Father Konopka continues his series on managing stress and anxiety
This is Part 7 in an ongoing series of managing stress and anxiety during difficult times.
By Rev. Thomas E. Konopka, LCSW
Something struck me during a retreat I was leading on Zoom for the Dominican Retreat House. The theme was on “What are my losses since March 2020?” My initial thought was that the majority of losses would be from death. As I listened to the losses generated by the group, they were mostly intangible losses. We all were in the grief process, and I was struck by the reality that most of us have not even moved out of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s stage of denial and bargaining. (FYI: Denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and acceptance are the stages.) Another psychologist, John Bowlby, posits the following stages: numbing, yearning and searching, disorganization, and reorganization.
The COVID-19 event of PAUSE happened so quickly that our psychic energy was focused on survival. How would we buy groceries? Would we get some toilet paper? How would the bills get paid? How would school and church happen? The list goes on and on. In reality, we had no time to process the emotional impact of what was happening. We are just beginning to move into an emotional processing of it all. The difficult thing about all this is that we are not on the other side of the pandemic. Since no stage theory is linear (meaning we go from one stage directly into another) but more spiral ( we can be in more than one stage at a time on the same day), I think we are mostly stuck into Kubler Ross’s stages of denial and bargaining or Bowlby’s stage of numbing. Look, for example, at the controversy about wearing a mask. My read of it is this: if I don’t wear a mask or don’t pay attention to social distancing, then I don’t need to accept that the threat of a serious virus exists....in spite of what I hear in the news, etc. In the beginning of dealing with a loss, this denial or numbing was vital to survival. As we “settle into” this new reality, it would be expected that we would move into some of the other stages. For some reason, it seems many of us, if not all of us, are stuck.
It is entirely possible that we are so overwhelmed as a society and as individuals that we are just at the point of naming the losses but not yet able to move to processing them. Another factor that is playing into this is that this crisis is not over. When a person dies, there is a funeral and burial/cremation and a set mourning period. When a marriage ends, there is a process to get to the actual divorce and then rebuilding. In dealing with this pandemic, we are not at the end. There needs to be a certain level of trust and confidence in our world to open up the wound of grief. With this recent upsurge of cases in other parts of our country, it is entirely possible that our societal and individual flight/fight mechanism is being activated, which means we return to more of a survival mode. Safety is a basic human need and one that is vital before we can really process our emotions and reactions.
So, what are the losses with which people are dealing? I asked the permission of the group to share their responses because I think the responses are a microcosm of our world. There were a few people who had lost a loved one or a friend. There were also those who knew someone who had lost a loved one from COVID. Some shared a loss of identity: “I was a volunteer and busy and now I am a vulnerable population and have to stay home.” I was surprised that many were feeling the loss of safety and security: “I realized later that in a country that prided itself on being so advanced and ahead of the rest of the world, a small microscopic thing could stop us in our tracks and we cannot control it.” Many were mourning the ability to be physically close to friends and the desire for a hug and/or human connection. The list is too long to repeat here, but, one loss expressed was the loss of civility. I hear this as a lack of respect for one another and the inability to put the common good ahead of one’s own personal preferences or comforts.
During the second session, I used the hymn, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” as a part of the prayer and the mood was moving to hope (even though we were on Zoom). If we allow God into our pain and struggle, then hope is inevitable. In all the tumult, it is easy to forget this, but as Christians moving through the stages of loss, we are people of hope and people who keep God in the mix.
I would highly recommend that no one wait to start processing their losses from this time until it is over because we do not know when it will be over. Spend time in quiet prayer and bring your feelings before God; journal in the midst of your prayer; pray the Psalms of Lament and the Psalms of Hope; and name what you have lost in the presence of God. Find a good listener (a friend, a spiritual director, a counselor) and work through your losses. We need to do this many times because the losses will keep coming, and change always brings about loss. COVID has not gone away.
Personally, prayer is what has been getting me through all this. Forget that I am a priest and therapist; if there was no God to turn to in all this, I am not who or what I would turn to. I realized that Jesus is always there just waiting for us to turn to him. Take the risk, bring him into your losses and he will hold you in his arms like the Good Shepherd he is. Remember, his eye is on the sparrow: you and me.
Father Thomas Konopka, L.C.S.W., is the director and a therapist on the staff of the diocesan Consultation Center. He is also Pastor of St. Mary's Church, Clinton Heights, and sacramental minister for the parish of St. John the Evangelist and St. Joseph, Rensselaer.