Mind Matters — Reframing Reality

Recently, one of my cousins died suddenly—not of Covid-19, but of a heart attack. In “normal” times, such an event would have had all the extended family gathering together out of the diaspora we have become. Instead, her family will mark her death privately until a later date. There will be no great convening of large families now.

The rituals of life and death have ben radically altered by Covid-19. Births cannot be celebrated with grandparents and other relatives in attendance. Graduations are on Zoom!

In psychotherapy, we often talk about “reframing” the narrative. Is there a way to view a situation in a different light?

Rebecca Ridley, a funeral director, wrote recently in the Boston Globe about her experience during the pandemic. Even though large groups cannot congregate, and “it might seem that these small groups of ten are inadequate, that they can’t possibly do justice to our loved ones.” Instead, she says, she has seen “something miraculous. If you had to pick the ten people who loved you most to say goodbye, imagine how much love would fill the room. The intensity of devotion, the depth of tenderness, the pain of loss in these small groups is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. … It turns out that ten people coming together in love is exponentially more powerful than a virus.”

Perhaps her insight for death can be our reframing for life in the time of Covid-19. How do we come to terms with this new normal? There are numerous articles and media outlets that give evidence and perspective, and they run the gamut from how terrible everything is to how great it’s going to be. Reframing the situation does not imply being unrealistic. The reality is that we are in a pandemic that is running its course and that course will be exacerbated if we act hastily on unrealistic expectations of how things “should” be.

I wish I could say I was speaking from the mountaintop, but instead I write as my four-year-old granddaughter watches Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood—the episode where Daniel Tiger is traveling and going camping. She looks at me and starts talking about her camping trips and her visit to her Uncle in California and her trip to Tennessee for a family reunion last fall. She is lucky to have already traveled so much, but she is wistful, wondering when we will travel again. Granted, leisure travel even in Covid-19, is a first-world problem. I remember my own four-year-old world was constricted to the steps and sidewalk of a “half double” house in a New Jersey mill town.

There is worry about how children will fare in isolation. Research will no doubt weigh in with the facts. All I can do now is relate anecdotes. Children’s imagination and creativity can go full tilt as other busyness comes to a halt. Also there is nothing wrong with being bored. In frenetic lives, we stay busy and don’t take time to listen to our own thoughts or take in the beauty of a violet hidden in the grass.

What will Covid-19 time teach us? Will we appreciate the people who keep on working to keep us fed and who deliver all those packages that sit on our doorstep until they’re safe to open? Will we have profound respect for health professions as well as public health officials and scientists? Will we accept the need for science and vaccines once again? We sure do like the technology that is the byproduct of scientific research, but we somehow have lost how it all originated. Will we understand the value of mental health? Or face the facts about how inequality stacks the health cards against people of color and the poor? Will we all slow down enough to decide on a better future for all the kids who are now in isolation?

Lately, at dinner we have initiated saying what we are grateful for. Not only is it nice to take a moment for self-reflection, it is also “gratifying”! To hear what others in the family are grateful for that day. I have never been a Pollyanna nor am I one to spew positive psychology pap, but I do believe in reframing our perspective. Not to lose sight of the difficult reality but to trust that we can face it with resilience and hope—and love.