What is happening?
March, 2020. We find ourselves in very tough times. All of our lives across the globe, in some way, have changed in recent weeks with the arrival of COVID19. Whether we are young or old, retired or still in the workforce, our routines of everyday life changed quickly. We can no longer ‘carry on’ in normal fashion. Caution is advised on physical distancing in our communities. These warnings range from the federal and state government mandates to local restrictions on our daily comings and goings.
Life is altered. Routines changed. Cognitive impaired. Some of us feel disoriented moving from a full and active way of life to a sudden lockdown and shelter in place order. I hear other people starting sentences with ‘What day is it? Wednesday, or? I’m having the same difficulty. New terms such as social distancing and self-isolation consume our news reports and our own vocabulary. Elbow bumping is the new norm, replacing hand shaking. News media work around the clock trying to keep up with the evolving situation.
Some say this way of life will be our norm for several months, while others suggest a few weeks. This quick arrival of a highly contagious infectious disease, COVID19, gave us little time to prepare for living life differently. None of us, even the experts really know for certain how long the virus will keep us from living in the world we once knew.
There was confusion and chaos. We scrambled, felt a numb feeling, disbelief if you will. Many of us have had to make adjustments to our mode of work, or daycare needs. Schools at all levels shut down. Businesses closed including restaurants [many converting to drive-thru only] gyms, all non-essential services such as hair salons, entertainment venues, etc. Celebrations and parties cancelled. Weddings and funerals restricted to small gatherings of people in the immediate family or postponed to a later date.
Next, we shifted a bit and tried to find ways to make sense of it all. Some of us are watching our life savings in the stock market disappear or watching our own small businesses crumble that we worked for decades to build. The uncertainty is frightening.
We may talk with others about the absurdity surrounding the crisis or post to social media with humor, all attempts to cope. Or, we may raise a fist to a higher authority, other countries, politicians, medical professionals or whoever we feel is to blame. Some fall to their knees and pray for strength. Although we may process this situation differently, I believe we are all looking for the best possible information, and reassurance of safety for ourselves and our families through rays of light, acts of kindness and hope.
For me personally, I see, hear and sense disorientation and apprehension among family and close friends. I feel much of the same. Stopping one’s way of life and staying in place is challenging but necessary. Conflicting news reports exasperate feelings of fear. Sorting out what is to come is exhausting work. Adjusting my everyday life as a college instructor and as a caregiver of an elderly parent while maintaining my relationships with my husband, children, grandchildren, siblings and friends has consumed me. Many of my current students look to me for direction as well as for understanding of their new circumstances. Both my family of origin and of procreation seek to connect in new ways to protect each other and remain close. The uncertainty for all of us across the globe is felt keenly.
Grief, Loss and Hope
As a sociologist and grief specialist, I have thought about the many parallels of this situation to that of grief and loss experienced after the sudden death of someone loved. There is confusion, chaos, numbness, disbelief, loss of routine, cognitive impairment and fear. The world in which we lived our daily lives has been greatly altered. In both a sudden death experience and this current COVID19 situation, we lose our grip of an assumptive world. This is a theory dating back to 1988 and coined by Colin Murray Parkes, a British psychiatrist, whom I’ve had the honor of meeting. Dr. Parkes first used the phrase ‘assumptive world’ back in 1975 which referred to people’s view of reality. It calls our attention to a conceptual system, developed over a period of time, which then provides us with a set of expectations about the world and about ourselves. It was then built upon by others and was originally developed to help with traumatic loss. To help understand this concept, Janoff-Bulman(1992) identified three key assumptions that shape our worldview, namely, the world is benevolent, is meaningful and the self is worthy. She noted in her first point on benevolence how our belief that the world is ‘a good place with kind people’ points towards how events will usually have positive outcomes. Next, there is a cause and effect relationship between events and outcomes, if we believe that the world is meaningful. And finally, since we perceive ourselves as good, conscientious and capable moral creatures, then the self is worthy. Therefore this ‘assumptive world’ helps us to hold onto a belief that the world consists of good people living in a kind world where everything has meaning, or makes sense. However, in times of crisis, such as our current world situation with COVID19, we lose a grip on the assumptive world.
Similar feelings arise after a sudden death of someone we loved. The world may not feel safe. It does not make sense to us so there is little that we find meaningful. The self is now in danger [as we think of our own mortality] and a level of panic ensues. If this can happen, and so suddenly, then everything I fear is possible. We lose hope.
As we are updated daily on the numbers of people who succumb to this virus, we lose hope in whatever we had held hope in, for example, advanced medicine and technology, longevity, etc. We watch in horror as resources are scarce. What might serve us better is to hold onto reasonable hope in uncertain situations. This concept suggests something both sensible and moderate, rerouting us to what is within reach rather than what may be desired but unattainable. According to Weingarten, 2010, there are five main characteristics of reasonable hope:
First, it is ‘relational’ in that it flourishes in relationships and is not merely an individual attribute. This resonates with hospital patients as they live in close contact with others in the same situation, supported by empathetic health care workers.
Second, it consists of a practice that is a daily process rather than an end point – about doing rather than wishing. Focus on mutual help and what we can do for each other or for those on the front lines of this public health crisis.
Third, it maintains that the future is uncertain but open. Although uncertainty is a significant mental health risk factor for our current situation, these characteristics mean that there are still possibilities. Nobody can predict what is around the corner. For example, we have the ability to fast track a vaccine and new drugs available and showing promise until it arrives.
Fourth, it seeks goals and pathways to identified goals. By identifying realistic goals, and pathways to achieve these goals, people can obtain a sense of control and predictability over the situation. As more and more new neural pathways and networks are activated, cognition improves as do general mental health and well-being.
Lastly, reasonable hope accommodates doubt, contradictions and despair which seems relevant in these turbulent times. In other words, unlike the usual construct of hope, which is black and white, reasonable hope is in the grey zone, accepting that life can be messy and out of our control. Most importantly, Weingarten (2010) reminds us that this type of hope is a ‘humble hope’ as it provides for goals that are reasonable versus those that are ideal. Ideally, we want this virus eradicated now but knowing that a vaccine is on the fast track is a goal that is not only reasonable but viable.
What can help?
Our reactions, often based on our own personal values, need to be acknowledged and normalized and not judged by others. As in grief, people like their feelings and thoughts validated, not questioned. We may not agree with each other but now is not a time for personal wars. We have the ‘invisible enemy’ to fight, as this virus has been called in recent weeks, that is more than enough.
We might ask others, how has this situation affected you and your family? Instead of judging and accusing others for whatever actions we deem dangerous, why not find out their story, then offer resources if needed.
We all have choices here, we can rant and rave and argue with each other about who is to blame, or we can prepare for more chaos ahead [stockpiling ammo, food, etc.] because it gives us a sense of peace and control. Or, perhaps a better road to travel, is that we can let this situation transform us into wiser people, as in healthy grief. People who move from attending to self needs, and switch to mutual help for others [especially for the vulnerable among us] will not only feel more at peace but will also be setting a great example for all. Kindness is contagious [not just this virus]. We can focus on what we’ve lost [or can’t do] and live in an unhealthy atmosphere of fear and disgust, or we can appreciate what we have left [or can do] and attend to each other’s needs in new ways.
Perhaps we cannot travel, go to work, collect a paycheck, be schooled, visit our elderly, or plan and attend a graduation or birthday in person. As in grief, we’ve lost a lot, but the difference is, that our current situation may be temporary, and for that we can be grateful. So instead, we need to use our energy to encourage one another, send cards in the old snail mail way to the elderly, make some phone calls, and utilize FaceTime if we have it to reach out to those who need us the most. Be smart, connect with each other safely.
Stress can wreak havoc in our bodies when each day brings new statistics with more cases and deaths related to COVID19 in our communities. As in grief, we need a level of self-awareness so that we can distract ourselves from overwhelming thoughts and learn to balance everything. When grieving a loss, we need to ‘do the grief work’ but at the same time recognizing that along with the working through of memories, we need to adopt self-care activities. Practicing self-care is important so that we can then use our energies to help others. As I tell my personal health students, exercise, relax, sleep and eat a well-balanced diet. For our current situation, we should try to exercise outdoors using social distancing measures. We can utilize online programs as well [Quick-Calm video, see link below] and music to remain calm. We all need to get adequate sleep [7 hours is ideal] and remember to eat a balanced and nutritious diet. All common sense.
One thing I believe that can be a big help is to look for information about the COVID19 situation as it unfolds from respected sources. The misinformation from news media sources to social media posts is mounting and not always legitimate nor helpful.
As 21st century people we have access to enormous amounts of information 24/7 and now, many of us find it too much to deal with. Conflicting information is unsettling. As an educator, I wince at all the misinformation that is disseminated so quickly and widely. This is a time to listen to the ‘experts’ such as epidemiologists and public health specialists and not TV doctors and all those who read an article or two and suddenly feel compelled to enlighten others on social media and other outlets. Listen to the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institute of Health, for example. These people are seasoned experts whose entire careers have been devoted to protecting the general public’s health and well-being.
Johns Hopkins: https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html
Centers for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
National Institutes of Health: https://www.nih.gov/health-information/coronavirus
World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
Quick Calm Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hoPD0cVquPo
Janoff-Bulman, R., 1992. Shattered Assumptions Towards a New Psychology of Trauma. New York: Free Press.
Parkes, C.M., 1988. Bereavement as a Psychosocial Transition: Processes of Adaptation to Change. Journal of Social Issues. 44 (3).
Weingarten, K. 2010. Reasonable hope: Construct, clinical applications and supports. Family Process, 49 (1): 5-25.
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