It's The 3rd Anniversary Of COVID: Here Are 12 Big Questions To Reflect On Now
March 11, 2023, marked the official three-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Three years is a long time to deal with anything, particularly something that has caused so much pain and loss. Many of us have been eager to move on from COVID and get back to "normal," whatever that is. After years of daily disruption and danger, we long to put the past behind us and find some way of catching up on lost time and experiences.
As a clinical psychologist who helps people move through pain, I believe there is danger if we move on too quickly. Of course we want to get on with life—and we should—but the key is how we move forward. The temptation after so much pain and lost time is to rush ahead, trying to resurrect and reengage in our previous lives as quickly as possible. If we choose to do this, we will likely miss out on one of the only positive outcomes of this challenging experience: the possibility of transforming and growing from this pain.
There are three important steps we can undertake to transform the pain we experienced during the pandemic:
Acknowledge your losses and grief.
First, we need to acknowledge our losses and our grief about them. Very few of us like how it feels to grieve. Yet, grieving is a necessary precondition for healing and moving into the new.
Each of us may have grieved some of the losses and negative outcomes of COVID already, but there may be other losses that linger, particularly those that are hard to articulate or may feel uncomfortable to discuss with others.
Sometimes we are afraid to open ourselves up to grief and other so-called negative emotions because we fear once we start to feel the emotions, we'll never stop feeling them. However, research shows that when we name an emotion, we actually lessen its intensity1. The brain, in essence, calms down when we put words to our emotions and our experience.
Then, after we name our feelings and experiences, we might use a personally meaningful ritual that would help to release them, to bring a sense of peace. For example, one of my clients wrote the name of a loved one she had lost on a stone and then put the stone in the ocean, symbolically releasing her back into the circle of life.
Acknowledging our losses and feeling our feelings is a difficult but necessary step in moving forward.
Here are some questions to help you acknowledge and grieve your losses:
- What has been painful for me throughout COVID? What have I lost?
- How have I fully grieved these losses and/or painful experiences?
- What still hurts?
- What can I do to acknowledge these hurts, and who might support me as I work through my pain?
If after your efforts to acknowledge losses, the grief has not lessened or is intensifying and interfering with your ability to function, that's a good signal to reach out for support. Mental health professionals have the necessary training and tools to help you heal and recover.
Accept a new normal.
Second, we can reflect on what has changed in our lives—for better or worse—and accept and adapt to our new normal. COVID-19 changed how each of us lived our lives. Our daily routines and way of life were upended, and for some of us, our lives have changed so drastically that we can't, like Humpy Dumpty, seem to put it all back together again.
However, maybe trying to glue our lives back together is the wrong approach. What if there are things in our lives that needed to be disrupted? What if there are new routines and ways of being that serve us better? Things we would never have known or tried without this major upheaval. Our lives are not and never will be the same as they were pre-COVID, and in at least some ways, maybe that's a good thing.
For example, remote and hybrid work have not only become possible, but they have also become preferable for many workers. Another example: Many relationships have been put to the test during extended quarantines, resulting in either too much or too little time together, causing us to reevaluate with whom we want to spend our time.
In short, normal is simply what we have become used to, what we accept. And normal can and should change, as we learn and evolve. With a healthy dose of acceptance and reflection, rather than resistance, we can make purposeful decisions on how we want to live going forward.
Below are some questions to help you reflect on your new normal and your resiliency in the face of change. The information you glean will help you be more intentional about how you want to move forward in your life:
- What has changed in your life as a result of COVID?
- Which of these changes do you like, and why?
- What is your new normal, and how different is this from your life pre-COVID?
- What upset your equilibrium that you later found yourself managing and maybe even mastering?
Choose to bloom in the dark.
Third, we can do more than just accept and adapt to change: We can also grow from stressful and traumatic situations, in ways that were not possible if the traumatic event didn't happen. I call this phenomenon "blooming in the dark," which is based on the empirical concept of post-traumatic growth. Like flowers that require the dark to bloom, many of us grow in the dark seasons of life. We can choose to be Night Bloomers.
The last three years of COVID have certainly been a dark season in our lives. If we only focus on the losses and challenges, our lives can feel overwhelming, even meaningless. Instead, we can adopt the perspective of a night bloomer: looking for what can be gained from this hardship. In this way, we can create a sense of purpose and meaning, which are both critical for healing and recovery.
Trauma research2 has shown that time does not heal all wounds, but meaning-making can. We can find meaning in the last three years by focusing on what positive growth has or could emerge, by reflecting on what we learned, and by analyzing how we can be better going forward. This is how we can transform from the pain.
For example, maybe you learned that your work schedule was causing you to miss out on your children's lives, and you have decided to prioritize family time going forward. Or, maybe through your own suffering, you learned how to be more patient or tolerant. Or, maybe you've realized just how precious and short life is, and you've decided that there are things in life that you no longer want to avoid or put on the back burner.
Here are some questions you can ask to set yourself up to bloom in the dark:
- What unexpected benefits occurred in my life as a result of COVID?
- What am I appreciating more now?
- What lessons did I learn, and how will I live differently going forward?
- How did I grow and become more than I was before COVID occurred?
COVID has given us an opportunity to bloom in the dark not only as individuals but also as a nation and as a global community. We can and we must reflect on what we have learned about our global interconnectedness, about how we want to share knowledge and resources in the future, and about what injustices and inequalities need to be rectified.
By taking the time to think and converse about how we want to use what we learned during these dark times, we can propel ourselves forward in ways that would not otherwise be possible.
The COVID pandemic doesn't have to have resulted in only disruption, trauma, and heartbreak. If we look back and reflect on what changed in our lives and our world, make an effort to learn from our experiences, and then choose to do things differently going forward, we have the chance to transform ourselves—to both heal and grow. In this way, we can not only get on with our lives but create more purposeful and fulfilling lives.
So, let's collectively slow down, look back, and then choose to use this very challenging season to become more than we were before it occurred.
Michelle Pearce, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, researcher, author, board-certified health and wellness coach, and professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. She graduated from Yale University with a doctorate in clinical psychology and completed her clinical internship and post-doctoral fellowships at Duke University Medical Center. She has written over 65 peer-reviewed journal articles and book chapters and published several books: Night Bloomers: 12 Principles for Thriving in Adversity, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Christians with Depression: A Tool-Based Primer, and Religion and Recovery from PTSD. Her clinical specialties include cognitive behavioral therapy and working with individuals in relationships with narcissistic partners.