My wife Mary died almost 2 years ago. In the short time since that catastrophic event in my personal life, the world has witnessed the burning of historic St Paul’s cathedral, the eruption of Whakaari volcano on Whites Island off the coast of New Zealand, bush fires in Australia destroying millions of acres of land while displacing thousands of people and killing millions of animals. So many disasters have occurred around the world. Perhaps, the disaster of all disasters, has been the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic.
Before a crisis happens, we are all preoccupied with looking ahead and planning for things such as our next work event, a family event, a graduation, a wedding and without a doubt, our next vacation. With few exceptions, humans have the basic instinct to see things they need, or things that need to be done. They then make plans and arrangements to accomplish them. We are for the most part, the only species in the world that plans ahead.
When a personal disaster like the diagnosis of Cancer strikes, things change. You begin to see things with a narrower perspective. You begin to live in the moment. Plans are put on hold and everything you do is about the here and now and often, how you get through the next hour or the next day. Next week is a long time a way, next month seems like a crazy long time to think about, and next year is seldom even on the timetable. As patients and caregivers, we become good at shortening our expectations. We seek remedies for the moment. We often do not have time to think about ourselves while we care for others. We are often at our best when things get bad. After the disaster occurs, and the numbness wears off, you realize you don’t have a plan. You realize that things will never be the same, and you wonder if you even need a plan. The grieving process begins in a void that needs new meaning. The process of filling the void requires action. The content of your new life has no road map. No timetable. The length of the process is different for everybody. You wonder how long you should take before trying to get back to “normal”. You know that the new “normal” will not be like the old “normal”, but you understand that in order to recover, you will have to do something.
Within this pandemic, I see parallels to the grieving process. I think of it as unfair that before I have had time to end my own personal grieving process – this new process got added.
At least in this one, I am not alone. Across the world, people will behave as if they have had a death in the family. Sadly, many of them will have had to experience just that. They will think less about the future as they work through the day to day sameness of social distancing (the pandemic equivalent of the thinking in the moment process). They will know that nothing will be the same. They will play out each day in survivor mode.
And yet, they will want to do what humans do. They will want to make plans. Just like those of us who have lost our spouse, pandemic survivors will find it extremely difficult to determine what the new plan should be. We know that nothing will ever be the same. How do you think ahead, when work and travel as we knew it, will never be the same? Terrorist events like 911 introduced us to new invasive physical screening processes, especially in airports. The COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt add another layer of health testing inspection. In the weeks to come, before we enter a plane, a cruise ship, a train, a restaurant or even our place of work, we will be subject to new scrutiny. The onus will likely be on us to prove we are not contagious. How will we cope? What activities, that we did in the past, will no longer be worth the hassle?
Just like a widow or widower, everyone in the world will now be faced with determining on an individual basis how long they will stay cautious, how long they will take to recover mentally and financially, and how long it will take before they want to go out into the world again. Over the next few months people will be challenged to move forward and out of the pandemic cloud of fear and social distancing. Some will be criticized for doing it too soon. Others may never feel like travelling again even if the danger has largely passed.
I called my personal grieving process “Vaughnreinvented”. It reminded me to be aware of the need, at some point, to move on. It prompted me to step out of my comfort zone even when I didn’t always feel up to it. Some people wondered if I had moved on too quickly. Others felt I was handling things well. No one knows for sure. Not even me!
We are now all in the world as virtual widows or widowers. The world as they knew it, has died. Unwillingly, we will all begin a virtual grieving process. A “reinvention” process. We will all have to choose our own path to recovery. Being human, each of us, will undoubtedly begin to make plans again. It is what we do. We won’t all do it at the same pace, but we will all begin to move on.
Stay at home and in place for now and live in the moment. Treat it as an act of love to your family and community.
When the pandemic passes, take up the challenge, begin to plan, and begin to move forward.
IT is what we do best!