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Surviving the Collective Trauma of COVID-19 While We're Apart

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I’ve been hesitating on writing about this for a while, but I’ve been thinking about this collective traumatic experience we are going through as the COVID-19 pandemic ensues. News articles and live streams of press conference briefings from state officials sit heavy with me as I lay in my bed in the morning, worrying about the new-to humans virus that causes respiratory infection and can lead to serious or fatal health complications. It feels like big waves are coming and we’re in the middle of the ocean and the only floaters we have are each other. If we all hold onto each other tightly enough, maybe we will get through this. Yet, we are standing six feet apart and the gloom of each day seems to fill the spaces between us.

My brother had to move back home from his dorm because his university asked all students to return home if they had a safe and secure place to go. He was telling me about the grief he was experiencing. He didn’t name it as grief but told me about how much he missed his friends, how upset he was that he couldn’t finish his first year at his dorm, and how this was supposed to be different. His frustrations sat within the folds of his face. His first year was pretty much over, with the exception of the online classes still being facilitated. The memories he had hope to make, the events he had hoped to go to — all of it was no longer possible.

His experience is a shared one, with universities all over the nation closing their doors and moving to online distance learning. It may not seem important to some, but for a lot of students, this has caused a disruption in their mental health. A lot of international students I know are experiencing a lot of uncertainty as they are away from their families and need to plan the remaining months of their student visas. The class of 2020 is about to enter a troubling workforce. We may not name it as grief, but there have been so many losses and predicted losses because of COVID-19.

In therapy, they say that trauma is something that happens too fast, too much and too soon. The trauma and grief we all are collectively experiencing are putting us through depths of emotion that can be too big for us to hold. I want to scream at something, whatever was the cause of all this, but I can’t because I don’t know what the origin was. Even if I did, it wouldn’t change the way things are unraveling. The way people are coping.

No one I know has ever lived through a pandemic. We are all trying to make a new normal out of this. I’m thinking about the people with mental health conditions who are being forced to isolate, how separate from the world they must feel. I’m thinking about our senior neighbors in their nursing homes, unable to see any family or friends or connect with the outside world. I’m thinking of the grocery store employees who are now deemed as “essential workers,” how they are putting their health on the line day in, day out after being criticized for wanting a livable minimum wage.

I’m thinking of hospital workers from the janitorial teams to the nursing assistants, nurses, doctors, specialists, therapists — all the people who make up a healthcare team. I’m thinking about how their bodies are coping with this stress, and if they’re getting a chance to breathe amidst the chaos. I’m thinking about the people who are being laid off from work and how they are managing to support their families or pay the bills. I’m thinking about the grief of the people who are losing their loved ones, and how they cannot hold them tightly, squeeze their hand or say a prayer beside them. A lot of people are on my mind, a lot of people I have never met, but who I know are also struggling.

And in the middle of this whole thing, I’m reminded by the love that is growing in our community. Educators have made their curriculum all virtual in a matter of weeks. Restaurants have opened their kitchens to students to receive free lunches. Community funds are being created to address the desperate needs of undocumented families, struggling artists, and individuals who need healthcare but cannot afford it.

I’m thinking about the random acts of kindness that are making ripples of waves too. The thunderous claps of hundreds of people in Italy as they applaud their frontline workers. I’m thinking about the researchers in labs trying to find viable treatment options for COVID-19. I’m thinking of the crafters at home who are now sewing and donating masks for healthcare workers all over the nation.

I’m thinking about the lessons I hope we will learn from this; how universal affordable healthcare is a must, how creating accessible and equitable ways of doing work (like working from home) has always been possible had corporations just put together the means. I’m thinking about the people who have been working day in and day out to the point of burnout, but are now being asked to stay home — they are finally being able to experience restful days.

There are silver linings in this, even if they are hard to catch. They don’t erase the trauma, the pain, or the grief we are feeling, but they do cast a light that hopefully brings us some warmth.

We are standing six feet apart, but maybe we are also learning to stand up for one another too. Take care of yourself, friends, and if you have the means, take care of those around you too.

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Photo provided by contributor.

Originally published: April 6, 2020
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