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Healing from the trauma of COVID-19

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Three weeks ago, my daughter contracted COVID-19. Until then, the virus was more of a specter, something deeply disturbing but also distant. It haunted our dreams and our back-of-the-mind thoughts about the future. It made us feel vulnerable and threatened.

Then, suddenly, that distant specter became something more like a home intruder. My daughter, Gabrielle, the eldest of my two girls, didn’t just contract coronavirus. She was leveled by it. The life of my baby, grown as she is, who (to her mother anyways) is the essence of all that is good in the world, was at risk. And I was terrified.

I’ve never been stabbed but, for the first time, I learned what it feels like to have a knife in my heart. Minutes felt like hours, days stretched into years. Worst of all, just when all I wanted was to wrap my arms around her, it was precisely the moment I couldn’t be with her.

Looking back on the experience, which is so fresh the psychological and emotional wounds are still raw, I can now see all the hallmarks of a trauma-causing event. As a psychotherapist and clinical licensed social worker, I’ve seen these symptoms countless times in not only my patients, children and teens, but also in their parents.

As my daughter recovers, and the clouds of our anguish begins to recede, I’ve begun to think about the aftermath of coronavirus. We know, both from personal experience and the endless stream of news coverage on the topic, that the economic consequences of COVID-19 will be profound. But what few are talking about are the psychological and emotional scars that huge swaths of our society will be carrying with them for years.

Over the years, I’ve encountered hundreds of students suffering from the trauma of mass shootings at schools. Fortunately, in no case has any of my patients been direct victims of these shootings. But virtually all of them are second-order victims of this terrifying phenomenon. The effects of school lockdown drills, the images replayed on TV, and the very notion of their vulnerability has created in many of them an extreme stress, and in some outright trauma.

In the wake of coronavirus, it’s all but unavoidable that we will have to cope with trauma of this kind. For some, it will be from the tragic loss of loved ones, no matter how old or young. For others, like me, it will be precipitated by the horrible reality of a sick child, parent, brother or sister that careened into our lives almost without warning.

What’s essential is that on a social and individual level we begin to acknowledge this trauma now. Socially, we need to begin a conversation about the non-material toll COVID-19 has taken on us. In the very depths of the crisis, people joined together to support one another. Now, too, as we start to face the day after the virus, we will have to lean on one another as we pick up the pieces.

On an individual level, people need to start taking immediate action in order to mitigate the effects of potential trauma. This doesn’t have to be a complex or expensive undertaking. It can be as simple as learning about, and practicing, self-care.

Those of us still stuck at home can begin by creating a daily routine of checking in with yourself to ask yourself how you are doing. This can include beginning a mediation practice or journaling your experiences. Use whatever medium works for you: writing, drawing, taking selfies that create a space for you to express your thoughts and feelings, etc. Encourage your children and/or parents to join you in this process.

But, just as importantly, we need to think about others in our families and social circles. Like in a mass war, everyone has been affected, whether they’ve lost loved ones, or faced isolation and loneliness, or, in my case, have had to look on, powerless, as someone we cherish suffered from this terrible illness.

All along, the best and bravest among us—including our best medical leaders but also the community, spiritual and cultural leaders who have been instrumental—have spoken with calm concern, assuring us that we will get through this. We can, and must, affirm the same thing when it comes to the trauma that will inevitably arise out of a crisis as deep and earth-shattering as this one.

We have to embrace the fact that, just like with the fight against the virus itself, we will overcome our trauma by facing it head on. By being open and honest, by caring for one another, we can begin to heal together.

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Nancy J. Kislin, LCSW, MFT is a leading expert in helping parents, educators and communities cultivate resilience in an age of uncertainty. With more than 28 years of experience as a therapist and educator, Nancy specializes in helping individuals struggling with anxiety, depression and trauma. She is the author of Lockdown: Talking to Your Kids About School Violence, a book that examines the psychological and emotional impact of “lockdown culture” on kids.

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