First of two connected articles

By Dr. Betsy Stone

The announcement of COVID vaccines should have been cause for celebration and relief. It was the first sign that we might actually beat this virus, come out of our homes, regain social contacts and rebuild the economy. That Jewish institutions might survive this endless crisis, and that our country might turn the corner. It should have made us all happy, hopeful, optimistic.

What I’m seeing and feeling is actually quite different. While some of us are relieved and anticipating a return to a more open life, I think that many have slipped deeper into sorrow. Whether it is because of the darkness and cold of winter, the increasing death toll, the realization that 2021 will be a continuation of 2020, the ongoing political chaos and inaction, the pain of loneliness, or all of the above, what I’m seeing and hearing is a community that is more troubled and more worried. It’s as though the light at the end of the tunnel is simply too far off, too unreliable. Grief unites us in increased hopelessness.

We are also approaching the one-year anniversary of COVID. It “should” be time for the unveiling, a way in which we mark time from the sharp pain of loss to an understanding of the permanence of death. Our grief resurges, accentuating the passage of time and status. Therapists know about anniversary reactions, our bodies’ way of reminding us that once, in this season, bad things happened. We know grief in our kishkes, even when we don’t know it in our heads.

If adults are experiencing this level of grief, how much more so for our children? If we have learned that our government can’t help us or protect us, what do our teens and young adults now KNOW about their futures?

I am worried about our kids. Not about their education, although that matters a lot. I am more worried about their emotional lives, about the feelings that roil around in them. I am worried about what they have seen as their parents lose faith in government and community. I am worried that our grief makes it more and more difficult to make attachments, whether to other people or to organizations. I am worried that we will try to “return” to our previous lives without mourning this time, what we’ve lost and what we’ve learned.

For many of us, leaving our homes and returning to communal spaces will be enormously difficult. It’s harder to regain trust that’s lost than it is to trust innocently. We’ve lost trust in our society, in our trains and planes and grocery stores and – most importantly – other people. Rebuilding that trust will take work on many levels. Work between individuals, work within organizations, work across society. And we’ve got to begin thinking about it NOW.

Trauma-Informed Care teaches us that we cannot simply put the past behind us. That’s wishful thinking. We need to re-enter the world in intentional, conscious ways. Our institutions must plan for gentle entry, for processing time, for inefficiency and tears. For intense separation anxiety, from both parents and children.

The five basic principles of Trauma-Informed Care are

SAFETY

CHOICE

COLLABORATION

TRUSTWORTHINESS

EMPOWERMENT

As I look at these principles, I recall that I wrote an eJP article on them at the beginning of COVID. (See: http://ejpprod.wpengine.com/trauma-and-covid-19/.) While these principles could inform our work in April, we need them even more now, as we enter this next stage of COVID. How are you providing opportunities for individuals to process what we’ve lived through, our losses, our sorrows? What is your institution creating to comfort people? To make them feel safe?

Each step of COVID-19 has brought trauma to us. We have learned new behaviors – masks, Instacart, hobbies. We have spent 2020 adapting and readapting. It’s been exhausting. We are worn, our clergy is worn, our Jewish professionals are worn. I often describe resilience as a rubber band. It returns to its original shape after we stretch it, but repeated or continuous stretching decreases the elasticity. After a long stretch, it cannot recover its original shape. We have been changed, deeply and permanently, in ways we cannot yet articulate.

There is trauma in the potential release from this nightmare. The trauma of visiting graves, of return to public spaces. The trauma of re-establishing relationships and of new habits. The trauma of empty chairs. We know that the risk of suicide increases as people begin to feel a bit better from deep depression. Will we see a surge of increased depression, suicidal thoughts?

And we’ve learned important lessons. Who are our true friends? Some relationships have deepened and some sidelined. Kids have gotten closer to their siblings and parents. Some of our kids are happier in virtual school. Families have been strengthened and families have been torn apart.

So what is next? I hope we can be actively intentional in the ways we reopen. Camps will not simply be places of joy, but also places of loss. Our kids will return to camps, schools, synagogues changed. We will all be processing this horrible year for the rest of our lives, inevitably altered. My next eJP article will outline some ideas for how we might approach the coming year. Any reopening MUST include an awareness that we are not the same people we were. The ground hasn’t been solid for a year. It’s not going to be solid again soon. And, even then, it will be new and different ground.

Betsy S. Stone, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist who currently teaches as an adjunct lecturer at HUC-JIR. Her classes include Human Development for Educators, The Spiritual Life-Cycle, Adolescent Development and Teens In and Out of Crisis. She is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.

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