Hello friends, here in California we are in week 5 of sheltering-in-place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past month, I felt strongly compelled to offer help to the larger community in a time of crisis. After all, that is what therapists are called and trained to do. But, before attempting to offer any kind of help, I needed time to just sit with everything and process my experience. To be honest, I was feeling overwhelmed by the influx of information and people from all areas of “expertise” advising what we should or should not be doing. So, I do not want to add to your pile of information overload. Instead, I would like to share with you some of what I’m doing to cope with this situation from a personal viewpoint, while also lending the perspective of a mental health therapist. My main hope is that by sharing my experience, some of you will not feel so alone.
These past few weeks, for most of us, have been quite a rollercoaster ride. There is a huge spectrum as far as how much each person’s life is affected by the COVID situation. On one end, we see the videos of bored celebrities draped over their couch in their mansions and on the other end, we hear the tragic stories of people dying alone in their hospital beds. Many of us may have a loved one working the front line. Many people are losing their jobs and won’t be able to pay the rent. We may be having to work from home while homeschooling one or more children. Everyone’s experience is different and that is normal. And whatever you are feeling in response is OKAY.
Acknowledge the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
In the early days, I was terrified of all the unknowns about COVID-19. I was feeling immense grief for all of the people who were suffering. On the other hand, I was noticing that my life had slowed down, offering a much-needed respite to the hectic, fast-paced and over-scheduled lifestyle of the Bay Area. I was appreciating spending more quality time with my family. I was doing things that I was never able to get to, such as writing a blog post, because of being too busy.
Honestly, this dichotomy was difficult to resolve in my mind. Here I am in my little bubble and all is fairly okay. But I know that outside my bubble, there is immense loss occurring.
How could I feel good about something in my life when people are suffering, you may be asking yourself? Acknowledging all aspects of your experience, even if they seem to be contradictory, can be helpful in keeping your sanity and a sense of hope, especially during difficult times. The truth is, I can feel gratitude AND I can feel grief and sadness. They can both be simultaneously present. We tend to believe that the light and the dark cannot coexist but this is doing the complexity of life a great disservice. Reality is NEVER that neat and tidy, as much as we wish it to be.
Over the past few weeks, we are collectively being put face-to-face with death and grief, and in a way that extends beyond the length of time we may be comfortable with. For bystanders, grief and loss can be confined to situational contexts and the grieving period is wrapped tightly into a segment of time, after which, life can go back to normal. A public figure dies, such as Kobe Bryant most recently, and larger communities grieve together for a period of time. On a national level, we know there is war, the plight of refugees, people dying of various diseases and we grieve as a nation for a period of time. And, then we move on. We turn back to our own individual lives and refocus on trying to be happy.
As someone who has survived significant deaths of loved ones, I know that is not how grief works when it touches you personally. My fellow grievers know this truth as well. Our lives do not go back to normal after a couple weeks and the journey through the terrain of grief feels foreign, confusing, messy and unpredictable. For those that have never had their world turned upside down by loss, you may have noticed that through this COVID-19 experience you find yourself moving through the stages of grief; denial, bargaining, anger, sadness/depression and perhaps a level of acceptance. The sixth stage, meaning-making, usually comes much later. These stages do not happen in a linear way but rather we weave in and out of them over the course of time, eventually reintegrating into life having been changed in many ways.
In this time of the pandemic, many of us cannot simply turn away from the reality of great loss. Life as we knew it abruptly changed course and we were left reeling, trying to process so many changes all at once; many are being asked to stay home while many others have to go to work despite the risks to their health. Most of us do not have access to the things we usually do to feel happiness, relief, fun. Great masses of people are now jobless. The economy is taking an enormous hit. And, we cannot run from the ever-lurking threat to our health when we venture out into the world. It doesn’t stop there. We know many, many people are dying on a daily basis. We are worried that our loved ones could die. That we ourselves could die, and this anxiety is high among our doctors, nurses, first responders and many other essential workers who keep our human world operating. Not only may you be grappling with fear, sadness, anger, boredom and a whole host of other emotional and psychological issues, you may be doing it without the anchors of your usual social outlets such as going out with friends, chatting with colleagues at work or gathering with family. It’s no wonder that mental health conditions such as hypochondriasis and panic attacks have significantly increased.
Dang, Angela! This is all so depressing, you might say. It is pretty sad, I agree. That’s kinda the point of me writing this. I’m always about keeping it real when it comes to grief and loss.
But, if there’s anything I know after working many years with grief and loss, it’s this: The human spirit is strong. We have the capacity to find our way through the worst of the worst. We can get through hard things together.
Stay tuned for Part II where we will explore the ingredients to surviving the apocalypse. Hint: Do stuff that helps you and others + Tolerate Difficult Emotional States + Patience.
If you are in need of grief counseling during this time, please contact me.