Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I am sure that I am not alone in saying that the COVID-19 crisis has rocked my world, and I really don’t know which way to turn. Of course, like everyone else I am following the advice of medical authorities regarding hand washing, social distancing, curtailing unnecessary travel, and the rest. But it just feels like the world is falling apart, from our usual household routines to our school systems, businesses, healthcare and even our global financial system. And then there is the real and terrifying threat of severe illness and death of our loved ones or ourselves. I just feel so helpless and anxious, and so do most of my friends and family. Is there anything you can tell us that would help us in this awful nightmare, which just seems to keep getting worse?
We are wired for attachment in a world of impermanence. As much as we yearn for stability, predictability and control of our lives, we often find these taken from us. Sometimes this occurs with the news of our own serious illness or that of someone we love; sometimes it comes with the loss of a relationship or a valued role; and sometimes it happens with the devastating suddenness of the tragic pandemic
sweeping through the world in recent months. In one form or another we then learn the lessons of loss: that life is change, predictability is fleeting, and our customary sense of control is an illusion. How then can we live in this world transformed by frightening and traumatic loss, of people, places, projects and protections that we once naively took for granted? Here are a few ideas, but the most genuine answers arise in our own hearts, and in deep conversation with those we trust and who are asking similar questions of their own.
First, find respite from the storm. Allow yourself, where possible, to take momentary refuge from the whirlwind of circumstances that bring you grief. Perhaps this will take the form of a simple ritual, such as having a quiet tea in your garden surrounded by the signs of spring, or be found in a moment of mindful meditation during a difficult day. “Dose” yourself with the hard reality of the situation, knowing that it demands attention, but not constant attention. Find ways of growing still, cultivating inner peace. Explore moments of solitude, rather than running from them toward electronic distractions. Center down. Seek beauty and refuge where they can be found.
Second, take action. Perhaps there is something, however small, that you can do to solve the problems brought by the mounting losses that this crisis brings in its train. This might be for yourself and your immediate family, as you seek to restore some sense of security in an insecure world. Or this might be for another–even a stranger–who has also suffered, in a random act of unexpected kindness that helps them understand that the world still contains love. Reach out, not with your hands, but with your heart. Make virtual contact with someone dear at distance. Engage in a creative or artistic project. Play a board game with your child. You will both benefit from it.
Third, express gratitude. Search for the blessings, the silver lining in the dark clouds of fear and tragedy. Has someone extended to you an act of kindness in your suffering, and if so, how might you acknowledge it? Who matters to you, and how can you thank them–perhaps in a text note, a call or a small symbolic gift–for touching your life? Disciplining ourselves to do this three times per week reminds us that goodness exists in us and in all around us, even in hard times. Seek out stories of everyday heroism and compassion. And be inspired by them.
Fourth, seek meaning. What personal life philosophies or spiritual perspectives help you understand and adapt to life’s many losses, and how have these core beliefs been tested and deepened by what you have suffered? What affirmative meaning could emerge from your present pain, at the level of your own life, that of your family, or the larger community? Seeking some way to make sense of the threat of this terrible pandemic and associated loss of freedom and control can help us bear it with grace. Might it even sharpen our appreciation of who and what truly matter?
And fifth, embrace unwelcome change as a teacher in times of transition. What does this unexpected transition teach us about the nature of human life? And how can we learn to live with impermanence without cynicism or bitterness or greed, embracing the people, places, projects and possessions we now have, for this short time? In learning the lessons of loss in a constructive way, we move closer to wisdom.