Spiritual Reflections

Stress, Grief, and Gratitude: Lessons from the Pandemic

The pandemic has reminded us that we are in the hands of a God who loves us, with less control than we imagine.

When the spread of the Covid-19 virus showed us that it was truly a world-wide pandemic, and that there would be many outcomes including long stretches of isolation, many people predicted that there would be an increase in emotional problems. These predictions came true. 

As a few weeks of isolation turned into months, our level of concern and our experience of stress began to grow. Surveys administered before and after the pandemic have shown major increases in the number of U.S. adults who report symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia (Mayo Clinic Newsletter, Nov. 2021). Adults reporting symptoms of anxiety and depression increased from 10% to about 40%, when data was compared to an earlier time period (Pancha, N., Kamal, R., Cox, C., & Garfield, R., 2021). Those who already manifested emotional or substance abuse problems indicated an increase in the severity of symptoms. 

Although change can often be a cause of stress, certain kinds of change are particularly stressful. Changes which are chosen, expected, and which have predictable, time-bound outcomes are not very stressful. The pandemic violated these qualities that make change bearable. In particular, the pandemic was unexpected, and has remained quite unpredictable. 

Epidemiologists had warned of the potential for widespread epidemics; the world had already experienced SARS, swine flu, Ebola, MERS, and other viral attacks. However, for those of us in the Western world, those occurrences were limited, and often focused in other parts of the world. The idea that health care systems in developed countries could be overrun by the rapid spread of the virus was certainly not expected. This was a once-in-a-lifetime, once in a century event. 

Stress is the feeling that we are unable to deal with the circumstances or challenges we face. We feel stressed because we do not believe we have the resources to do what we need to do. The unexpected nature of the pandemic and the lack of a time frame contributed to anxiety. The first level of concern dealt with fear of getting the virus, or having loved ones get it. This would be simple fear if we knew exactly what to do, if the steps were clear. 

Strategies were suggested; isolation and separation clearly would mitigate the danger. But the unknown end date changed a natural fear into an anxiety-provoking situation. How long would this virus run out of control? The development and production of vaccinations constituted an additional clear step. However, vaccinations, masking, and other steps to protect or lessen the damage became controversial, increasing the sense that there were no clear answers. Again, uncertainty! 

Besides the stressors I have mentioned leading to anxiety and depression, we found we were dealing with grief. The most basic grief was the loss of loved ones to the virus, and the inability to see loved ones, especially those confined to hospitals with severe illness. But there were other losses. We lost experiences we cannot regain: a niece’s first birthday, a graduation, family Christmas dinners, etc. We had a feeling that things were likely to be different in the future in ways we could not predict. 

We lost many of the ways with which we had coped with stress before. Getting out, having a sense of place, of neighborhood and town, having the ability to see friends in person – these, our usual means of coping, have frequently been unavailable; this has taken a toll on our emotional health. Are there new ways we have developed to cope with stress? 

Much has been written about how to cope with grief. Grief is not the same as having emotional problems though it can exacerbate them. Loss is loss, and perhaps is best dealt with by naming and living the experience. Sometimes our strategies are basically distractions.

We need to feel what we are feeling now, rather than avoiding what we are feeling now, or worrying about our future with this feeling. 

Some deep semi-conscious self-talk makes grief harder to bear: “This shouldn’t happen to me;” “I can’t cope with this;” or “This takes away my identity.” Such ideas need to be faced directly; we may find them irrational, and unhelpful. 

Deep grief does not go away; a friend once said to me: “It is like a hole in our heart. It never goes away, but we get used to it.” On the other hand, I once heard that the only cure for grief is to learn something. That seems to me to be a way to accept where we are, and to be present to something real, where we are. 

The other antidote for grief is gratitude – to remember with gratitude what we did have, and what we have now. What have we learned through this pandemic about what is important in life? What have we learned about our weaknesses and our strengths? Have we remembered the idea that humans make plans and God laughs? Are we more aware of the limits of our ability to control? 

Has the pandemic helped us to remember what is really important to us? Perhaps it has taught us that we can deal with, and sometimes even thrive in, situations of great difficulty. The pandemic taught us to treasure relationships more deeply, and to enjoy more sincerely the everyday connections we have – with the mailman, the neighbor, and friends. 

The pandemic has reminded us that we are in the hands of a God who loves us, with less control than we imagine. It has taught us to grieve our griefs, remember the gifts they point to, and make gratitude in our lives more palpable, more central, and more widely shared. 


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