The week of March 16th is one I will remember for a long time. Exactly two years ago now, all of our lives changed forever. This was the week that the world went into shut-down, and reality as we knew it was no longer the same. It's funny, living through a pandemic. Sometimes it feels like it began only yesterday, while other times it easily feels like a decade has passed already. A lot has happened politically, socially, environmentally, and globally since it started, that makes a return to “normal” feel like a thing of the past. I have been hit with waves of emotions this past week, memories on social media, reminding me of the early beginnings of the pandemic when the world felt united for the common cause of beating this virus. There was sense of hope, even amongst the divided nation that is the United States. We thought we could hunker down for a couple months and that it would all soon be over. Little did we know the new struggles, challenges, and traumas we were all about to face.
People in general, and Americans specifically, are really good at forgetting the past. We like to move on quickly. I think it’s easier that way for many, falling back into auto-pilot and going about their day-to-day business.
While this seems to be the case for many in relation to this pandemic, we haven’t truly hit the endemic stage yet, as much as we hoped, and there’s an interesting phenomenon occurring, which I like to refer to as ‘continual trauma’.
Trauma is often defined, not as the experience of the event, but in how we process and handle the event. Essentially how our nervous system is able to process what has transpired for us, both physically and emotionally, as we work to return ourselves back to a sense of calm and balance. However, we generally don’t begin to process such trauma until after the event, when we once again feel safe, or are able to create enough space in our system, to work through all that has happened. This is why for example, in massage, it can take time and many sessions for a person to feel safe enough to let go of their chronic muscle holding patterns caused by stress and previous trauma. Or why folx involved in mental health counseling often need to go slow in their healing process, unpacking the layers of protection to get to the root of the traumatic experience.
So, while the western world seems to want to move beyond COVID, there are many who are stuck in the challenging experience of a continual trauma cycle. This is for a variety of reasons. Some are high-risk with health conditions that even with a vaccine make COVID dangerous to be out in the world with. Some parents have kids who haven’t had access to the vaccine yet. Some work in elderly care or other medical facilities and have to choose safety for their work. There are also many others who were dealing with complex trauma before the pandemic started, which created an even more difficult time trying to find feelings of calm when their internal and external worlds never truly felt safe in the first place. It can therefore sometimes feel, that as long as the pandemic continues, there’s no wiggle room to begin to process and heal the trauma of the last two years.
However, there are some things we can do. To start, it takes acknowledgment. Looking at common experience and calling it out for what it is.
So how can we sum up the feelings and experience of all this? Well, grief is the word you might be looking for. It’s an emotion that often underpins many others. Anger, rage, frustration, pain, fear, and resentment can all be overlaying emotions for grief. The last two years have put a stop to many timeless traditions. Businesses have closed, thousands of lives have been lost, and our way of being social has changed forever. We have all essentially lost parts of our lives, and even though many have returned, it’s still not the same.
I think back to the time when I didn’t have to weigh up my options of what social event would be more of an exposure risk, and having to test prior to visiting older family members. Opting out of favorite activities like eating in restaurants, seeing friends, attending music events .. the list goes on and is different for every person. The simple act of socializing to release stress has been deprived for many. Meanwhile, we see a frustrated world act out its pain and grievances on each other, adding further to the divide. Yet perhaps if we can acknowledge the fact that we are all in deep, deep grief, we can better start to understand each other more.
Everyone holds and processes emotions differently, some in healthier ways than others, but regardless, humanity is trying to grapple with the reality that, while time is infinite, we aren’t. Death and change became an experience that hit home a lot sooner than many us of expected, and with the additional loss of not seeing friends and family, and not having our social needs met, processing this grief, often alone, adds another layer of trauma to the experience. No-one heals alone, which is why these past two years have been even more challenging. While I’m cautiously optimistic that a return to “safety” is in the distant future, I don’t know how or what that will eventually look like.
My wish is that there was more dialog around this experience. The same as with death, many expect individuals to simply move on after a period time, often with comments such as, “Oh, you’re not over that yet?” The process of grief can have many stages, and the time it takes to work through and develop a healthy relationship with this grief varies. Yet staying silent is the worst thing we can do. So, I encourage you to talk with friends, family, partners, co-workers, and those who you feel can hold space, that really allow and enable you to express yourself. Perhaps even asking for them to simply listen and to not offer advice, but to just be able to hear your struggles. Often that is a catalyst to healing, allowing the grief to be heard and witnessed.
I too want to move on from this pandemic, as unfortunately it’s not the only tragedy and struggle we are facing. But to simply move on is dangerous. Countless times, I’ve had clients in sessions processing emotions and experiences they didn’t take the time to process sooner. It stays in our system, often for years, but we do have the opportunity to find the support we need now, to help us all begin to unpack the silent truths and struggles we’ve collectively been holding.
Remember you’re not alone. Reach out to a therapist, coach, clergy member or friend, those who you know can support you. The world is trying to heal, and it’s okay to get help along the way. Grief is initiable and it’s what we are all feeling. Let’s come together, acknowledge, and move forward united. It takes a village.. and I wish you compassion and safety in your own healing of this grief. We can do this!