Sometime in the middle of March, life stopped. Students stayed home from school after spring break ended; businesses closed, sending workers to offices in the basement in their homes; plays got cancelled, the NCAA went from the hottest thing to talk about in March to basketball with no fans to, finally, no competition what so ever; restaurants emptied and toilet paper flew off the shelves.
Whether you are a high school senior missing your graduation and wondering what your freshman year in college might look like now that we can’t hug or shake hands, or a senior-senior thinking about retiring, putting off that leave date and wondering when you will have that opportunity—or the finances—to transition from the workforce to leisure, we all have been impacted by this sudden and dramatic life changing event called the pandemic.
Daily we receive newsfeeds telling us about the increasing numbers of sick people and unemployed, those hospitalized and those in line for food. We see the impact on our country and on the world. What we often struggle with, however, is what we DON’T see, the non-events. How do we deal with the missed graduation, the cancelled trip, the lost visit from grandchildren, or the empty Seder table or Easter Egg hunt? We need a process for coping and a structure for learning in order to grow through these losses. Most of us will not lose someone to the virus, thank G-d, but all of us will lose something important during these months of social distancing, business and school closures and the financial downturn.
In order to navigate through these difficult non-event transitions, we need to make them real by naming them. We need to develop the hope that we can get through them to a better place on the other side and believe that growth is possible. In the following paragraphs, we’ll explore the process of turning these challenging times into growth opportunities by understanding these non-events, and learning critical coping strategies.
First, we need to take a look at what we are missing and come to a better understanding of what these non-events mean to us. There are all kinds of non-events:
1. In this pandemic shut down, the most common type of non-events tend to be personal. We might become aware that we lost something that we aspired to, hoped for or worked towards. Non-events might include cancelled graduations, trips, or an elective surgery.
2. A second type of non-event, which can interact with the first, is more relational. When we think about cancelled weddings, family visits or reunions, or unattended funerals, we are letting go of relational non-events.
3. Many of us are also dealing with career non-events: a job offer that was retracted, a promotion missed, a retirement postponed, or job search after graduation that disappeared. These non-events are different from the actual event of being laid off or furloughed, which are concrete and clearly understandable. The career opportunities that don’t materialize are much more confusing.
4. Equally unstructured is the loss of routine. We are used to going into the office every day, and now go into our home study; we used to get a Starbucks every morning, and now we use our Keurig; we used to go to yoga on Wednesdays, and now we turn on Zoom. Our loss of routine may seem insignificant, but can be disturbing and lonely, nonetheless.
5. The non-events that leave us feeling hopeless are the hardest to deal with and have the greatest impact on us. We despair when we feel like our lives have changed forever: I’ll never get a job again; I’ll never be able to say good-bye to my classmates; or the restaurant will never re-open. Hopelessness is often in our own mind, but nevertheless, the feeling of despair makes managing the non-event more challenging.
As we acknowledge that our life has clearly been interrupted, how do we cope with these disruptions, and, hopefully, turn them into learning experiences?
1. With a sense of control we tend to feel better, even if we only have control over a small part of the process. When I took control of my routine by getting up and going for a walk first thing in the morning, I felt better. When a friend figured out how to use zoom, she not only felt less isolated, but she realized that she could still be grandma to her grandkids.
2. Managing the social isolation while connecting to others can be one of the most powerful ways of coping. A support system that provides feedback, affirmation, resources and simply a form of connection makes all of this distancing so much easier. We all are finding new and creative ways to connect during this pandemic, like, Zoom meetings and classes, birthday party parades, streaming religious services, FaceTime calls with friends, and YouTube humorous videos.
3. Acknowledging and naming the challenges that you are facing makes a huge difference. I encourage you to reach out to someone, at home or on the phone, and tell them the story of your non-event: talk about what happened (or didn’t happen)—without blame. Who and what are you missing? What do you feel about this change in your life? Share what the non-event meant to you: What are you losing?—privacy, freedom, identity, sense of competence or independence?
4. Next, let yourself grieve. Journaling is a great way to express your grief, in all of its evolving aspects. You might start out with denial (“This pandemic will be no big deal.”). Later, you might try bargaining (“Maybe if I wear a mask I can go shopping with a friend.”). Soon, you might be aware of your sadness (“I’ve lost the ability to earn money.”) Finally, when you face your grief head on and acknowledge what you have lost, you will be able to come to some level of acceptance.
5. By refocusing your energy someplace where you can have some control and impact, you can experience a sense of accomplishment. For instance, you might design your own graduation ritual, plan a Zoom family reunion, or create an art project demonstrating your non-event.
6. Likewise, reshaping allows you to create a new future by dreaming a new way of being. You can take back the things you love about your “past” life and create something for the future that holds those values. For example, you might discover that you loved the part of your server job in the restaurant that included interacting with colleagues, but you now know that you prefer an office job with more stability. Take time to image what that new combination might look like for you.
7. Find self-compassion. Being where you are today is not your fault. There is no shame in being laid off, struggling to manage your children, or wishing you could go to Starbucks. There are lots of people in your same position. Your struggles are normal.
8. Find meaning. You can do this in all sorts of ways: focus on religion or spiritually; bask in moments of joy; give back to others; find your flow; create a gratitude list. Research shows that gratitude not only makes you FEEL better emotionally, but your physiology also changes—all for the better.
9. Learn how to manage your stress, which is always important. Take deep breaths; exercise; carve out worry time and limit your worries to a half hour a day, and write them down; find one thing you can do to move your life forward; vent; listen to music and dance; and even let yourself have some comfort food. Any or all of these techniques will help you manage the stress you are experiencing.
The bottom line: it is the journey not the destination. We might think we have to be some place, but if there is anything that this pandemic has taught me, it is: no, I don’t have to be some place other than where I am right now. This journey may be inconvenient, it may be painful at times, or even scary, but… it is all that we have. The only thing that we can really change is our attitude: to work WITH what is, instead of against it.
It is important to remember two things: we all are doing the best we can with what we have; and, facing our fears allows them to dissipate.
What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Now might be the best time to explore this question. Grasping our interrupted life and making it into the life we desire is the gift of the season. In Chinese, the same word is used for both crisis and opportunity. Now is your opportunity.
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Dr. Eloise Stiglitz, PhD is a licensed psychologist. Her passion is helping people through challenging transitions, whether it includes a crisis like a divorce, death, move or career shift, or a personal evolution centered around sexuality, spirituality or disability. She works with seniors, helping them through their difficult times, young adults creating their sense of self, as well as all those in between struggling with the many life challenges that we all face. Her specialties include women’s issues, depression and anxiety, substance abuse and addictions, sexuality, grief and relationship concerns.
Eloise believes that the therapy relationship is a powerful healing tool, empowering people to make the desired changes in their lives. Her eclectic therapy style integrates cognitive-behavior, Neuro-linguistic programming, and solution-oriented interventions with a relational-developmental, client-centered perspective. More importantly, she connects with her clients through intensive and caring listening, truly open-hearted support and a delightful sense of humor.