Try as we might to grab onto the positive, COVID-19 continues to keep us awake at night and haunt us during the day. It is clear it will be with us for a while. We may think that thoughts of illness and death represent the pandemic’s most feared consequences, but Associated Press medical writer Lindsey Tanner believes that a collective sense of loss is even more pervasive. “Few on Earth have been spared some form of loss since the coronavirus took hold,” she writes. “Around the world, the pandemic has spread grief by degrees.”
“In normal times, people look to families, friends, communities for support in coping with loss,” writes Tanner. As psychologist and grief specialist Robert Neimeyer of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition tells Tanner, in the pandemic, “We don’t have as much capacity as a human community to meet the needs.”
The problem with this concept of a return to “normal” is that the coronavirus pandemic has left our prepandemic way of life in the rearview mirror, fading further away with each glance. Says Neimeyer, an obsessive longing for it is likely to strain our mental health further.
As Neimeyer points out, history shows we are pretty good at adapting to loss and hardship, even following war, famine, government breakdown and civil unrest. “However,” he says, “We would be kidding ourselves if we were to ignore the very real impact of the current situation.” He warns that the pervasiveness and persistence of the pandemic can lead to a rise in what is known as “prolonged grief,” which can be disabling and persistent for months.
“There’s nothing wrong with hoping for a better, more stable future,” New York University psychology professor Gabriele Oettingen recently explained to USA Today. She says it is important to realize that it is likely “a long-term fantasy,” as opposed to some “overnight event” that brings back our old way of life.
Many months ago, experts recommended embracing grief amid the pandemic. Oettingen and Dr. Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of Disaster Avoidance Experts, recommended similar thinking for today. They say that “it’s important to accept that, for a time, this disease will continue to upend our daily lives.”
“Don’t act as if things are normal,” Tsipursky adds. It can be a “tragic, tragic mistake.”
As The New York Times’ Donald G. McNeil recently wrote, maybe what we really need is a dose of optimism. “Since January, when I began covering the pandemic, I have been a consistently gloomy Cassandra, reporting on the catastrophe that experts saw coming: that the virus would go pandemic, that Americans were likely to die in large numbers, the national lockdown would last well beyond Easter and even past summer. No miracle cure was on the horizon; the record for developing a vaccine was four years.
“Events have moved faster than I thought possible,” he continues. “I have become cautiously optimistic. Experts are saying, with genuine confidence, that the pandemic in the United States will be over far sooner than they expected, possibly by the middle of next year.”
He also points to a collective accomplishment worth acknowledging. “There was a time when leading health officials said that only sick people and hospital workers needed to wear masks. Today … masks are widely accepted.” He points to an Imperial College report that shows “the number of Americans who wear them, at least when entering stores, went from near zero in March to about 65 percent in early summer to 85 percent or even 90 percent in October.” He also notes that “millions of Americans agreed, however reluctantly, to accept the sacrifices involved in shutting down parts of the economy, keeping distance from one other and wearing masks.”
I have my own even more recent example of why we all should feel more optimistic about how we can live in a world with COVID-19 and even occasionally thrive in it. Just look at the NBA. The league survived nearly 100 days inside an Orlando, Florida, bubble.
It presented a worthy diversion that all sports fans desperately needed and an exciting playoff and a great championship series.
As the Los Angeles Times’ Dan Woike writes, when the league and the National Basketball Players Association presented their plan, it seemed extreme. “It could fall apart if one player got sick and infected someone else, who then infected someone else,” he writes. Like a house of cards, the whole plan could fall apart with the slightest breeze.
“The protocols that NBA players agreed to would greatly restrict their movements, force them to wear masks and, for months, separate them from family,” writes Woike. “There would be daily testing. The details were impressive — the proper recipe to sanitize basketballs, the bags attached to the referee’s whistles to keep spit from dripping out, single-use decks of playing cards.”
The success of these actions is embodied by the vision of “King” LeBron James after the final buzzer, puffing on a cigar, champagne soaking his clothes, an NBA champion yet again.
“We had zero positive tests,” James proclaimed during the press conference that followed the game. The point continued to be made as “people left their rooms and turned in their tracking devices that beeped whenever you were within six feet of someone.”
“The people who made the most of the experience embraced its uniqueness,” says Woike. “There’s little doubt that the people who went through the experience will be connected (to) a shared experience unlike any other in NBA history.”
Now, that is something we all can learn from and that we all should toast.