Pandemic first person

Six months before he died last May, my dad and daughter, who adored each other, enjoyed a long visit at his assisted-living facility. (Ronnie Polaneczky/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

During the pandemic, I lost my dad, my uncle and his wife, and a beloved in-law. A sibling was diagnosed with cancer, my daughter was rattled by health issues on the other side of the country, and the dog died.

I also lost weight and got healthy, started formally studying positive psychology, and watched in awe as my husband — who was adopted at birth — discovered a raft of biological half siblings who are just lovely.

Through it all I've been able to hang onto my house and my job while so many others have lost their homes and livelihoods in the global shutdown. I feel both lucky and guilty about that.

As the world opens back up, I've been trying to stretch my arms wide enough to hold all that's happened during this time — the grief and the gifts. The bad stuff has been real — but so has the good stuff. If I focus on only the one, I lose the lessons of the other. I want to embrace it all.

This seems like an outdated desire. The country has been so polarized by politics, social movements, and the pandemic itself that it feels arcane to want to feel united within my own self. At best, it feels like denial. At worst, it feels like a betrayal to the importance of whatever isn't getting the lion's share of my attention in the moment.

But owning all of it feels like the only way for me to limp back to a mental state where routine joy is possible.

I often get called a Pollyanna when I talk like this, like I'm a ditzy optimist who lacks the brain cells to see the truth in front of me.

But optimists — real ones — aren't blind to the truth in front of them. Instead, they work to find a more expansive view of a situation that has thrown them a curveball or broken their hearts. They seek to learn all of the facts of a situation, not just the ones that maybe frighten or upset them.

And that gives them a lot more choices about how to live, and the breathing room to keep on keeping on through the hard stuff.

Research supports this.

Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist based at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, created a theory, called "broaden and build," which refers to "the function of a subset of positive emotions, including joy, interest, contentment and love," she writes in a landmark study, "which broaden an individual's momentary thought-action repertoire: joy sparks the urge to play, interest sparks the urge to explore, contentment sparks the urge to savor and integrate, and love sparks a recurring cycle of each of these urges within safe, close relationships."

The "broadened" mindset that arises from these positive emotions, she found, "are contrasted to the narrowed mindsets sparked by many negative emotions ... by broadening an individual's momentary thought — action repertoire — whether through play, exploration, or similar activities — positive emotions promote discovery of novel and creative actions, ideas and social bonds."

In turn, she says, these build an individual's personal resources, ranging from physical and intellectual resources, to social and psychological resources. Importantly, she concludes, "these resources function as reserves that can be drawn on later to improve the odds of successful coping and survival."

Or even thriving, adds Randall Bell, PhD, a sociologist who specializes in disaster-recovery projects. In his new book, Post-Traumatic Thriving: The Art, Science, & Stories of Resilience, he profiles remarkable people who were able to rebuild lives decimated by trauma by both acknowledging the mess of what happened to them and staying open to the possibility of better days ahead. Years later, they're stronger than they ever could've imagined back when they were in the midst of upheaval.

"When you're traumatized, we can either fight, flee, or freeze," said Bell, in a phone call from his home in Laguna Beach, Calif., where he is recovering from COVID-19.

To begin to transcend trauma, though, he said, we need to face what happened (the fourth f-word in the cycle), which includes looking at every aspect of a situation. He offers techniques to do that — designed around actions of faith, connection, forgiveness, resilience, and gratitude — but acknowledges that each takes patience, an obsolete-sounding virtue in the insta-worlds we inhabit.

What he promises, though, is a resulting state of thriving: "a place of quiet calm, where we convert the fire of trauma into fuel for something bigger."

We're only just emerging from the pandemic that has rocked the world. Time will tell what that "something bigger" might look like for each of us as we come to grips with all we've lost — or are still losing — and gained in this year of unpredictability. I wish us all patience, grace, and courage, with ourselves and each other, as we find out.

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