Finding Meaning in a Pandemic

May 13, 2020
Finding Meaning in a Pandemic

We will remember this as one of the weirdest times of our lives.

People are experiencing diverse outcomes and consequences that will continue to take shape, post-pandemic. In no way do I want to dismiss or positively frame the hardships or loss that has taken place here. I do think there is a conversation to be had about how this crisis has wreaked havoc on society and possibly, taught us all something about ourselves and one another that we can thoughtfully discuss. Both, perhaps, can be true.

In March, I traveled to New York for what was supposed to be a work trip to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Last-minute, the convening was canceled.

When I returned home, I had a sore throat that progressed into difficulty breathing. I visited the doctor to learn that I developed pneumonia, which was a known symptom of Coronavirus.

My doctor inquired about local COVID testing. We were informed that I was not eligible for testing due to a lack of fever and severe respiratory distress. I was sent home with an inhaler, antibiotics, and quarantine instructions for my partner and me.

Days later, I was furloughed from my job, my college graduation was postponed and the market tanked.

I found myself isolated, unemployed, deeply unmotivated, and scared for the future.

As a result, I began to feel depressed and anxious. I reached out for my typical coping mechanisms for support. When nothing seemed to do the trick, I gave my therapist a ring and she helped me identify the culprit… grief.

Grief is a normal response to loss. As soon as I knew I was grieving, I relaxed into it. Grief and I are old friends, we go back. I can relate the feeling to how I feel when catching up with someone I am close to, but we haven’t spoken with in a while- overwhelmed at first and then comfortably myself.

I anticipated the waves of grief to come and go through its stages: 1. Denial and isolation; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Depression; 5. Acceptance. But, what I didn’t expect was this new feeling… that I would find meaning, deep self-reflection, more connection with loved ones, and renewed creativity in my life, too. I recalled a book I had heard of, David Kessler’s The Sixth Stage of Grief. Kessler, an expert on grief, says in his book that this once absent stage, to find meaning, allows us to transform the grief experience into a more peaceful and hopeful one.

I wondered if I was delusional, trying to make sense of something that didn’t make sense, or if others could relate. My friends and family to my surprise, could relate to the outcomes I had seemingly experienced. They too, were feeling the grief and anxiety, as well as, a fresh and revived outlook on their own life.

This had me thinking…

Is it possible that this pandemic is producing both chaos and clarity?

I investigated further by conducting a qualitative open-ended public survey. From that survey, I received 53 responses and eight themes emerged.

Eight Shared Experiences Amid COVID-19:

1. Hoping for the future

Out of the 53 people surveyed, 83% reported that they had hope for the future. Social media is bursting with individuals donating or sewing masks. People are rallying for causes to support others during this time. All in all, no one is excluded from this virus, and there is a refreshed sense of interconnectedness and neighborly love taking place in the world amidst COVID. We have been forced to step outside of our individualistic thinking and enter into a world of collective action. In the end, we’re seeing a lot of positive stories, kindness, and hope for mankind as a result.

2. Connecting with loved ones

While we are all “stuck at home”, we have more time to spend with our loved ones and connect with people. Families are spending endless quality time together. Some are connecting with people virtually more often and even re-connecting with people they haven’t made time to communicate within years. Our pets and kids are winning in this stay at home scenario, and we’re not mad about it. It’s not just the increase in conversation that’s noticeable, but the quality of those conversations to fill each other’s cup. We’re putting ourselves out there, because we realize we need one another.

3. Rising fear, anxiety, depression & uncertainty

These are uncertain times: fear, anxiety, and depression is on the rise. We are scared for our family members, the economy, and overall on edge. Grocery stores are empty, businesses are closed and we are feeling it. We miss being able to plan on anything and some are having to reschedule big life events. If we were having a hard time before the pandemic, it’s heightened now. Overall, we are feeling unmotivated at times and extra funky. In a world where we didn’t embrace the importance of mental health before, how will we address this now and after?

4. Prioritizing self-care

With all this free time, heightened anxiety, and our homes converting into offices, many are turning to self-care. Whether that’s a fitness routine, cooking at home, meditation, or a routine sleep schedule, people are getting proactive about their overall health and wellness in a chaotic time. For some this is a new habit and for others it has become that much easier to manage their wellbeing with this new pace of life.

5. Finding gratitude for the “normal” and “simple”

Forget famous, let’s shoot for normal. In quite a few responses, people reflected on their tendency to take for granted their “normal” reality and a new sense of appreciation for what they had before. It seems most people are no longer longing for fame and fortune in this time, but are turning in to reflect on the importance of gratitude, normalcy, and quality of life. Nature has suddenly become a rising star in this narrative, too. We’re all embracing the great outdoors a little more now and it’s natural, effortless beauty. We’re missing national parks, the ocean, and travel, but we are taking what we can get, when we can. For those with an interest in environmental sustainability, we are rejoicing as mother earth heals from the damage we have made.

6. Experiencing professional and financial hardship

Loss of income, job security, furloughs, and investments- ouch.

This was one of the most popular themes. People are feeling it in their pockets, which is creating more anxiety and their sense of self along with it. For some the consequences have been more grave than others. Seniors are nervous about graduating into a recession. Those who were up for promotion feel defeated and resentful. New homeowners are having serious buyers remorse. Ultimately, people are grieving their titles, roles, and paychecks, as well as finding new ways to get fulfillment and enjoyment from life without spending money.

7. Taking up creative projects and hobbies

Most of us are broke and stuck at home, but boredom is just an illusion of what’s available. Creativity is sparking inside of us- coloring, gardening, rollerblading, biking, hiking, virtual social events, writing, learning, cooking, reading, nature walks, innovative activism, and more. People are diving deep into their creative sides and renewing their commitment to doing things for the joy of it.

8. Slowing the f*ck down

Last, but not least, with an unknown expiration date everyone is waiting like a duck in a calm pond. Life just got way slower and some people are breathing easier at this pace. Sure, it’s a bummer we can’t make plans and go wherever we’d like, but with limitations do come freedoms- the freedom of no longer overburdening our days and giving ourselves a chance to breathe, time to reflect and even enjoy life a little more, with less.

It turns out, I’m not alone. There is an overwhelming amount of grief, confusion, and uncertainty, as well as a rich shared experience of learning and finding meaning in crisis. We are all hoping for a quick end to this disaster and I’m thinking that maybe we will have learned something from it to be grateful for.

From this experience, I find myself asking, “what do I want my ‘new normal’ to look like”?

Maybe you will explore this question, too.

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