When the U.S. entered World War II they did so accompanied by the song, “We did it before and we can do it again!” A children’s cartoon of the song shows uniformed mice marching past a machine that outfits them with hard hats. “It’s a hard job to do, but you can bet we’ll see it through.” This cartoon and song were asking people to remember a previous success; the effort and victory that the U.S had had a generation before, in World War One.
When times get tough, remembering prior achievements and victories is a great resilience strategy. Unfortunately there are few people alive who remember this country’s first successful survival of a pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu. It killed more people than the Bubonic Plague in Europe in the 1300s and more young people than were killed by enemy fire in the war.
So here we are dealing with the first pandemic of most everyone’s lifetime. Staying home to save lives, wearing gloves and masks to lessen the spread, and protect our own and our family members lives. Given the uncertainty of it all, as time goes on, as we have lost jobs and closed businesses, and missed important celebrations, the losses pile up and it gets harder to keep ourselves in a hopeful place.
Truth to tell, this isn’t my first pandemic. I was the mother of a gay man in the 1990s when a disease, HIV/AIDS was becoming a world-wide pandemic –running rampant among gay men in the United States. In other places like Africa it was taking out both men and women of child-bearing age, leaving whole villages of grandparents to raise their grandchildren.
In 1993, coming up on the Christmas holiday, my 27-year-old son Ken had a persistent cough. He was busy working as a concierge at a hotel, but at my insistence he saw a doctor. The doctor admitted him to the hospital with pneumonia. There were six types of pneumonia on the hospital floors in Dallas that December but his turned out to be pneumocystis pneumonia. In those days it defined his illness as full-blown AIDS and gave him a death sentence.
Ken’s approach, after his initial grief reactions of shock and depression, was his own version of the attitude, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” He kept his hope strong that the doctors would find a cure, and he reminded them of that expectation every visit. “My job is to take really good care of myself so I will be here when you find that cure. How’re you doing?”
My son recovered from his bout of pneumonia and went on to live with the disease courageously for 3 ½ years. He died a few months after his 31st birthday, and a few months before the outcome of several trials of the “cocktail “of drugs that would prove effective in making HIV/AIDS a chronic disease that people can now live with.
I think of this journey with my son often during this present pandemic and remember what got us through those years. If you or someone you know have dealt with a death-defying diagnosis and treatment regime – you will recognize some of the following resilience strategies:
- Accept the reality of the situation as quickly as you can. I had to let go of my anger at the CDC for not focusing on HIV/AIDS sooner, and thus saving my son from it.
- Let go of what you wanted and ask what this situation requires? My job was to accompany Ken on the walk that his destiny assigned him. As his mother, I would have chosen a different path for the both of us.
- Don’t look too far down the road into the future – our power and our joy are in the present moment. The fact that Ken and our family lived into what was possible has left me with precious memories.
- Redefine success. No matter how it turned out in the end, looking back on the experiences I shared with my son in those difficult days, and when you look back on the experiences you and your family are having in these difficult days, I’m betting you will feel as I do –I’m savoring a sweet sorrow for the times of connection and joy. Those memories are for me, and will be for you, a source of encouragement in your future life.
In the previous pandemic, people like my son were advised to keep their diagnosis a secret if they wanted to keep their jobs. Because of that, and the taboos about the disease and homosexuality, we didn’t get widespread community support. In this pandemic most people realize that like the song says, “we’re one for all and all for one,” and “we can do it again” and together.