVID-19.”