Reaching Toward Post-traumatic Growth in Late-Stage Pandemic

Reaching Toward Post-traumatic Growth in Late-Stage Pandemic

Editor’s Note: This week I’m happy to welcome back a returning guest blogger to this site. Rhonda Miska is a pastoral minister in the Catholic church as well as a spiritual director. Rhonda has written one previous piece at AS, about Christian resistance–you can find it here. Today she writes about how we can reach into the uncertainty of late-stage pandemic in ways that can help us and others move toward healthy post-traumatic growth and thereby create as healthy a world as possible going forward. (Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! We can do this thing!) Enjoy the read, friends! Cheers, DS Leiter, Founder, Assertive Spirituality

by Rhonda Miska, Guest Contributor

As I type these words, and perhaps as you read them, we are in the midst of summer heat after a long, dark, cold, difficult pandemic winter. Restrictions are loosening, celebrations and gatherings which had been cancelled are being rescheduled, and we are – joyfully or anxiously, or maybe both – emerging from the long months of safer-at-home, socially distanced pandemic life.

Perhaps you are ready to have a mask-burning party and jettison all the safety protocols that have marked every aspect of life for over a year. Or perhaps you are feeling nervous, seeing headlines about Covid-19 variants or feeling concerned by slowing vaccination rates, and not quite ready to set aside precautions.

Whatever your internal weather is during this season of expansion and change, I invite you to walk with me today in exploring individual and collective post-traumatic growth in late pandemic.

About me

So, before diving forward, here’s a brief bio: I am a pastoral minister, serving in a large Catholic parish in a suburb of Minneapolis, MN as well as a spiritual director, accompanying people one on one (via Zoom, like so many things these days) exploring the movement of God in their lives. I have also ministered quite a bit with people experiencing trauma due to displacement and violence in various contexts over the years, and I have participated in Eastern Mennonite University’s Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience program. So it’s out of that background that I offer these reflections on the journey of grief and the possibility of post-traumatic growth.

So, what is post-traumatic growth?

Many folks are familiar with PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder. Perhaps less well-known is post-traumatic growth (PTG): “positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances” (Tedeschi and Calhoun, 2004).

Tedeschi and Calhoun describe five areas of growth among those who experience PTG:

  • a greater appreciation for life,
  • spiritual growth,
  • closer social relationships,
  • enhanced feelings of personal strength, and
  • the recognition of new possibilities.

It’s important to note that post-traumatic growth doesn’t in any way negate or minimize the reality of trauma. So it is not a matter of, “well, something good came out of this tragedy, so that makes it all okay.” (That reflects more of a “toxic positivity” mindset described well in this AS post and in part one and part two of this interview of Dr. Susan David by Brené Brown).

Unlike toxic positivity, post-traumatic growth can coexist with the consequences of trauma.

It’s one of those both/ands that we run into over and over again the spiritual life – this is really sucky. And at the same time, this is calling forth some new life that wasn’t there before. I wish this wasn’t happening and yet it does give me a sense of greater possibilities for myself and my life.

Hey, wait a minute. Are you saying we actually “post” pandemic, though?

Good question! Nope, though I’m applying the term “post-traumatic growth” here, I’m not implying any of us are “post-pandemic.”

It’s hard to know if we should use past or present tense. Our perception depends on a million variables like the vaccination rates of one’s city or state, one’s own comfort level with risk, how many anti-vaxxers or vaccine-hesitant folks live around us, or the household presence of kids who aren’t eligible for vaccination.

Of course, for those of us with loved ones in parts of the world where the virus is still raging, with inadequate oxygen supplies and hospital beds, the pandemic feels far from over and the implication that it is stings. So yeah, the pandemic’s conclusion feels like a complicated, ambiguous, two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back kind of affair.

So Hard to Tell When It’s Done!

For the sake of comparison, World War II came to a definitive end on two days in 1945: Victory over Japan Day (VJ Day – August 14,) and Victory over Europe Day (VE Day – May 8). Both days were marked by public celebrations, parades, and collective rejoicing around the world.  A giant “V” of light was projected into the sky above St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

So yes, at least ritually, there was a clear set of endings to that shared global trauma. This allowed individuals and communities to have a shared common experience of transition after the cascading losses of a world war.

In contrast to the two big global watershed days that brought World War II to an end, here in the U.S., we’re in the “muddled middle” of late pandemic: individuals, families, and organizations of all kinds are trying to discern how to shift our practices based on ever-evolving statistics and official guidelines issued by experts.

Sigh—The End Is…Complicated?

In short, it’s complicated. There’s no definitive end to pandemic. We are lurching forward at an uneven pace. 

While some of us have already had joyful, long-awaited reunions with loved ones, others are still waiting.

While some have a timeline for loosening restrictions, others maintain protocols.

Some tentatively begin hoping that there is a light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel. Others happily put the pandemic behind them, confident in their vaccinated status.

Can the Long Slow End Be a Sort of Weird Gift?

So I offer these words here not to imply or assume that we are “post-pandemic,” or that such a status will be reached imminently.

Perhaps, though, the long, slow, uneven emergence from pandemic is something of a gift:  it allows us the time to reflect on what we want the next season of life – individually and collectively – to look like and to intentionally engage in practices that support (eventual) attainment of post-traumatic growth, even when we feel like we are still “in the thick” of the trauma.

A word of acknowledgement to the beleaguered reader

I also want to name here that there are probably readers out there who feel like they are barely keeping their heads above water as they continue to juggle working from home, managing kids’ hybrid learning, dealing with inconsiderate anti-vaxxer colleagues or customers taking advantage of new protocols, or dealing with myriad other challenges.

These folx are far from having the bandwidth to think about what tomorrow holds, much less dreaming about a post-pandemic stage of life.

If that is you, dear reader, know you’re not alone. I hope you’ll keep reading and be very gentle with yourself that there is no timeline and there’s a whole lot of grace as we all move through this muddled middle of late pandemic.

So, what is post-traumatic growth NOT about?

First of all, post-traumatic growth (PTG) is not something we achieve and check of the list, all clean and tidy (wouldn’t that be nice, though?) Rather, moving towards PTG is a process that involves time and effort.

Not about Stiff-Upper-Lipping It

As stated above, post-traumatic growth isn’t about stiff-upper-lipping or glass-half-fulling our way through the cascading losses of Covid-19. That’s toxic positivity. Seeking to minimize or bypass the many very real and devastating losses of 2020 and the first half of 2021 isn’t honest and ultimately isn’t helpful in the long term.

We human beings often have the tendency of talking ourselves out of feeling and expressing the hard emotions like sadness and anger that result from all the hardships of this pandemic season.

As a spiritual director, I find often what I most am called to offer directees is encouragement and support in truly naming and feeling those hard emotions, and bringing them to God through prayers of lament.

Naming the Loss=Not Optional

There is no avoiding this step of seeing and naming the loss, though it’s almost universal to seek to avoid it in one way or another. To use Christian language, we don’t get to resurrection of Easter Sunday without the pain of Good Friday and mournful waiting of Holy Saturday.

Not Resiliency, Either!

Finally it’s also important to not PTG isn’t the same as resiliency. The American Psychological Association defines resiliency as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress.” In short, resilience is about bouncing back during and after a challenge. PTG, in contrast, is about doing the work, going on the hard inner journey of moving through the stages of grief, feeling the feels, and coming out the other side changed for the better.

Well, what about collective post-traumatic growth?

So far we’ve been exploring what PTG looks like in individual’s lives – growth after a personal trauma like an accident, the tragic loss of a loved one, or an experience of violent crime. But what about a collective trauma like Covid-19? While the term was coined by Tedeschi and Calhoun with individuals in mind, as a communitarian by nature, I can’t help but think about how the ideas might be applied in a collective way – to families, congregations, groups, and even nationally and internationally – as we slowly emerge from pandemic.

Pandemic as a portal – Arundhati Roy

In her April 2020 essay The Pandemic is a Portal, Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy challenges us to imagine and fight for a better world.

“Historically,” Roy wrote, “Pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”   

Roy’s words have accompanied me through this long, strange, hard season of Covid-19.

She isn’t arguing for resilience, for humans to simply bounce back and adapt.

Rather, she’s making a case for us to see and name the structural injustices the pandemic have laid bare and radically re-envision a new way of being.

I would say she is calling for collective post-traumatic growth: “In the midst of this terrible despair,” she says, “[the pandemic] offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”

The image of a portal is a powerful one to take to reflection. What might we be invited to step into through the portal of pandemic?

Daring to dream – Pope Francis

Pope Francis’ book Let Us Dream: the Path to a Better Future offers a challenge similar to Roy’s. Pope Francis adapts the “see-judge-act” model for social analysis, inviting us to see the realities made more visible by Covid-19, then communally discern well and take collective action. Like Roy, Pope Francis offers a critique of the systems that have produced the crisis and then calls for a rejection of individualism and a new commitment to the common good.

“We cannot return to the false securities of the political and economic systems we had before the crisis,” Pope Francis writes in the prologue. “We need economies that give to all access to the fruits of creation, to the basic needs of life: to land, lodging, and labor. We need a politics that can integrate and dialogue with the poor, the excluded the vulnerable, that gives people a say in the decisions that impact their lives.”

Not “back to normal”

Both Roy and Pope Francis – and many other writers and thinkers – argue that it’s possible not so much to “get back to normal” but to collectively emerge from pandemic stronger, better, more whole, more just, more loving, more fair, and more peaceful. 

Nurturing PTG through claiming agency

Whether we are thinking about movement towards individual or collective post-traumatic growth, the role of agency is key. When I say agency, I mean the ability to see and effect change on our environment.

I know, I know, there is a LOT in this late-stage pandemic world we can’t change. We can’t make our vaccine-hesitant neighbors or colleagues roll up their sleeves to get their jabs.

We can’t change the behavior or mindset of anti-vaxxer stubborn Uncle Roger, which means the kids can’t go see them until they’re fully vaccinated. We can’t bring back loved ones we have lost to this virus. That’s very real, and those are frustrations and losses to be named and lamented.

Yet, thinking of Viktor Frankl’s testimony in Man’s Search for Meaning about how even those in concentration camps managed to find a way to claim agency, I think there is challenge to get curious about what might be possible, rather than focusing on what appear to be impossibilities.

Two Ways to Nurture Agency in Ourselves and Our Groups

I see two practical ways to nurture agency within ourselves and our groups (congregations, organizations, whatever “we” that we might belong to) as we move through late-stage pandemic: (1) taking action to ritualize loss and (2) taking concrete actions of support.

Ritualizing loss

Rituals – religious or secular – serve us in making meaning and metabolizing emotions. Rituals often mark beginnings and endings: convocation and commencement as bookends of the academic year, baptisms and funerals at the beginning and end of human life. Rituals help humans to mark transitions.

Rituals also serve us in the long, multi-layered journey of healing from individual and collective trauma. At Blue Christmas services, candles are lit to honor the griefs awoken during the “most wonderful time of the year,” offering validation and the balm that those burdens are seen by God and by the community.

Memorial Day gatherings create a space for reflection and connection for military families. Wake services and funerals with formal and informal opportunities to share memories of our beloved dead provide necessary spaces for relational support in the face of loss.

Because of enormous ambiguity in everyone’s experience of last stage pandemic and reopening, it doesn’t lend itself to big, unified national ritual. We’re just not all in the same place. This means we can claim agency through creating our own rituals of meaning.

DIY Late-Stage Pandemic Ritual Ingredients

Author and activist Adam Horowitz’s essay “The One Year Mark” offers ideas on DIY ritual to commemorate the onset of the pandemic. 

“Any one of us can create moments of ritual and reflection that will support in our emerging on the other side of pandemic with deeper courage, compassion, and commitment, rooted in the reality of this year’s experience of loss and interconnectedness,” Horowitz wrote.

I would say the same can be said at this stage of late pandemic as restrictions are loosening and change is on the horizon.

Horowitz offers a three-part frame for this pandemic anniversary rituals: (1) honoring grief, (2) naming what’s been learned and revealed, and (3) crossing the threshold. How might you – individually or as a part of whatever collective you belong to – create ritual to memorialize the losses and honor the learning at this stage of pandemic?

Concrete actions of support

In addition to creating ritual to memorialize losses and begin to seek meaning, we can also claim our agency through taking concrete actions to show support. While fight/flight/freeze stress responses are hard-wired into us as humans, the “tend and befriend” impulse is also hard-wired into our neurobiology, and we can choose to cultivate healthy versions of that.

Just Do What You Can

Again, for any beleaguered readers out there, please know I’m not asking you to undertake some grand volunteer project when you are feeling swamped and struggling to make it through the day. We all are at different places of capacity on any given day, and wherever we are is where we are.  

A concrete action of support that nurtures positive social connection doesn’t need to be involved, expensive, or time-consuming.

It could be something as simple as a phone call or a text to someone you know is feeling isolated, or an offer of doing a grocery run for a still-pandemically-precautious neighbor if you are fully vaccinated and feeling comfortable.

It could be a card or a letter expressing gratitude for those who have helped you to make it through this season – the medical staff who cared for a loved one during sickness, the church workers who livestreamed religious services, the author of an online reflection which offered nourishment or insight during a moment of loneliness or struggle.

Conclusion

So, no, there will very likely be no V-C day (Victory in COVID) celebration as there was in WWII, simply because the virus won’t negotiate surrender as humans do. Instead, we will continue to live in the long, ambiguous time of emergence, uncertain of if we should use the past or present tense as we talk about the cascading losses.

But we can move through it, as bumpy and slow and uncertain as it seems, and in the moving through, we can cultivate our inner soil for post-traumatic growth.

As we do, we can create ritual – individual and collective, religious and secular, simple or ornate – to commemorate the losses and draw our hearts, minds, bodies, and souls into a shift. 

We can carry out concrete actions of support, intentionally tapping into the “tend and befriend” response through participating in networks of social support. Whether it’s as big as organizing an effort to thank frontline workers or as small as giving a neighbor a ride to their vaccine shot, claiming our agency through action reminds us we aren’t powerless.

A Final Charge

And, echoing the vision of Arudhati Roy and Pope Francis, maybe we can touch into moments when the horizon expands beyond just getting through the day and we can dare to dream – not of returning to pre-pandemic normal, but of something that has never been.

And perhaps, if we all keep doing what we can to move toward it, we may continue, step by step, to form, as the Assertive Spirituality slogan goes, a “healthier world for us all.”

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One thought on “Reaching Toward Post-traumatic Growth in Late-Stage Pandemic

  1. This was an excellent blog. Thanks to your guest and to you for selecting her. She offers such a feeling of understanding how lost we may still feel and giving us hope that gradually we can walk out of it. Often it is not safe to express your grief – you are seen as so negative. Personally I see it as the only way to ever get to positive. Thanks again!

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