By Mary T. Tracy
“What all have I been missing? That is what I want to know.”
The 16-year-old sitting up in bed, only a couple of days away from being discharged to home, was finally feeling well enough to ponder the six weeks or so he had been struggling against COVID-19. A successful athlete, previously healthy and with no known underlying conditions, he struggled first to understand how he became sick at all, and then how he became sick enough to need weeks of life support and intensive care.
But I felt unprepared to respond to his question. We were out of the bare-knuckled praying phase, the N95-masked, covered from head to foot in PPE, shouting over the din of life-support machines phase. I had personally witnessed this young man rolled in a wheelchair, triumphantly, from the ICU to the step-down unit, staff lined up on all sides cheering. I had also watched him take his first steps with a walker while a therapist and nurse stood by with a chair if he stumbled. So many incremental steps marking progress. And yet, his question surprised me.
After a bit of a pause, I asked “Have you been in touch with friends recently?”
“Yes, my friends have been sending lots of stuff,” he said, gesturing to the impressive array of gifts, snacks, and colorful notes. “I haven’t had much energy for actual conversations, but I know lots of people are thinking of me, praying for me.”
I commended the young man for having such a great personal community, far greater than he could see at the moment. Then, after a moment of silent prayer to clarify my own thoughts, I asked if he was worried about having missed something in particular, like the Black Lives Matter protests. He waved this aside, briefly indicating that he understood the growing social awareness. In an instant, I was reminded of how the younger generations show such promise of chipping away at systemic injustices.
“That’s good,” I said aloud. “But do you know something? I think your friends might be just as interested in what you’ve been going through in the last six weeks.”
(I was thinking of the scene from a recent drama about the British royal family, in which Prince Philip meets with the U.S. astronauts who were the first to land on the moon. When he breathlessly asked the astronauts about their experience, they stumbled through laconic responses that clearly disappointed him. But then, with new enthusiasm, the astronauts asked the prince what it was like to be married to the Queen of England! Similarly, I thought, this young man might seem to his friends like an explorer who had been somewhere very few had ever been – and had fortunately escaped to tell the tale.)
“Spend some time thinking about what this experience has meant to you,” I said. “Even now, you can start considering how and with whom you would like to share it.”
He looked down, silent, as if considering a whole new perspective on his experience. “What do you remember?” I asked. “You might want to start writing it down, to help yourself identify and process it.”
This inspired me to ask various colleagues for interdisciplinary perspectives on how to advise a survivor of such a traumatic experience. A therapist recommended Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and in the months since then I have recommended it to countless patients, family members, friends and colleagues. It is a particularly relevant and inspiring book in this time of massive collective grief, outrage, despair, hope, and social change.
Frankl gives a brief account of his experience in the Nazi concentration camps, followed by a briefer analysis of the experience. He provides a generosity of spirit, an irrepressible hope – or “tragic optimism” as he puts it – grounded in the conviction that “if there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.” He later expands: “The meaning of life always changes, but it never ceases to be. … We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something [such as goodness, truth and beauty] or encountering [and loving] someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.” This third source of meaning is what he spends most of the book, describing by his words as well as by his very life and example.
Post-traumatic growth studies build on this notion of the meaning of life amidst suffering, adding the importance of storytelling and community to the process of meaning-making. It is a notion that continues to inspire me to follow my own advice, happily borrowed from Frankl, to the young man recovering from COVID-19 and a six-week hole in his conscious memory: May I keep paying attention to the meaning of my own life, small as it may be, and trust that God is working through all of it.
Mary T. Tracy, BCC, is a staff chaplain at Inova Fairfax Medical Center and Inova Schar Cancer Institute in Fairfax, Virginia.