By Keith Bitner
I have always thought of myself as a positive person, not naively optimistic, but certainly not a pessimist. How then to explain to myself why I awoke several weeks ago with a dense, foreboding cloud slowly descending over me? As I dressed for work, I could feel its weight pressing on my shoulders. I told myself that maybe it was simply weariness from the intense efforts and heightened anxiety that my healthcare community was experiencing with the onset of a pandemic. Besides, the number of COVID patients were slowly dropping, we were well equipped with ventilators, things were slowly returning to normal.
Wait! Normal? I don’t feel like I’m returning to normal. I feel like the earth has shifted on its axis. I have this feeling that I’ve lost a lot lately, that we have lost a lot and it may not be coming back soon or ever.
And now, a second shock wave is rolling across the landscape, the continents and my own tired heart – the worldwide witness to a horrific murder, an old pandemic long hidden and often dismissed as just a rash on our global, social underbelly. Return to normal? I don’t think so, I hope not. Weariness? I don’t think my foreboding cloud is just weariness. Grief? Yes, but it feels like something else too. Disillusionment? I use the word rather tentatively, having only recently paid attention to it in an online article published by The Collective Psychology Project on the subject of collective grieving. The article includes a graph published by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services describing the emotional impact of catastrophic events.
My attention was drawn immediately to the deep valley of “disillusionment,” plunging lower on the graph than the period of impact. I suddenly felt identified, down there on that descending slope.
Bear with me. Remember I’m an optimist at heart. There is a reason we encourage people to grieve and to mourn. It is the portal through which healing and hope is found. As chaplains, we know that grief, and the actions and rituals of mourning, must come first. Most of us are doing this, and likely we have also been called upon in recent months to facilitate the process with others.
Maybe something like grief work needs to occur with disillusionment as well. Now that the “Heroes Work Here” signs seem to have served their purpose, and we have virtually high-fived one another for having survived the worst of this pandemic (we hope), perhaps we are now entering a new phase.
If there is an upside to the past few months, it might be the abrupt exposure to where we are as a species and what potentially lies ahead. We already knew about our ongoing global problems, but suddenly the hardened soil of “normal life” has been plowed up and overturned by the pandemic and the global unrest. “Disillusionment: Recognition of the limits of the response, feelings of abandonment, increased polarization.” Yes, I feel that.
No doubt some people want to pick up where they left off back in February or early March. However, like grief, maybe I have to go through my experience of disillusionment, not avoiding it but bearing it for a time. Maybe others in our workplaces are experiencing their own time of disillusionment as well. I know many chaplaincy departments have provided remarkable resources and hands-on support for their healthcare staff to date. What else might we need to attend to as the initial alarm and fear is subsiding and we enter the aftermath? How can we, as chaplains, help work the loosened soil brought on by our current crises? What are our tools to help staff give expression to where they are now?
Other generations have endured catastrophic times and told their stories. This is our time, and the narrative is already unfolding. What can we contribute to help make it explicit and healing? It will not be a one-and-done task. Every day, we will need to move beyond the longing to go back to normal and instead narrate our ascent to new beginnings.
Keith Bitner is a staff chaplain at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health in Lancaster, PA.