Coping with loss and the unforeseen during the pandemic

By Dr. Amado and Alison Bohlke

In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr. Bohlke and Allison Bohlke co-authored this messaage on coping with grief and the unforeseen during unprecedented circumstances.

I noticed a couple emails recently that included apologies for uncharacteristic reactions from people. It got me wondering, what is “uncharacteristic” under these circumstances?  What’s happening to me? What’s happening to us? What’s happening to all of us?

During the last seven months I have:

  1. Screamed instructions to people on my TV to go to hell and assorted other hopefully uncomfortable places
  2. listened quietly while a cigar smoking friend explained why masks are unnecessary
  3. I cried when the election was finally over
  4. Talked with myself in assorted voices
  5. Made up songs to sing while cooking, showering, etc.
  6. Laughed way more than usual, sometimes under inappropriate circumstances
  7. Lost my patient demeanor when coaching someone
  8. Sworn more than usual
  9. Many other infrequent, but odd responses to my world.

All of these responses have been uncharacteristic ways of behaving for me.  What’s going on?  Why are there times when I seem to be behaving badly or emotionally? Why do I feel disinterested at times?  How about you?  How about everyone else in the world?

There are all kinds of explanations for what’s happening.  Some are simple, some are complex.  Here’s a way to think about it all that makes sense to me and might be useful to you.

Most of us are grieving.  We have lost activities, events, opportunities, people, predictable environments, and more.  No date nights, no state fairs, no vacation travel, a friend or family member who is out of communication or, worse, passed away, and the unpredictability of more people in your living space more of the time.  Even when we don’t recognize it in ourselves, we still grieve; we suffer the losses. Read that again:  we suffer losses.  And, we have been inundated.  These losses have occurred quickly, in rapid succession, and it often seems as if there will be no end.

It seems there will be no end.  We are living in a state of unpredictability.  Not only are we unable to see an end, we often deal with completely unexpected events multiple times a day.  The lack of consistency of events is unwelcome and unnerving for most people.  It is aversive for most people.  There are some people who thrive on unpredictability, and they are few and far apart.  For most of us the illusion of control is destroyed; and it is one more thing to grieve.

The loss of important people, places, and things and the perceived loss of control are punishing.  We are living with ever-present punishment; we are living in an environment that is aversive, much more aversive than normal. Our rhythm of life is disrupted by all the things we would normally do that we cannot do now. Those daily and cyclically missed events result in further grieving.  The result is we are experiencing trauma.  Trauma causes physical changes. It can make us chronically prone to more physical illness, behavioral disorders, and mood fluctuations.

Living with unresolved trauma creates many opportunities to be re-traumatized. Every new lost opportunity, lost relationship, bad news report, etc. causes us to be traumatized again and again.  Have any (or all) of your relationships become challenging? Consider that’s what happens when people suffering from trauma attempt to interact. And when those relationships don’t go as planned or hoped, that’s another traumatic event.

There is even more going on than I have described, but this is enough for us all to understand what it is that people, every person is confronting.  Some people will report how life sucks these days; others will try to shake it off.  Most of us will behave in ways that are not characteristic of our better selves.  Of course, there are some folks will not be affected by all of this change and we can rely on them to be our anchors as we move through these times.

As I looked across my life the past few days, I realize how deeply affected I have been even though my circumstances are changed very little.  I can only imagine what it must be like for people whose circumstances are significantly more unfriendly.  What can make a difference for people under these circumstances?  Here are several things I am doing that might help:

  1. Create new routines that work within the new parameters of living.  Find new hobbies and past times. Create events to enjoy the people who are in your immediate environment.  Move past grieving what’s gone and move on to building what works now.  I have been doing more work in the garden planting flowers, trimming shrubs, fixing lighting, et al.
  2. Reconcile yourself to the unpredictability of life.  It was unpredictable before and it will continue to be unpredictable.  The principal difference between then and now is that there are more disruptions now.  In addition, as victims of trauma, we experience those disruptions as more severe, and some of them are.  Allow yourself time to handle the disruptions that warrant your intervention and let go of the others.  Pay attention to where you give your time and don’t throw any of it away.  I have been managing mealtimes, sticking with a specific work schedule, holding cigar events in the backyard, and letting go of those little annoying things that I used to make a point of addressing.
  3. Talk with others about what’s happening in your life and how those experiences are affecting you.  Trauma can be mitigated by communicating with people who are empathetic and compassionate.  I have had many conversations with people who just need to talk it out.  I’ve found conversations I’m having with my closest friends occur more often and include sharing personal experiences that had left me feeling unsatisfied.  After every conversation I have had a sense of relief like a burden has been lifted.

I hope this message provides you with some tools for escaping some of the trauma that has come with the pandemic and building life experiences that nourish you.  If you think it will help others to read this message, then share it freely.

Dr. Amado has worked with Mains’l over the years as an organizational development consultant; Allison Bohlke, Wellness Senior Manager, leads the behavior, mental health, and nursing supports offered by Mains’l.

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