The Art of Doing

How Can the Pandemic Make You Stronger?

Josh Gosfield/Illustration

Alone in our homes, staring into space. Fauci on TV again. Forgetting what day it is. Another Netflix marathon. A squabble with a loved one. Awake at 3 a.m.

We may not realize it, but a lot of what we’re feeling now is about loss. Loss of freedom to go where we want to go. Loss of connection with friends. Loss of milestones—vacations, graduations, weddings. Loss of career momentum. Loss of a job. 

“This is what someone goes through after a loved one dies,” says Debby Derman, a grief counselor based in Pennsylvania. “We haven’t experienced this kind of collective grief since 9/11. That was a community in mourning,” says Derman, who worked with firefighters’ widows in Staten Island in the aftermath of the event. “Now we are a world in mourning.” 

Grief, from the Latin gravare to “make heavy,” referred to the burdening of someone with a weighty object. It wasn’t until the 13th century that the French began to use the term, grief, to describe the heaviness we feel inside of us as a result of loss. 

Derman was working as a children’s behavioral specialist when two traumatic events altered the trajectory of her life and her idea of what she was meant to do. When she was 35, both of her parents died in a plane crash. Just four years later, her husband, father to their two toddlers and a baby on the way, dropped dead of a heart attack playing rugby.

Derman joined a widow’s support group and became fascinated with the human capacity for resilience. She went back to school for a doctoral degree so that she could counsel others suffering through loss. She’s been practicing as a grief counselor for 20 years. 

Derman shares with us three strategies we can all use to move through loss.

1. Never Compare Your Grief to Someone Else’s

Maybe you’ve lost your financial security. Maybe you’ve lost a job or career you’ve been working at your whole life. Maybe you’ve lost someone to illness. “We all have our losses. And your loss is your loss,” says Derman.

There is no gain, whatever it is, in comparing it to someone else’s. “That’s a trap,” Derman says. “The most important thing I’ve seen as a grief counselor is to never ever ever compare your grief to someone else’s. If you try to compare your loss to someone else’s, thinking, ‘I have it worse than you do,’ then you’re going to become very isolated and no one is going to want to confide in you. It’s not a contest. Everyone needs to be compassionate with one another. Giving and receiving compassion is an important part of healing. And the best way to do this, is first, don’t compare.” 

2. Sit Still

“Know when to turn off the TV or the radio or to stop scrolling through your Twitter feed. Too much external noise will keep you from processing your own thoughts and feelings,” Derman advises. “Instead sit still. When I worked with the firefighter widows, we asked them to keep a journal for three reasons. To clarify their thoughts. To see where they’d started. And to see how far they’d come. When we don’t give ourselves the space to turn down the noise, and don’t sit with our own thoughts, we cannot prioritize our goals and acknowledge our progress. Writing down a line or two or more of how you’re doing or what you’re thinking can be an enormous help to figure out how to proceed.”

3. Look Forward to a Time When This Will Be Your Past

“When I was taking care of two kids, and pregnant with our third child, and my husband died, I was devastated,” Derman told us. “I did not think I could make it through the week, even the day. Then my sister told me something that put it all in perspective. She said, ‘One day this will be your past.’

In the middle of trauma, deep mourning, or the type of loss many of us are experiencing in this crisis, you really can’t see that you’ll ever be out of it. You have to remind yourself, things will get better. Will things be different when this is over? Yes. Will you be different when this is over? Very likely.

But to get there you have to take small steps every day. If a day’s too long, try a morning. Then the afternoon. After my husband’s death, I would negotiate an hour at a time. I’d tell myself, ‘It’s 10 o’clock, just let me live until 11.’ Then it was two hours. Then three. Then it was a day, a week. It’s okay, even energizing, not to dwell all the time on the losses. Because you just can’t. By looking forward to a time when this will be your past, you’re building up what we all need, hope. That’s what we humans thrive on, hope.”

This article first appeared in Psychology Today

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