Responding to

“Don’t believe every worried thought you have.
Worried thoughts are notoriously inaccurate.”

Renee Jain
When we think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, we typically think of a natural disaster like an earthquake or tornado, or military combat, or some type of physical assault or abuse, or an accident. But experts contend that the pandemic will create its own PTSD that some of us will experience to some degree. Whether or not we, or people to whom we're close, have had COVID-19, the collective trauma we've experienced is enough to trigger residual anxiety that many people will feel for some time.

Not everyone develops full-blown PTSD after a traumatic event. The National Institute of Mental Health writes that, while most but not all individuals who've experienced a traumatic event experience short term symptoms, very few individuals will develop the chronic anxiety disorder that is the basis of a PTSD diagnosis. The important thing is to acknowledge what we're feeling and not try to minimize it or pretend the feelings don't exist.

So what do we do to alleviate the anxiety that many of us will carry long after the pandemic ends? One of the most important things we can do is talk with others about what we're feeling.

Diane E. Meier, director of the Center to Advance Palliative Care, which is part of New York City's Mount Sinai Hospital, offers some thoughts. “If ever we needed to be reminded of how important human connection and support is for people . . . this pandemic has made the point very, very clearly.”

Dr. Meier points out that there are many "shadow pandemics," as she describes them, that have occurred simultaneously during the pandemic. One in particular is the roughly ten people who are grieving for every person who has died from COVID. That’s more than five million people. She believes that our collective grief will be with us long after we get the virus under control. "Our current president has worked hard to begin to address that through the ritual ceremonies to remember the dead and honor them, and he has talked a lot about his own losses, to normalize talking about losses and how they’re with you every day. That’s important. We need other people to do it too."

Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist, suggests there’s no hierarchy of grief. "When we rank our losses, when we validate some and minimize others, many people are left alone to grieve what then become their silent losses. It’s hard to talk about these silent losses because we fear that other people will find them insignificant and either dismiss them or expect us to “get over them” relatively quickly." It doesn't work that way.

Right now, in addition to the loss of life and health and jobs are countless other losses - missed graduations and proms, canceled sports seasons and performances, postponed weddings and vacations, separation from family and friends when we need them most. We've also lost the predictability we came to take for granted, such as eggs and toilet paper on supermarket shelves, getting a haircut, getting our teeth cleaned, or going to a movie.
Dr. Gottlieb suggests the first step to coping with these losses is to simply acknowledge the grief we feel. Grieving requires us to sit with our pain and to feel a kind of sadness that makes many of us so uncomfortable we try to get rid of it. "The more we can say to ourselves and the people around us, “Yes, these are meaningful losses,” the more seen and soothed we will feel."

With COVID-19, Dr. Gottlieb points out, there’s also uncertainty about how long the pandemic will last and what will happen next. That uncertainty can cause us to mourn losses we haven’t even experienced yet. Known as "ambiguous grief," it can leave us in a state of ongoing mourning, so it’s important for us to stay grounded in the present. Instead of ruminating about losses that haven’t actually happened (and may never happen), we can focus our attention and energy on the present. Essentially, we can feel our loss and also feel safe exactly where we are. "We may have lost our sense of normalcy, but we can still stay present for the ordinary right in front of us."

Finally, we need to let people experience loss in their own way. Dr. Gottlieb reminds us that, while loss is universal, the ways in which we grieve are deeply personal. For some, the loss of stability can lead to a profound emotional reckoning with mortality. For others, it leads to cleaning out closets or stress-baking. "Everyone moves through loss in a unique way, so it’s important to let people do their grieving in whatever way works for them."

As the world begins to open back up, it's likely that many of us will be a bit timid about re-engaging in some of the activities we used to enjoy. Going to the theater or a concert, eating in a restaurant, attending a sporting event, all will likely cause a bit of anxiety, at least at first. And we'll probably be hyper-vigilant about news of disease outbreaks around the world. Some of us will likely not be able to avoid looking over our shoulder for the next big disaster for a long time to come. Just remember, it's all normal and it's all part of the healing process.

Just keep doing what you've been doing. Through the combined efforts of staff and volunteers, we can keep the Kitchen Angels community safe and we can help each other heal.

In gratitude for all that you do.
Thank you for your vigilance. We want you to stay safe,
healthy, and informed.