The coronavirus has robbed us all

If you feel you’ve been robbed, you’re not alone.

The coronavirus pandemic has taken a lot, and not just in terms of health or loved ones. It has stolen school from the kids and hard-earned graduation ceremonies. It has delayed trips and weddings and even funerals. It has taken dreams from athletes training for the Olympics, the NCAA basketball tournament, the Boston Marathon. It has consumed jobs, paychecks and retirement funds.

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The coronavirus has seized our autonomy, our sense of safety and the false but comforting belief that we can predict the dangers ahead. 

“What many of us are feeling is that something was taken from us that shouldn’t have been taken,” said Patricia Frazier, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota who studies how to function in the face of stress and trauma. “Some things you can probably get back, and some things you can’t.” 

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People are not only distressed by lives lost but by experiences lost, too. Many of us are engaged in a process of mourning and accepting, psychologists say. To heal and move forward, we should let ourselves feel sad, but be careful not to wallow in it.

“When we experience grief, it’s not just a random byproduct of loss, it’s useful. It’s why we are able to get over losses, because when we feel sad we turn inward and recalibrate,” said George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University and author of “The Other Side of Sadness.” 

Jen Santamaria is 30 weeks pregnant and lives in New York City, now the epicenter of the pandemic. Five weeks ago, before she went on a babymoon to St. Kitts, she laughed when her mother suggested she wear a face mask at the airport.

Now she’s wondering if her husband will be permitted in the delivery room.

“It’s almost like I don’t know how to feel. I go through such highs and lows, moments when I feel so sad and truly deprived of all these exciting things in the third trimester,” she said.

“But then I think about people who have it so much worse and how much more difficult it could be. … I think about the people who are sick or dying or losing loved ones. At the end of the day, I am healthy and I will have a healthy, happy baby.”

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Psychologists say Santamaria’s approach is useful. Perspective helps. When we employ what Frazier calls “downward social comparison,” we can usually see there are others whose suffering is graver than our own. 

“I think that’s an OK way to reframe the situation so that you are able to be grateful for what you have,” she said. 

A different story to tell 

Ummul Kathawalla and her fiance, Tyler Maunu, planned to have a Muslim wedding ceremony in Mumbai this month, followed by a civil ceremony in the U.S. this fall. 

Kathawalla wanted her 96-year-old grandfather at her wedding, but he can’t travel, so a ceremony in India was the only way to include him. The couple decided she would travel first, to spend time with family, and Maunu would follow, flying in from Boston a week later. But while Kathawalla was in flight earlier this month, India suspended visas from visitors from other countries.

Kathawalla was devastated. When she woke at her cousin’s house the morning after her flight, she wept. All she wanted was to lie in bed.

“I was mourning what could have been, what would have been,” she said.

But she was unwilling to forfeit the dream entirely. She and her family consulted with a maulana, a Muslim religious leader, who said the ceremony was still valid if performed by video. So on an Indian evening and a Boston morning, Kathawalla and Maunu were married over Zoom. 

Ummul-Kiram Kathawalla and her fiancé Tyler Maunu were married over Zoom in a Muslim wedding ceremony known as a nikah.

“A resilient brain ends up being able to flexibly think about things, and I think it was actually more special, the way everything happened organically,” said Kathawalla, a psychology doctoral student at the University of Minnesota.

Instead of 50 guests, there was intimate family. Maunu and his brother and sister-in-law dressed in traditional Indian garb and after the ceremony enjoyed Indian breakfast – Parsi style scrambled eggs, minced meat with spices, roti and sweet gulab jamun.

Kathawalla and her family indulged in a traditional Bohra wedding meal. The presence of her grandfather, who was lucid in waves, was a precious gift.

Now, she says, their wedding is simply a different story to tell.

“It helped that this was something happening universally,” she said. “I wasn’t alone in my disappointment.”

Kathawalla and Maunu have since reunited, and they are hopeful they will have another ceremony in Minnesota in the fall.

Don’t dwell

Experts say it’s hard to offer blanket ways to cope, especially because of the nature of what has been lost and the question of whether you can ever get it back. It’s easier for the person who can’t enjoy Major League Baseball’s opening day  to recover than someone who lost a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity or is experiencing financial insecurity or violence in their home.

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“Many people will experience trauma and losses in this situation,” Frazier said. The good news is that “most people are resilient, meaning that they do not develop serious long-term psychological distress.”

For anyone dealing with loss, Frazier says acceptance and problem-solving are more useful coping skills than ruminating and avoidance.

Another tactic is to focus on things within your control. For some people, that can mean helping others. Donating money if you can afford it. Sending a letter to a stranger. Checking in on a friend. Making something beautiful, and sharing it. 

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Bonanno said that while individual losses cannot be underestimated, it’s important people focus on the task at hand: ending the pandemic.

“People should fully feel the sadness and grief and mourn what they’re not going to have, because it’s useful, it’s adaptive,” he said. “But at the same time there’s a process where that shifts into ‘This didn’t happen the way I wanted, but what do I need to do now?'” 

Santamaria controls what she can, grieves what she has lost, and tries to focus on the future. She expects that when all has passed, lessons from the pandemic will be part of what she gives her son.

“Hopefully one day we’ll be able to tell our kids what it was like to be expecting parents during this pandemic,” she wrote in a thread on Twitter, “how strong we were and how much brightness they brought into this world.”

Alia E. Dastagir is a recipient of a Rosalynn Carter fellowship for mental health journalism. Follow her on Twitter: @alia_e

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