6 Questions to Help Process Our Pandemic Experiences

What if all the collective anger that we’re experiencing is actually masking a collective, profound hurt? What if the “real problem” is that we’re having a hard time hearing and expressing our collective grief to one another?

The coronavirus pandemic is an historic global disaster that has extended longer than most of us could have imagined. And it looks like the psychological, economic, spiritual, and physical effects will be with us for quite some time. 

But in talking about the impact of the pandemic, we need to be careful not to generalize. I’ve noticed an odd tension. On the one hand, the pandemic is a kind of universal global experience. We’ve all been impacted. On the other hand, we’ve each experienced the pandemic in our own particular and unique ways. 

Though the experience of grief and loss throughout the pandemic seems to be universal, the timing, severity, and nature of that loss has varied greatly. 

Just as one person finally breathes a sigh of relief after getting fully vaccinated, another person loses a close friend to Covid-19 after a grueling stay in the ICU.

Just as things start to get “back to normal” for you, someone else is experiencing the darkest hours of the pandemic yet.

For many of us, the pandemic has shattered our collective illusion of control. As the pandemic continues to evolve, how do we move forward? How do we survive the current reality, and live into the new reality – whatever that ends up looking like?

To do this well, we’re going to have to deal with our anger.

The good news is that humans have deep wells of resilience and power to shape how we respond individually and collectively to the grief, trauma, and injustice brought on by the pandemic.

One of the most basic and powerful ways for us to make sense of the pandemic is to tell our stories to one another.

Telling our stories can be therapeutic. But there are communal benefits to telling our stories, too. I was reminded of this over the summer when a community organizer gathered a small group of church members to facilitate a story telling session. 

The facilitator reminded us that building connections through storytelling is one of the fundamental ways organizations can begin to repair trust and build capacity. 

She reminded our small group of leaders of an essential truism: Organizations need to build strong relationships and a sense of collective trust if we are to have the imagination needed to survive and recover from the pandemic.

Storytelling can help organizations repair trust and build capacity.

Our storytelling session started with a fifth grader telling a group of adults aged 30-70 about how he’s experienced the pandemic. The adults continued by sharing our experiences in pairs and with the larger group. The diversity of experiences, perspectives, and wisdom in such a small group was striking. 

The basic act of sharing stories was more restorative than I had expected. I walked away from the session realizing how isolated I had felt during the pandemic. I know I’m not alone. You might need to tell your story, too.

So I’m sharing some of the prompting questions that we used, in case you find them helpful, too.  I’ve also added a few others. As you reflect on these questions, you may find it helpful to share and listen to others respond, too. I recommend finding a small group of people who you have a reasonable level of trust, and going through these questions together.

There’s power in sharing our stories.

1. Tell me about a time when you felt angry during the pandemic.

It’s no secret that there’s been plenty of anger directed in all sorts of directions. But anger is also one of the stages of grief. Listening to one another might help us to see the collective anger and polarization of the pandemic with a different perspective. In exploring your anger, you may actually discover elements of grief in your story and those around you. What if all the collective anger that we’re experiencing is actually masking a collective, profound hurt? What if the “real problem” is that we’re having a hard time hearing and expressing our collective grief to one another?

2. Tell me about a time when you felt scared during the pandemic.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the pandemic has caused many of us to experience new levels of visceral fear and anxiety. Though fear has been universal, our particular fears have varied greatly. 

Many of us had to consider the mortality of ourselves and those we love in ways we hadn’t previously. We’ve had to adjust our behaviors to protect ourselves and others. Our collective mental health has suffered.

Events coinciding with the pandemic have also added to this visceral fear. For example, some of my friends of color feared for the physical safety of their families during the recent U.S. election and aftermath.

Another friend is suffering from “long Covid.” Young and previously healthy, getting Covid-19 has been life altering. The experience of Covid-19 was so traumatizing that this friend is afraid of getting vaccinated. By now, millions have survived being hospitalized with Covid-19. A recent study found 30% of survivors had experienced PTSD. 

Our isolation during this time can compound the power of our fears. But expressing our fears to others is a way to reduce our sense of isolation. Listening to the fears of others is a way for us to begin to better understand one another when they act in ways we don’t understand.

3. Tell me about a time when you felt grateful during the pandemic.

Intentionally practicing gratitude is an effective way to manage stress and reframe our thinking. I talk more about this in another blog post about stress management. But listeners also benefit by hearing someone describe what they are grateful for. In hearing gratitude expressed by someone else, we gain insight into the other person’s values (i.e. family, career, neighborhood). Despite our individual differences, we can ‘hear’ the values expressed by someone else through what they choose to express gratitude for. In doing so, we may find shared values with those whom we disagree with.

4. What have been the 5-7 most important moments of the pandemic for you?

These events might be the big ones: recovering from Covid-19, graduating from school, job loss, or the passing of a close friend. But important moments often happen in the mundane parts of life. A book or conversation shifts our perspective entirely. Or a seemingly insignificant experience puts you on track for a major life transition down the road. Naming the importance of these events can help to prime us to look for these kinds of events in the future.

5. What have you learned about yourself through your pandemic experiences?

A famous line in T.S. Eliot’s poem The Four Quartets, says “We had the experience, but missed the meaning.”

Years ago, I used to lead college students on backpacking trips as a part of their leadership training. In leading groups through these experiences, the goal was for students to have the experience and “catch the meaning” of that experience. 

Our ritual was always to have a daily debrief of the high and low points of the day. These conversations would begin with simple story telling about our day. But the hope was that 

As we navigate our way through – and hopefully out of – this pandemic, I hope we don’t miss the potential insights about ourselves. I suspect many of us discovered we had more resilience and power than we thought. Or maybe we discovered we were less patient than we realized. Maybe we realized some things didn’t matter to us as much as we thought. And that some things were way more important than we realized.

6. So what? Now what?

My fellow educators will recognize this last pair of questions. These questions turn our attention to action. It’s one thing to take a sober look at ourselves by reflecting on our past behavior patterns. It’s another thing to allow the insight from that experience to inform how we navigate the future. But developing maturity and wisdom is harder than simply gaining life experience, right?

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