In the early days of the pandemic, when we all started cancelling plans, a therapist friend posted about having learned the importance of honoring all the feelings one is feeling about a thing, rather than judging them, or comparing them to others or to some abstract standard of how we should be reacting.
Oh, so many feelings about this situation we find ourselves in, our lives in a holding pattern, wondering when we can come out of our homes and touch things again. Here are some of mine:
The other night, after putting the kids to bed, my husband and I shook our heads and said aloud, “I can’t believe this is what we’re living through right now.” You try to establish new schedules and patterns and go on with the business of life, because there are emails to answer and homework to attend to; meals to prepare, laundry, dishes, garbage that needs taking out. And then you pause and think, “is this really happening?”
Along with the disbelief is the grief over all that we have personally and collectively lost. It’s hard to wrap my mind around the staggering number of deaths around the world, and now, closer to home. And news of friends and neighbors facing job loss and inching closer to precarity points to the economic costs whose extent is frightening to imagine. A Harvard Business Review interview with grief expert David Kessler was making the rounds on Facebook; he talks about the importance of naming and acknowledging the different kinds of grief we may be experiencing now. In addition to grief over what we’ve lost is “anticipatory grief” over our uncertain future. Kessler explains,
Anticipatory grief is also more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this. Individually or as smaller groups, people have felt this. But all together, this is new. We are grieving on a micro and a macro level.
What will the world look like when this is “over,” and when will we know we’ve gotten past the worst of it? My husband observed that in the 2 weeks we’ve been home together, one or both of our children has shed tears every single day for one reason or another. On a recent walk, something set my older one off and as he cried, I asked with more than a note of frustration in my voice, “why are you so upset?” He responded, “I don’t know!” Immediately chastened, I said, “you don’t have to know why; it’s okay to feel upset and not know why.” Our children are grieving, too, though they may not know it.
I have to keep in mind what Kessler says: “There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. [. . . ] When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through.”
They say anger is often another way to express grief, but I’m pretty sure I’m also feeling pure, unadulterated anger at the deadly callousness and incompetence of the Trump administration and its Republican enablers who only stand to benefit when government is shown to be broken or inadequate. The inhumanity of the U.S. is that much more infuriating because it doesn’t have to be this way. We have all the resources to do better. We, too, could have done extensive testing; we could be protecting healthcare workers; we could get ventilators to those who need them if the political will was there; we could have a stimulus package that actually helps people instead of bailing out corporations. Then, on a walk around campus with my kids, I came upon graffiti on a rock, “CHINESE VIRUS” in red paint, underlined three times. I don’t know what to do with this rage.
Of course, I am grateful for so many things every day; reminding myself so that I don’t get overwhelmed or become consumed by my own petty concerns. I’m grateful for the obvious, like income and housing stability, but also that we live in a state and community that is taking social distancing seriously for the most part and that we have greenspaces and the lakefront to walk to. We are all healthy and together, that is the main thing. Grateful, too, for all the essential workers who keep things going in the midst of crisis.
But maybe gratitude for all of these privileges protecting me and my family also has a kind of anesthetizing effect, numbing some of the fear and anger, but also my ability to act. How does my gratitude help my neighbors? I’m donating some money; I’m planning to donate blood. But I’m in awe of those who have mobilized so quickly, setting up donation bins and mutual aid efforts, among other things.
Guilt, boredom, frustration, moments of joy and silliness mixed with moments of dread. Like trying to focus a camera lens on a chaotic scene, I’m not sure what’s foreground and what’s background anymore. In this blur of feelings, though, is the growing worry about my younger brother, my only sibling, in whom the personal, global, and political strands of this pandemic converge for me, as it must for anyone whose loved one is in direct, daily contact with COVID patients.
As a pulmonary critical care specialist, my brother was already taking care of the very sick, usually those in the cardiac ICU. Lungs and impediments to breathing are his area of expertise. So when I checked in with him a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t surprised to learn that he’d signed on to the “bio containment unit” at his hospital. In the space of 8 days, his texts went from “Cases will be everywhere. We have a couple already” to “Steadily getting worse. Don’t ask.” I gave it a few days, but when I read that cases had spiked in Maryland over the weekend, I had to ask. He texted back: “Our medical ICU is full of COVID patients so we are converting other units to full COVID units.” When I ask if they had enough PPE (personal protective equipment), he wrote, “We have not run out of PPEs but we just have to reuse them! Nursing home just tested 66 positive patients. Baltimore converted its convention center to house non critical patients. It is getting crazy.” Then he sent me a photo of himself in full PPE gear, waving a gloved hand at the camera.
I am full of pride and fear. And disbelief, anger, anticipatory grief. . . Reuse? How many times? Is he and everyone around him taking every precaution? When will this be over for him? I am an atheist sending up silent pleas to the universe, “please don’t let Baltimore get as bad as New York; please keep him safe.”
In this moment when we need to act collectively for the collective good, I worry that Americans are not quite up to the task, our polity too divided, our social infrastructures too fragile to withstand both the virus and the measures needed to contain it. But we have to keep trying anyway. Because what is the alternative?
We were all supposed to gather at my mother’s place in Massachusetts in August. I’m imagining a future where that can still happen and I can hug my brother.