First, a warning: if you have been experiencing extreme anxiety from over-exposure to coronavirus news, this piece is not for you. Please, first and foremost, take the space you need for yourself, and the care needed to get through these moments.
Now. I am writing this to everyone else. Those of you who have largely focused on the physical aspects of this pandemic. You’re doing what the CDC has informed you to do and have been keeping updated on all the stuff about social distancing. I’m guessing you have a kitchen full of non-perishable food, and you have varying qualities of toilet paper depending on how early to the punch you got. Whenever you get a delivery, you make sure to wash your hands, and you’re making plans for a long haul stay at home.
Great. Wonderful. This is all essential. And it’s incredible how social media has allowed us to spread the news of how essential these things all are so quickly and so effectively.
But there is something else, something that worries me, about what’s coming.
Just as with the physical safety and preparation of most Americans, it seems to be working on a sort of delay, maybe because we are a country so used to denialism and fantasizing. First we thought we didn’t need to stock up, and then we were all stocking up, leading to huge lines and hoarding. Even now, only 26% of Americans have changed their daily lives in a major way due to the pandemic.
So it should not be surprising that this next stage of preparation has perhaps not even crossed people’s minds.
The preparation I am speaking of is not physical, but emotional and spiritual.
For the most part, we are still seeing a lot of discussion about the difficulties of living under virtual quarantine, debates about what is fully safe and what isn’t, and lots and lots of humor. What we are not seeing, however, is much awareness of what is coming.
As a New Yorker, and as an orthodox Jew whose communities have been hit harder and quicker than most other places, this worries me.
Let me give you some quick examples: I already have multiple friends who have lost family members to this virus. I personally know multiple people and friends who have been in the hospital (thank God, all appear to be recovering). I know healthcare workers, most notably a badass nurse, who are posting repeatedly about the fact that New York’s healthcare system is already stretched unbearably thin.
And, to be clear, New York and the orthodox Jewish communities here are not by any means through this. Just the opposite: we are only at the beginning of this process.
As I write this, the full lockdown of the city has only now just begun. I and others who acted “early” (where early is measured in days and hours) only started staying home a week or so ago.
Most data bears this out: unless truly drastic measures are taken by the entire country, it seems that we are likely to see a continuous increase in cases well into the summer.
Our governor here in New York, one of the earliest hit states, claims that the cases are likely to peak in 45 days. The great Denier In Chief himself has now finally admitted that the virus will likely be managed by the country until at least July or August. Considering his track record, it would be worth adding some time to that estimate.
I say this not to depress you, but to make you aware of the emotional reality we will all soon be inhabiting.
Right now, our priority is figuring out how to handle living alone or how to handle living with kids or making sure we have enough social interaction. In a month, we are likely to be handling a completely different reality. And if we take our cue from other places that have mishandled this virus as badly as we have, we would do well to start preparing our stock, not just of physical needs like food, but emotional needs like strength, resolve, and the ability to grieve.
This is going to be difficult to read, but my goal in writing this is that my writing will be difficult to read in order to make what is coming less painful.
The top cause of trauma in the world is the unexpected death of a loved one. It is also the most commonly rated as the worst trauma they’ve ever experienced. Of course, “expected deaths” (for example, a family member who has suffered from a terminal illness passing away after a number of years) are painful and traumatizing in their own ways, and should not in any way be minimized.
That said, there is quite a lot of evidence that “anticipatory grief,” as it is known, does at least give those who are planning for the death of a loved one the opportunity to prepare and achieve closure, things that help reduce the chances of trauma. In fact, sudden, unexpected death of a love one is even associated with a higher mortality rate than other forms of loss.
And although most of us will thankfully not have to deal with the loss of a loved one through this, we are about to go through a loss of life that may exceed or even more than double the loss of life of all Americans in World War II.
For those who have gone through anticipatory grief, it is the level of preparation that often can make a real difference. The ability to prepare for the death, and to think through how to achieve closure, among other reasons, give people the ability to cope.
More importantly, the ability to express grief as opposed to keeping it bottled in gives people a strength they wouldn’t have otherwise.
We can and, indeed, must apply these principles to the coming results of the pandemic. We are, in many ways, about to grieve together as a nation. Although we ourselves may not lose a loved one, it is quite possible most of us will know someone who has. And either way, the potential collapse of our healthcare infrastructure, the collapse of the economy, and the inevitable massive job loss that is already occurring, will lead to a collective grief that the vast majority of us have not begun reckoning with yet.
The first step, then, in preparing ourselves for what we are about to experience is to simply be aware. Aware of what is coming. Aware about how it will feel. Aware of how it will affect us and those around us, physically and emotionally.
What we are experiencing now, as mentioned above, is the path towards the peak rate infection. But how we get to the peak is what matters more than anything when it comes to emotionally processing the experience.
You know that feeling we had recently where it first felt like the coronavirus really wasn’t so different from other scares like ebola, and then, suddenly, it was upon us? And then that feeling like, okay, it is manageable, and we simply need to keep our distance? And then, in even less time than the last change, we were thinking of working from home? And then, in only a day after that, Tom Hanks had it, a national emergency was declared, and we all moved in our homes for the foreseeable future? Every step almost breakneck in its speed? Each step faster than the other?
That is what it feels like, emotionally, to be on the upswing of an exponential growth experience. That is why there has been a concerted call to flatten the curve, as they call it. Flattening the curve essentially means taking drastic measures to avoid exponential growth.
The problem we are facing is that even with the most successful attempts to flatten the curve, the experience of exponential growth will continue in the near future. That is why we are optimistically looking at 45 days until this peaks in New York, and longer elsewhere. As the people who were exposed when we weren’t aware of what was occurring and before symptoms were showing, we essentially have a large population that will only in the coming days become aware that they were infected. And then will come those who they infected. If you think about social interactions, and how one person can infect many, it makes sense that the cases we will soon see will exponentially grow.
In real terms, this means that the coming weeks will turn from a scary, anxiety-provoking fear for our physical safety to a massive growth in societal grief. More people will experience what I have, and I and others in my area will go through what they will then be going through a week later. Each more intense than before. More friends in the hospital, especially as the hospitals fill. Videos like the ones we are seeing coming from Italy and Spain of doctors crying about having to choose who gets to live and who doesn’t due to a lack of resources. More family members having close calls or passing.
The challenge in this time will be to keep ourselves emotionally healthy. This does not mean we won’t feel pain. Quite the opposite. All grief is painful. The question is more whether it grows and evolves into trauma or whether it will be healthy grief.
Most of us are now equipped to at least try to stem traumatic grief. The more we are aware of and accepting of what is come, the more we can experience anticipatory grief, and thus the more we can use the tools of anticipatory grief to prepare ourselves emotionally for what is coming.
I am not an expert on that part, but here is a link to a resource for those going through anticipatory grief. In short, it recommends:
- Accept that anticipatory grief is normal.
- Acknowledge your losses.
- Connect with others.
- Remember that anticipatory grief doesn’t mean you are giving up.
- Reflect on the remaining time.
- Take care of yourself.
- Take advantage of your support system.
- Say yes to counseling.
- Relief is normal.
- Don’t assume how it will go. We all have different reactions to grief.
These are just a few tips, and they are all applicable to a larger grieving, much like other disasters Americans have gone through. The difference here being that we are largely more prepared to deal with it than the sudden ones.
In that sense, there is hope. That our awareness will allow us to prepare in ways we haven’t been able to in the past. That, perhaps, things will go better than we expect, which would allow us to feel relief rather than pain as things evolve. That, when one is prepared emotionally, one can then be an aid to the others around them.
Yes, there is hope in all of this, if not the hope we hope for. But just as we didn’t all sign up to save lives by staying home, but in so doing are perhaps giving in ways that we may never be able to again, so too will we be able to give in ways we cannot imagine in the coming days.
In the darkness, any amount of light we can shine will be brighter than it ever would be otherwise.