We are beginning to re-enter the world, but are we ready?
It’s wonderful, right? We’re talking face to face, meeting up and eating out with friends and families once again. We are striking up conversations with total strangers. (I say “we” because I don’t think I am the only one doing that.) As we try to return to “normal” I am increasingly aware of not being my normal self. But then again, what exactly is my “normal”?
I am from New Orleans and, for years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleanians needed to share Katrina stories. Standing in the newly opened grocery we would turn and ask: How much… (water in your house); Where… (did you evacuate to); When … (did you come back). Family members or total strangers would act as our in situ therapists, listening to our stories just long enough to give them the social permission to jump in with their own stories. But that actually made them really bad therapists because therapists don’t insert their own stuff into the therapeutic conversation. So these unsatisfactory attempts at having a “good listening to” left us still needing – neurotically and compulsively –someone to “hear us”. Someone to give witness to the chaos of words, fears, memories, and emotions swirling around in our inner cyclone.
This must be the same following any natural disaster: people need to talk. People need to share their horror stories about danger, rescue, and death. And they need to share them over and over. Having lived through the same Covid 19 crisis as others in our community, just like after Katrina, we can feel assured of a certain degree of commonality, of innate understanding. The locals will believe us. So, even though they may not be very patient listeners – waiting to jump in with their own trauma stories – they are nonetheless in the same metaphorical or literal “storm” if not in the same boat exactly. And there is comfort in that. We are not alone.
It is very different when the trauma or tragedy is personal. Although we have probably greater need to share, we are much less likely to risk it. Being vulnerable enough to tell our personal story of abuse or sexual trauma makes us vulnerable to re-victimization by having our memories denied. What if they don’t believe me? And that’s a valid concern, because without a shared experience it can be very difficult for outsiders (or even other family members who were not abused) to believe in the horrors you share. I have walked that uncomfortable and lonely path.
But here we are now living through the Covid-19 pandemic. Like Hurricane Katrina it is a shared experience so there’s an inherent understanding, we won’t be denied our reality, we are sympatico with our neighbors, or at least that’s what I thought. Appearing among us in large numbers are people denying our reality. Just like in a sexual abuse scenario where siblings and parents may tell us we are crazy and deny what we remember clearly and have always known to be true, so now the country is full of conspiracy theorists, covid deniers, and anti-vaxers. They are telling me that what I lived through as a chaplain in a large city hospital didn’t happen. The two overflowing 18-wheeler freezer trucks parked by the morgue loading dock filled to capacity with covid victims was a hoax. There are people who are willing to physically attack someone who threatens their right to be stubborn, to be stupid, to risk their lives and those of others by not wearing a mask. After all it’s just the flu. An abyss of reality and loss separates these individuals from those of us who have left a loved one to die alone in a nursing home or ICU surrounded by indistinguishable alien look-a-likes in white body suits and masks. Or those of us who have been working inside these organizations trying to communicate some humanity and compassion to the sick and dying and to victims of dementia for whom pre-covid reality was already fraught with fear and confusion.
This is bad. This is awful. But Covid-19 is not just a shared city or state experience, or even a national one. This is a WORLD. WIDE. EXPERIENCE. As a human community we haven’t had an experience like this since the 1918 flu which took about 1.5 million lives. As of June 17, 2021 Covid-19 deaths are estimated at 3.84 million. How in heaven are we supposed to process that number. To give a comparison, referring to 2018 statistics, that’s more than the population of Detroit; or it’s more than the population of Cincinnati and Cleveland combined.
I can understand the attraction of denial. If you haven’t personally lost a family member and been unable to visit them to say goodbye, then denying the existence of this horror is perhaps a form of self-care. You can sleep easier if Covid isn’t real.
I don’t have that luxury. I worked in a local hospital and one Sunday in early March 2020 I spent hours on the phone begging funeral homes and coroner’s offices to please take some of the deceased patients who lined our hallway outside the morgue and post-mortem suites. This wasn’t in my chaplain’s job description. But our Spiritual Care Department had inherited management of the morgue and had been left with it because we did such a good job. The curse of competence. Our secretary was the de facto morgue manager, and the on-call chaplains backed her up. We eventually had to resort to two refrigerated container trucks for a morgue back-up system.
My primary job as a chaplain was to offer spiritual companionship to the sick and the dying and to their families and to console and support the staff who shared in the grief and shock of their patient’s death. Because of their age or lack of experience with acute care floors many nurses I worked with in early 2020 had never had a patient die. As the pandemic kicked up there were nurses on the ICU’s who were losing two patients back-to-back in one day. Sometimes two at the same time next door to each other. It was devastating, overwhelming, unthinkable.
A year later I am only now beginning to write about what happened and how it felt. I am only now telling my Covid survival stories as I venture out into “normal” places where talking to strangers is acceptable – the hair salon, the spa. I haven’t swapped Covid stories in the grocery checkouts, though. Stories of morgues and refrigerator trucks are a bit too heavy for those few minutes. But in the hair salon and spa I had a captive audience for more than 30 minutes last month and stories just came gushing out along with the “dark” humor we shared privately in the Spiritual Care Department that had helped keep us sane – until it didn’t.
Now there is a fourth wave in Louisiana and people are still refusing to get vaccinated. Around the country individuals are being thrown off planes for refusing to wear a mask. Business owners are being harassed for attempting to maintain mask safety. The unvaccinated are dying in increasing numbers as the Delta variant rampages through summer vacation spots, family reunions, weddings. And the vaccinated are becoming infected. Remember, 94% efficacy means 6 in 100 are statistically likely to get sick anyway but are still much less likely to be hospitalized or die. I’ll take those odds. What about you?