I was having a socially distanced visit with a friend who had surgery for a broken wrist earlier this week. She was clearly still in pain, and she was also distressed about the accident, a simple fall which, she said, wouldn’t have ended up this way when she was younger. “I don’t want to think of myself as getting older,” she said. “And I hate like hell that I’m going to miss out on a summer of hiking now that the trails are open again. But these are the realities of life.”
This is a woman who has faced numerous setbacks in her life, but she seldom feels sorry for herself. When my husband and I couldn’t go to Europe this year, as we had planned, to celebrate significant birthdays and our thirty-eighth wedding anniversary, I reminded myself of this friend. “Sometimes life sucks,” she says. “What are you going to do?”
What she really felt bad about, she told me, moving her arm, despite the pain, as her doctor had commanded, was all of the suffering of people who didn’t have as much as she does. “I can afford to order groceries,” she said. “And I’ve got grown kids who come over to check on me and keep me company. What about people who don’t have as much? What about all the kids who are missing out on school and so many important social connections in their lives right now?”
As a psychotherapist I think I have heard more stories of loss and disappointment in the four months since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world than in almost the entirety of the years that I have been in practice. I have borne witness via phone or Zoom as clients sobbed in pain at not being able to hold the hand of a loved one dying alone in a hospital room, spoke of funerals they could not attend, mourned weddings, graduations, birthday celebrations, long-anticipated trips and visits with grandchildren that were cancelled or postponed because of coronavirus.
Numerous parents have echoed the concern expressed by my friend. One client said, “Not going to school is so terrible I can’t even begin to describe it. I’m not a teacher. My kids are missing out on the education they need for a good life. But they’re also missing out on the social experiences they get at school. I’m terrified. What’s going to happen to them?”
We are living in what is unquestionably a frightening, disturbing, terrible time. But while the level of suffering and loss is outrageous, it is also important to know that some disappointment and loss are part of life. The psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut, who founded Self Psychology, says that what he calls “optimal” or managed disappointment is also necessary for human development. If we aren’t disappointed, we often don’t have motivation to grow. Another psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott, an important early proponent of Object Relations theory, said that if parents were perfect, children would never develop.
Of course, some of the losses related to COVID-19 are traumatic. But even the traumatic ones can, in many cases, be made manageable. In fact, parents who are concerned about and recognizing their children’s losses, while at the same time looking for ways to help them manage the situation, may already be helping their children grow from those experiences. Kohut believed some disappointments and frustrations in childhood help us become stronger adults. In other words, disappointments experienced when we are young, while our parents are there to help us cope with them, build psychological “muscles” and skills for coping with these feelings.
This doesn’t mean that parents should look for ways to disappoint their children. Nor does it mean that we should ignore situations in which parents are unable to help their children cope – either because of psychological or financial difficulties or because the parents are themselves part of the problem.
The children who will suffer the most will be those whose parents cannot help them build healthy coping skills. These are parents who are themselves overwhelmed by trauma and loss, who don’t have the coping skills themselves, or who are incapable of recognizing and responding to their children’s needs. These parents don’t fall into a single, easily identifiable category. They may be living in poverty or wealth. They may be single parents or in damaged and damaging marriages. Some are professionals and others are working for minimum wage.
A colleague who introduced me to an organization where I do some volunteer professional work said to me one day, “You know, it’s true that money makes a lot of things easier in a lot of ways. But I’ve noticed that some of the poorest clients are handling the COVID-19 related losses better than anyone I know with money. I think maybe it’s because they have had other terrible losses in their lives, and they’ve learned how to keep going.”
A friend who worked very hard to get out of an abusive relationship said to me, “It’s not like you have to just accept what life has given to you and then just plod along with the pain. You have to figure out how to accept it and then make things better. It’s like the AA prayer – you have to figure out how to know what you can’t change, and to accept that; and then you have to find the courage to change what you can.”
What seems to help adults suffering from traumatic loss and disappointment is not so different from what helps children: having someone who acknowledges the pain and bears witness to the loss. Trauma specialists like Bessel van der Kolk tell us that trauma disrupts our ability to gather our thoughts and find our coping mechanisms.
According to Ghislaine Boulanger, a psychologist who specializes in adult onset trauma, the sense that someone understands and accepts our experience, without trying to change it or make it better, is in and of itself healing. As a result, over time, we begin to get back in touch with our own coping muscles.
Part of what helps is knowing that you are not alone. A friend whose father is dying alone in a nursing home decided to join a grief group. “I’m not helping him,” this friend told me, “and maybe this is just self-indulgent. I keep thinking that misery loves company, and somehow that isn’t okay. But maybe it is. Maybe misery loves company because otherwise you feel so lonely and isolated. And sorry for yourself.”
The group helped this friend find another part of himself that he had forgotten existed in the midst of all the pain. “It helps to know that just as these guys are supporting me through this process, I’m supporting them. It’s important to feel like you can make a difference in someone else’s life.”
Everyone is feeling disappointed by something during the pandemic, although the degree of loss and pain connected to that disappointment varies widely. Trauma can make us feel that we are outside the circle of human experience, that we are alone and no one else can understand what we are suffering. Trauma specialists tell us that one of the best ways to manage the pain, at whatever level, is to remember that you are not alone. Talking to someone else – a professional, a friend, a relative, or even a stranger – about your suffering can help, as can, sometimes, and perhaps surprisingly, listening to their painful story. But it’s important to protect yourself when you feel overwhelmed by someone else’s pain. When necessary, remember that boundaries are an important part of protecting yourself. Get off the phone if you’re feeling overwhelmed, And remember also that sometimes, connecting means just talking about unimportant things. You don’t have to discuss politics or the pandemic. Play an online game with a friend. Go for a walk, always following CDC guidelines to protect yourself with a mask and social distancing. Just check in for a couple of minutes. It can be enough to make you – and them – feel less isolated.
Like the 1987 AT&T commercial used to say, “Reach out and touch someone.” It won’t make the pandemic or any of the fallout from these times go away; but it could make you feel better, anyway. And it might even make them feel better, too.