Many outlets are addressing how pandemic-related fatigue could be evidence of lingering Covid trauma. Rather than waiting for things to return to full "normal," when we have no guarantee of when/if that will happen (as the Wall Street Journal recently noted, "we'll always have Covid"), there’s a case to be made that now is the time to face this trauma. If trauma is part of your life, whether pandemic-related or pre-pandemic, I would encourage you to use the present time to address it head on.
When the Covid-19 pandemic began, and life was turned upside down, I was instantly reminded of a traumatic day in my life. Forever etched in my mind is the day we found my oldest son dead by suicide in our garage, and the days, weeks, months and years afterward. I learned a lot from trauma-informed therapy over the years and have come a long way in my view on life. But when I saw the stunned looked on people’s faces as we stood in line to go into the grocery store that had empty shelves and people wearing masks, I was reminded of that time when all was so unknown and scary.
Soon after Covid began, I began to hear talk about going “back to normal.” Even now with the two-year anniversary of the lockdowns looming over us, the talk of “back to normal” is everywhere. And it just so happens that the fifth anniversary of Anthony’s suicide coincides with the two-year mark of Covid lockdown, so when I say that I don’t think there is a “back to normal,” I mean that from both of those points of view.
Facing reality and post-Covid trauma
First of all, let’s be honest that pre-traumatic times of “normal” are not all that we make it out to be. For many, what we really mean is “when can we go back to people not being dead?” and the answer to that is “never.” Going back to pretending like none of this pandemic happened is not a mentally healthy thing to do. We can do it, and for sure there are plenty of people all around us attempting to do just that, but the fact is that hundreds of thousands of families cannot do that. Their person is gone, and now begins life without that person. A life that carries the pain of grieving the loss of their loved one. The rest of us are now living a life where Covid is a common word and where it seems that nobody can agree on anything.
Where do we go from here?
We can process the trauma of the last almost two years. How do we do that? The first step is to acknowledge that it happened. For weeks and months after my son’s suicide, the first thing I would think of when I woke up every morning was “Anthony died.” And it sucked. But it was an acknowledgement from the beginning of the day that this is what happened and this is now my life. I lived in that reality rather than living in denial. In many ways, there was no other option for me. But denial is an option when it comes to Covid, if you have not had someone you love die from it; even if you have, you have plenty of people or things or organizations to blame. But none of that blame or anger will change what has happened.
What we all really want, I think, is to go back to before when none of this happened. And we can’t. All we can do is acknowledge what happened and what is still happening. The term “feel your feelings” is worth remembering. It is not easy because there are plenty of feelings, but I think the one that we are collectively avoiding right now are the feelings of fear and grief. It feels like too much to take in and accept. We have a world going through all five stages of grief and the thing about the stages of grief is that they are not linear, so while I might be feeling accepting today there are 25 people in my community who are in the anger stage.
How do we process a trauma as it is unfolding? The best way that I have found is by extending grace to others in the trauma with you. I have been mothering and grandmothering a family of seven through the loss of Anthony. Sometimes one person is sad and others are trying to focus on the joy of the day, while two others are angry. What I told my family from the beginning is that grief is like an elephant; everyone has one. Each person has to take care of his or her own elephant. I can help you, and others can help you, but at the end of the day, it is your elephant. The one thing that is not okay is to let your elephant fight with mine or let it poop in my yard.
That advice is what has gotten us through the trauma of Anthony’s suicide as both individuals and a community, which is what a family is first and foremost. I believe that this advice is also what can help us as we all navigate life post-Covid. Not everyone had the same experiences; my family thrived in the break but many didn’t. And we have to both respect our own experience and those of others with empathy and compassion. And one way to do that is to think of our response to Covid as our own elephant. We can help each other care for our own elephants, but in the end, it is ours and our responsibility to take care of and to keep from pooping in someone else’s yard.
Will we return to a sense of normal? Maybe not. But if you take responsibility for your mental health, you may arrive at a more acceptable place after all, and one you couldn’t have arrived at otherwise. Having gone through the dark through the other side, I encourage you to use these challenging times to face what you’d rather not. We can make it through together.