I’ve learned a new term that I share with my therapy clients. We now refer to any frustration, overwhelm, and culpable complications as “pandemic exhaustion.” It may seem dramatic; however, the worry, hyper-vigilance, and intensified caution have become draining, and COVID-19 is blameworthy. It’s true that an appropriate amount of disruption can be attributed to the upheaval we have all experienced. The reprehensible adjustments may be better eased by seeing an end in sight. Yet, that absence is a further provocation.
In talking with clients in therapy, we’ve come to better identify pandemic exhaustion as grief. Although grief is socially assigned to death or trauma, there also exists nonfinite losses that foster chronic sorrow and bereavement.
Grief is a compilation of change and loss. Something has shifted, for better or for worse, and we are left deprived and unstable. The comfortable, familiar ground on which we once stood has transformed, and we must make sense of it. Any time we encounter a gripping experience, we form a new view of either ourselves, others, or the world around us. The old patterns of organizing our beliefs, values, routines, and relationships must adapt to the new experience. Time does not reorganize for us, but can allow the necessary space for us to either remain stranded in chaos, or shift toward growth.
COVID has provided a shared experience. On a basic level, our sense of normalcy and predictability has shifted. Whether we feel impacted by schedule changes, cancellations, quarantines, and virtual platforms, we can acknowledge frustration in not knowing a store location’s exact hours – goggle doesn’t always update! Do I need to call ahead and wait in the parking lot for my dentist appointment, or am I allowed in the waiting room? Is my cough enough to reschedule my appointment at the bank, or should I just make sure I don’t have a fever?
We not only grieve our lifestyle changes,
but the loss of entire seasons of life.
We feel a sense of injustice when we have taken precautions and followed health guidelines, yet miss out on the liveliness of holidays or the intimacy of home visits. For some, our last contact was dropping groceries off on the porch or waving from the sidewalk. For some, we didn’t get to say goodbye or host a proper funeral or memorial service. How do we cope with the cruelty of an unpredictable pandemic?
While navigating new routines and schedules, our relationships meet their own sets of challenges. Outside of CDC and health guidelines, measures of precautions are subjective to individual perspective and level of comfort. Friendships are strained as we struggle to address concerns with exposure. Family members pull against pressures to vaccinate, wear a mask, and even disclose symptoms. On a fundamental level, we may feel that our values are being dismissed – the safety that we ask for seems disregarded. We do not feel considered by the ones we ask to be considerate.
From a therapist’s perspective, I observe how our relationships are experiencing a blow to the trust and mutual respect that we have worked to establish with our loved ones. You may have heard that communication is the magical key to relationships. I’ve heard this many times, and healthy, appropriate communication is important to developing intimacy and connection.
However, a thriving relationship must be built on the strong foundations of trust and mutual respect. Both must be cultivated, explored, and fostered within friendships, marriages, families, and partnerships alike. Now insert a global pandemic. Despite communicating and/or setting boundaries with others, our loved ones will make their own health and lifestyle decisions which in turn impact the functionality of the relationship. COVID has been another vehicle through which our relationships are tried and tested.
When the ground shifts beneath us in times of change,
we seek stability.
When the ground shifts beneath us in times of change, we seek stability. Our community looks around for safety in questioning “what do we do?” and “what can we expect?” Efforts seem insufficient at times, but we can offer a small, but valuable support – setting a standard. When we let each other know the expectations (for us, for a business, etc.) we feel empowered in making our own informed decisions. Churches, do you require masks or are they optional for services? Schools, what is the clear policy for quarantine? Loved ones, what is your level of comfort in gatherings? Providing a simple, yet important standard can allow the community to feel involved and supported in a new sense of normal.
Michaela Detrick, MA, LPC is a licensed professional counselor working in Williamsport as an outpatient therapist. She serves on the executive board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of North Central Pennsylvania and volunteers with various committees including Suicide Prevention, Parent/Caregiver Support Group, and providing education and awareness on mental health to the community.