Understanding Grief, Resilience and the New “War” at Home

Older man wincing into hand

Posted April 22, 2020 by UVM Medical Center

I was very young when we were taken to an underground shelter, when bombing sounds began and war started. In my hometown we had the only home with a built-in bomb shelter and neighbors joined us. I remember that experience very vaguely, but enough that it left a mark. I have memories of my father covering the windows and glass doors with dark blankets when the radio announced a terrorist crossed over the border and was not far from where we lived. My father was concerned that he may target our home since it was strategically situated. It was scary.

Throughout the years, we grew up with sounds and echoes of bombing, F-16 planes, and sirens that became common and normal, as we did not know otherwise. Then came the Lebanon wars, the gulf war, and suicide bombers. Each stage appeared scarier as we ventured into a new reality that we had not known before. But, once the experience became familiar, our intense fears lessened – it was a part of life. And we lived.

Eventually, things became normal again with some sense of control. People were once again out in cafes drinking their cafe au lait, laughter filled the streets and life continued. I realized that the sense of unity and togetherness, our quick responses and laughter were all signs of human resilience. Hope drove us forward. Living became important, the ‘here and now' became important.

I later left my country and moved to NYC – partly to leave war behind. And then 9/11 happened. I was in class at the time, pursuing an academic degree. Having dealt with this type of stress before, I felt prepared as were my colleagues who had also ventured to America; we answered the call to our work. From our past war experiences we all had learned to react quickly, with rationally-focused responses, and to act as needed. I have carried those lessons with me, and find them helpful now as we face a global health crisis.

When the War Comes Home

Humanity has encountered wars since ancient times. Now, it appears that the gap between us and war has shrunk. Once waged on battlefields, wars are now fought at home, against an invisible and unquantifiable enemy lurking everywhere – from our weekly produce shopping to our use of public transportation. We wear masks, we sanitize, we dismiss our natural instincts to congregate and console and instead avoid other humans. The present enemy is targeting one's own respiratory system. The war is no longer a faraway image on the television screen, but is lurking within our own bodies, and possibly everywhere.

COVID-19 makes no place safe and thus the anxiety and worry, fear, and depression that comes along with it can become greater as it may feel that there is no place to hide. While our reality is not normal, our adverse, anxious and worried reaction to it is. In essence, we are grieving the loss of our normalcy.

Experiencing and Understanding Grief

Many of us now have the opportunity to slow down and understand our responses to this global stressor. With that understanding, we can begin to process our reactions and cultivate hope in our daily lives. Grief is considered a healthy, normal response to loss. We grieve what has changed and what we have lost during this abnormal and uncertain time – the loss of our daily routines, our educational advancement and important moments in our lives.

All of our responses are valid, as we are all different in personality, experiences, and demeanor. Some may respond with denial, enter into shock, react in anger, sadness, bargain, or respond with acceptance. These are the typical stages of grief and bereavement as defined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.

We may even be grieving the loss of moments that have yet to come. Anticipatory grief has been associated with heightened distress, medical complications, and pain. We may experience sadness, fear and anxiety, or a sense of impeding loss. These are normal responses to stressors. 

It may be helpful to remember difficult past experiences that we endured. In this way, we are able to cope better, hold a sense of agency, to know that we are and will continue to be okay. And we are able to remember what mattered most during those previous challenges, to focus on what is really important. We are able to recognize that relationships are crucial and that together we will get through this. We can accept that yes, we are all tired. Very tired. This experience is exhausting, but it shall pass.

Embracing Hope

From difficulties regulating emotions in the face of collective trauma, we can see evidence of resilience and hope born out of the hardest experiences. I have asked close friends that emigrated from a different country, a country torn with persistent devastating war, how they embrace hope. They explained that the strong understanding that life continues, the knowledge that individuals hold the strength to fight and live helps them. In my experience growing up in a war-torn country, what was protective, what helped us get through a moment of collective fear, worry and stress has become a reminder for me that individuals are resilient and can survive.

The Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung noted that we are connected through a common human fabric, a collection of engrained beliefs and inherited, unconscious instincts unique to humans that mold our beliefs around spirituality, religion, fear, life and death, and architypes such as the instinctive and irrational shadow. Right now, during COVID-19, we are all living a collective experience that in its own unique way unifies and unites us all.

If we can learn from our own difficult experiences and those of people who face grave circumstances like war, we can also learn how to live, to understand what is important and how to cope with the COVID-19 virus that can be threatening our tranquility, balance, and mental health. We can understand that we need to maintain a sense of strength and hope during this adversity. When we accept life's fragility, we also come to understand that we need to live to the fullest, with increased emphasis on the ability to love, to connect to others, the sense of togetherness and kindness that we are witnessing, and to respect and connect to ourselves, to mother nature, and to others.

We are all learning a lesson in slowing down, and in hope. As Elizabeth II, the Queen of England noted, we shall meet again. And it will be alright.

By Shira R. Louria, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist-Doctorate and Staff Psychologist at UVM Medical Center

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