National Review

Coping with our collective trauma

There is hardly a day we pick up our phones without seeing a message about someone dying from COVID, or from some other illness, probably because of their inability to get care due to the strain the pandemic is placing on the healthcare system.

WhatsApp is like the community channel for death announcements and Facebook has become the unofficial obituary online site.

Some families are losing two and three people in the same week.

Many are just overwhelmed, even if they do not personally know individuals who have died – and it’s hard to find anyone like that these days.

Senior physician Dr. Mark Weech said recently that daily deaths in The Bahamas have more than tripled as a result of the worsening COVID-19 situation.

Newspapers are seeing increased business for their obituary sections. Funeral homes are trying to keep up with the demand for their services. A refrigerated trailer has been brought in to hold bodies that are coming in at the Princess Margaret Hospital morgue.

We are clearly facing a national trauma. A pall of death hangs over us, unseen in the lifetime of any Bahamian alive today.

It is all too much!

While scrolling our timeline in recent days and going through countless messages in our various WhatsApp groups, we could not help but feel overwhelmed by it all.

We could not help but to wonder how our people are coping with all of this amidst a spike in COVID cases that is not letting up.

For advice on how to cope, we turned to noted psychiatrist Dr. Nelson Clarke, who suggested several ways to cope:

CONNECTIONS

A difficulty so many people who have lost loved ones face is that they are being robbed of the comfort felt from visiting each other in times of bereavement.

Good burials are a part of our culture and many are not being funeralized in the manner in which we have become accustomed to sending off those we love.

“And so, you’re robbed of the process and you’re robbed of the rituals that help you to adjust to the loss and give you people to mourn with,” Clarke said.

“That’s all taken away, and so a lot of people have what we call complicated grief. It doesn’t go anywhere. It just stays with them and we see that throughout the society.”

Clarke said that while the pandemic means that much of what we do – how we mourn, how we interact – cannot be done in-person, we must do what we can to maintain important connections with those who matter in our lives and those who can help us process all that we are experiencing.

And that does not just go for people who have lost loved ones. It goes for all of us who are traumatized by the experience of watching so much loss play out all around us.

“I think deep down many people are traumatized, still trying to work through it and it’s going to take time. And maybe when things settle down and we get a handle on this pandemic, then maybe it will be a little easier for people to work their way through the grief situation and come to grips with what has happened, process it and then maybe as a community we can go back to being a bit more socially interactive, then maybe it will be easier for us, but right now, it is difficult,” Clarke said.

“I don’t think anybody has all the answers to it except we have got to go back to what helped us in the past when we had grief and we have to do that in the ways that are still open to us, realize that we can’t do that the way that we used to do that.

“We need the social support. We need to be able to communicate with other people. We need to be able to talk. We need to be able to get through this together rather than feeling that we have to do it all on our own.”

We need to continue to reach out to the people who have in the past provided us support, even if we can’t do it face-to-face, he said.

DISCONNECT

While Dr. Clarke recommends staying connected to family and friends who can share the burdens we carry, he said sometimes we just need to disconnect – from WhatsApp, from Facebook, from the evening news with its constant flow of bad news, from the conversations of death and the unending pandemic, and just be still.

Clarke acknowledged that in order to stay connected to those we love, technology is more important than ever, but sometimes, he said, we just need a break from it.

“In terms of individual care, we all have to recognize where our limits are. And so, where you feel that you have had enough of a particular kind of thing, if it’s the TV programs, whatever it is, then you have to take some time out and give yourself a break from it,” Clarke advised.

“Some of these media are very intrusive. They are everywhere. You can’t get away from them. You turn on your phone and you have 40 WhatsApp messages.

“You have to make a choice. ‘Do I go through them or do I leave them until tomorrow morning?’ Some people take a holiday from all that stuff and say, ‘It’s Saturday. I won’t do any of that’.

“It’s very difficult. It’s extremely difficult to extricate yourself from the ever present, intrusive media. Devices are everywhere, but if you really want to and you need the time, then take some time to yourself.”

SELF CARE

Taking time to take care of yourself is important in handling the stress being piled on during these most difficult of times, Clarke reminded.

Mediation, exercise, making other healthy lifestyle choices are good for both physical and mental health.

Whatever it takes to take care of ourselves should be done, Clarke said, while recognizing that we must be smart about how we take care of ourselves to ensure we are doing so safely given the current pandemic.

SPIRITUALITY

Clarke said it is also important for people of faith to be comforted by their faith in times like these.

“We need to be able to use our spiritual beliefs to help us as we go through it,” he said.

During this time when so many have suffered so much loss, it is only natural to question why bad things are happening to good people, said retired Anglican Archbishop Drexel Gomez.

We asked him why an all-powerful God just does not end the suffering and stop the pandemic.

“Job experienced tremendous suffering and hardships, far more than we can ever dream of,” Gomez pointed out, referencing the Book of Job.

“In the end, he has an experience with God. It doesn’t explain why he was suffering, but that God’s purpose takes in much more than what we can imagine … In the midst of all of it, God himself is experiencing the suffering, so that the brokenness that we experience in such difficult times does contribute to the overall good that God is effecting; but we humans are so limited that we find it difficult to cope with, and this is why we find the innocent suffering, in particular, so terribly difficult to deal with.”

Gomez said faith is ultimately about trust, and even when everything looks dark and inexplicable, we Christians are called upon to trust our God because of our belief in him and how he has revealed himself to us in Jesus and has bestowed his Spirit upon us.

“This convinces us that this is a God who can be trusted, and those of us who trust in him also are given hope,” he said, adding that faith, hope and love are the three greatest things in Christian life.

In this dark hour, all of us can use a bit of hope.

This brings us to another coping mechanism.

OPTIMISM

While no one alive today that we know of has lived through the Spanish Flu and can remember its horrors, in time, the pandemic did pass – though, its toll was great.

The point is, it did pass, as did other plagues throughout human history.

Likewise, COVID will eventually pass. The longest, darkest night comes to an end eventually.

Clarke said focusing on a life beyond COVID, taking care of ourselves now, staying safe and staying optimistic could help to ease the burden we currently carry.

“It’s easy for us to get entrenched in a negative posture, where everything is all bad, everything is terrible and when you take a closer look, it’s not really like that. Yes, we have a pandemic, yes we have some unfortunate bad things happening around us and to us within our domain, within our families and so forth,” he said, “but there are still some good things, if we focus on them, that could change our perspective daily on how we go about things, and how we interact with other people. It can change the way we feel inside as well.”

He added, “The positivity, the attitude is something we can all work on. When you look back at history, you see how things happened in the past and being able to see what will happen possibly in the future with what we are going through [can help].

“If people can just do that, it will change a lot of things with the person and that would change within the community.”

GRATITUDE

In our enlightening conversation with Clarke, we shared “gratitude” as a coping mechanism, and he agreed that, too, can be helpful.

“That’s one of the very fundamental things that we need to foster in the society – gratitude, and just reminding ourselves, it could have been worse, it could have been worse, but we do have the moment now,” he said.

“Those of us who are still here, we have time and the moment, we have now. So, there’s a lot to be said for cultivating this attitude of just being grateful, being thankful for what we do have.” 

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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