Restoring identity, connection, meaning and peace in a time of loss and uncertainty
So many of us are struggling right now. As a pediatric occupational therapist and mother, I have witnessed so much pain and so many new challenges that have come about as a result of this pandemic- in myself, my children, in family, friends and their children, in my clients and their caregivers, in strangers and victims and heroes.
Most people are experiencing the effects of this pandemic on some level, due to the sense of loss and uncertainty that come from being surrounded by a credible and unpredictable threat. We are experiencing loss of loved ones, our sense of safety, our freedom, and of the roles, habits and routines that have come to ground and define us.
If that weren’t enough, the type of threat dictated by our current circumstances is requiring us to go against our very nature and many of the protective mechanisms we have relied upon in the face of danger.
We are more vulnerable, and while our bodies are primed to fight or flee this very real threat, those who are quarantined are forced to stay put and freeze, to wait with little opportunity for action, to figuratively (and sometimes quite literally) pace within a confined area.
We are fiercely protective of our loved ones, and yet those on the frontlines are tirelessly and bravely helping others, while at the same time working to keep a distance from those they love the most in order to keep them safe.
We have been given a tremendous gift of adaptability, and yet we don’t yet quite know what we are adapting to in our evolving new normal.
This has left so many of us feeling helpless and powerless, especially those of us who are already dealing with chronic illness, disability, mental illness, loneliness, trauma, and poverty.
Life itself, without an ongoing global pandemic, is uncertain and ever-changing. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said, “Life is like stepping into a boat that is about to sail out to sea and sink.” We know we are on a sinking ship, and that our life has a time limit, but we set sail anyway. This takes such courage and strength, and yet we do it, day after day. We navigate our sinking ships by engaging in all the tasks needed to care for it, by enjoying the incredible scenery, relaxing over calm waters, holding the course through storms, making plans for new destinations, changing course when needed, and by recruiting a strong crew to help us, especially when the ship begins to form new leaks or needs special repair.
As humans, we are hardwired and driven to connect with others, to respond and adapt to change, to engage in meaningful occupations, and to set and meet goals, all within a complex and interconnected environment. We do all of this not only to survive, but also to find purpose and autonomy, to belong to something bigger than ourselves, to live in accordance with our values, and to experience the finite and unique gift of human life, all of which are factors that research has found to contribute to the quality of our lives, a term called eudemonic well-being.
In my profession, we view humans as occupational beings, which means that our health, identity and wellness are shaped by our ability to engage in meaningful and purposeful activities that occupy our time, i.e., occupations, and in the roles, habits and routines that support them. Reflecting on survival in brutal living conditions in the Nazi concentration camps, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl said, “those who knew there was a task waiting for them to fulfill were most apt to survive.” Research has shown us that when people are deprived of engagement in occupations, health and wellness decline. Indeed, prisons are designed to deprive individuals of occupational engagement as a primary form of punishment.
Conversely, when people are able to engage in meaningful occupations, wellness and health increase. Our very identity is shaped by what we do; one of the most common social questions when meeting a new person is to ask what the person does for a living, and when talking to a familiar person, to ask what the person has done that day. However, the benefits of health-giving occupations go far beyond the simple doing of activities; they involve a complex interaction of social, environmental, physical, and emotional factors, and a sense of life and occupational balance.
This is the part that is so challenging in our current situation, where the comfort and richness of familiar context has been snatched out from under us, and the balance upset.
For example, consider the new virtual learning context for school…while educators and administrators have done astonishing, brilliant work at creating a new alternative, it is not the same occupation. In a virtual learning context, children may not have access to materials and resources for hands on interaction and organization that support all learning styles, they may not have the opportunity for laughter with a friend during a walk to the cafeteria, to ask peers for help, to comfort a friend in need, to learn in a safe and non-violent setting, to work interactively with others, to make choices or compromises related to assignments, and to experience all of the spontaneously amazing opportunities for learning and interaction that arise when teachers and students are placed in the same scheduled and structured physical environment. While children have not necessarily lost the occupation of going to school, they have lost so many of the factors and routines that gave that occupation meaning, value, and enjoyment.
In addition, many people are coping with a loss in occupational balance. For example, people who were previously active in their communities and social networks may have too few occupations to engage in, which can result in a decrease in agency and sense of purpose; working parents who are simultaneously helping children with schoolwork and running a household may be overwhelmed with too many occupations. Our pace may have changed, and may now be slower or faster than what it once was.
So how do we cope with these losses in the face of growing uncertainty?
- We can take comfort in the fact that it is our nature as humans to adapt. Change can be sudden, but adaptation can take time. People are already doing absolutely amazing things in the name of humanity, science and ingenuity.
- We can recognize our loss in all its forms, and allow ourselves to feel the pain these losses have caused. We can help our children to name their feelings and identify the reasons. We can reassure ourselves and our children that these feelings are impermanent and will not last forever, and that even the biggest storms cause new growth.
- We can ask for and seek help if we need it. Schools have done an incredible job with offering free breakfast and lunch, and many service-based providers are offering free virtual programs and resources to promote and support mental and physical health.
- We can work to create new habits, roles and routines that increase our meaning and connection with others, and adapt to current and future barriers.
- We can use the ____ AND _____ method to build positive experiences; this is a method that pairs a negative event with a positive opportunity. For example, I am exhausted because I am working and my kids are having daily meltdowns and not doing their work, AND I am grateful because I am able to be here with them and help them through it, and show them that I am struggling too.
- We can remember that no matter the circumstance, we can always choose to respond with love, support, empathy, compassion and gratitude. Reach out to others. Celebrate the heroic and selfless acts of others. Check on your friends and family. Share your struggles, laugh about them when you can.
- Finally, we can take comfort that every single one of us belongs to a species that makes the decision to sail out on a ship that is already sinking, just for the adventure.
Stay safe and keep sailing,
Ms. Monica, AKA, Dr. Jackman, AKA Mom
The image for this post is a photo of my son, who sat down and made cards to put on all the neighbors' mailboxes a couple of weeks ago, because he wanted to do something to help:)