We Can’t Let A Perfectly Good Crisis Go To Waste
(This article is excerpted from three blog posts: The Six Phases of Grief During Covid-19 (March 24, 2020), and now published in the anthology “Navigating the Pandemic, stories of hope and resilience”)
How do we navigate our grief? We must first find a place to sit with that which is broken. This is going to be a slow and difficult journey. How can we fortify ourselves for the long night ahead? I offer some pragmatic notions that may help to build a vessel to hold our grief. They will not all be useful or useful for everyone, but perhaps they are of use to some as they have been for me. *
• We will need to create new rituals and routines, even if they are as simple as a daily walk around the block. We may benefit from planning the first part of the next day before we go to bed so that we can create momentum in the new day.
• Meditation allows us the space to notice our thoughts and feelings without having to act upon them.
• Keep the body moving: We need exercise now more than ever for our physical and mental well-being.
• Get outside: fresh air, sunshine, and an open sky are a medicine
• Pay attention to our inner worlds as much as we do the news or social media.
• Appreciate Beauty: you don’t need to be an artist to appreciate the flowers in your neighbor’s garden or a beautiful sunset when out on a walk.
• Stay connected: infection control calls for physical distancing. We can still be socially connected.
• Find opportunities for gratitude: can we find moments to savor and appreciate?
• Practice compassion: this is difficult. And we’re all going through it together. How can we be kinder to one another?
Finally, we are called to make space for our grief, in whatever form that takes. There will be times when we want none of this, when our hearts are heavy with all that we have lost, both large and small that the suggestions on this list just feel like another opportunity for failure. There are times when we will want to weep, other times when we want to sit and stare plaintively out the window. If that is what your soul is asking for in that moment, allow it that, too. TS Elliot ended his poem with the haunting line, “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” This time will undoubtedly leave us both broken hearted and greater of spirit. There is room for it all if we can allow it.
Acceptance and Meaning
Awaiting us is the process of acceptance (the fifth stage) and finding meaning in our loss. How do we begin to imagine accepting sickness, disruption, and death, or even more, finding meaning in it?
We each must find our own meaning from this event. This is a process that will take time, introspection, and community. And even when we find the meaning, it will remain a poor substitute for that which we have lost. We will be called upon to experience all that we don’t have bandwidth to feel right now. For those who have unexpectedly lost loved ones and who could not be with them in their last moments because of fear of contamination, this pain will be even greater. To be sure, we are experiencing a trauma, as a society, and for many of us, before this is all over, a personal one. Our grief will be felt both individually and collectively and we will need to mourn both as individuals, but also as a community. Grief is not meant to be navigated alone, but rather to be held in the soul of the village in ritual and remembrance, however we define that.
Post-traumatic stress arises, in part, when our assumptions of safety in a benevolent world have been shattered. I suspect that the return to our new form of normal, whatever that looks like, will be a reversal of the process through which we took up defenses against the virus—only much slower. While we may ache for a return of public life, we will likely come out of our shells gradually. What will it be like when we can gather again, to fly on a plane, or to shake the hand of a new friend? Will we ever shake hands again? Or will we regard everyone with the vague suspicion that has befallen us now, where all at once, the threat seems omnipresent and yet nowhere to be found? And what if, in the absence of a vaccine, we have flare-ups of infection? Our response to a renewed threat may be excessive or disorganized, as can be expected from a population that is traumatized.
Fortunately, we know from the post-traumatic stress literature that humans are incredibly resilient. The vast majority of people who experience trauma do not go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is the good news. Even better news is that some can come out of the experience stronger.
To do this, a certain amount of engagement with our loss is essential. While brooding over the trauma is not helpful, thoughtful, purpose-driven reflection can move us towards an experience of meaning and resolution. Traits such as optimism, acceptance, and a search for meaning support the post-traumatic growth process on an individual level, while social support, spiritual groups, and community engagement support healing the larger whole.
The biggest mistake we could make is to try to return to things as they were without first examining if the changed world is actually a better world. We must not let a perfectly good crisis go to waste.
As both people and a collective society, we continue to ask the question “How could we be better?” How can we acknowledge the essential lesson of this virus, that we are all vulnerable and we are all connected? And if we are all connected, how can we be more humane and just with each other? How do we create a society in which health is the foundation of our wealth and that we create structures to ensure the well-being for all of its members? No longer can we see the health of our neighbors as a silo that is separate from our own. When one member of the village gets sick, we all suffer. As we turn our attention to our personal lives, we are asked if we wish to return to the same frantic pace that was exhausting many of us before it suddenly, unexpectedly ground to a halt. We have been shocked into asking, “What is important to you? What really matters?”