As strange as it may sound, my childhood experience and former career in science prepared me to manage expectations at the beginning of the pandemic. I grew up in a household of scarcity and quickly realized that it was better to keep expectations low, because it felt better to be pleasantly surprised than disappointed. And, as an academic, many years of designing, running, analyzing and refining experiments made clear the reality that science takes time. Sometimes, a really long time.
So when our world shut down in March 2020, I said to myself: “This is going to be a long haul. The kids are not going back to school this spring.”
In retrospect, though, my preliminary definition of “long haul” was way off. For context, I work full time and juggle multiple businesses; week-long school breaks used to induce panic. So it felt like a big deal to assume that in-school learning was over for the next three months; that felt like a legitimately long haul.
And as uncertainty continued through the spring and summer, I adjusted my long-haul mind-set to brace for remote learning for the entire 2020-2021 school year. Color me pleasantly surprised when hybrid schooling eventually became an option for my kids, though I have retained the assumption that this option could come off the table at any time in the instance of a coronavirus outbreak.
We have all continued to slog through this time of the coronavirus, but in the past couple of weeks — as we approach the one-year pandemic anniversary — I have seen a new level of exhaustion and sadness wash across parents. I feel it myself. Just last month, I wrote about how working moms were hitting the most massive of walls. Certainly, I was in that throng, screaming at the base of that massive wall, and yet, somehow, that wall seems to have recently grown thicker and higher. And I believe that these amplified feelings of distress are related to the rise in grief that we typically feel around loss milestones.
This ongoing time of uncertainty is parallel to grief, says Katie Hurley, child and adolescent psychotherapist and author. “Though we associate the grief process with death, it also applies to other forms of loss. For many, this pandemic feels like a series of losses, with no clear endpoint in sight,” she says. Grief “can include shifting emotions that feel unpredictable. It can also feel a lot like emotional pins and needles: The feelings are there, but you’re not sure what to make of them.”
Indeed. It’s worth underscoring Hurley’s point that loss takes many forms. For example, on a very small scale, I recently did the simple, depressing calculation that my younger daughter — who was the first among her friends to have a pandemic birthday — will soon have a second pandemic birthday, which will translate to 20 percent of her birthdays experienced. Yes, I told myself that she will have plenty of birthdays, but that figure still weighed on me.
On a much larger scale, announcements of annual events being canceled again and beloved local businesses closing because of the pandemic are bleak reminders of the economic devastation that has ripped through industries of all kinds. Then, on a massive, deeply painful scale, hitting numeric milestones such as 500,000 coronavirus-related deaths in the United States and 2.5 million deaths worldwide is staggering — an unfathomable number, save for the brutal scientific reality of what happens when a deadly virus is not taken seriously by everyone.
So how do we help our kids and ourselves through this grief-laden milestone? How do we find the strength to keep going through the remaining long haul of waiting for vaccinations and continuing through the slog of continued isolation, nonstop disruption and so many feelings?
Respect all feelings
I keep reminding parents that all feelings — the ones we’re experiencing ourselves and those of our kids — are valid. People process and express feelings differently, and the perception of loss will vary by personality, age and circumstances. For example, while I was in my 20 percent pandemic-birthday spiral, my daughter seemed unfazed; instead, she was excited to talk about cake. Just as it’s not productive to force kids to be happy, we can’t expect people to process grief the same way.
Be a helper
A little kindness goes a long way — for both parties. Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult” and the forthcoming “Your Turn: How to Be an Adult,” encourages people to be helpers as a way to cope with difficult times. “Stepping outside of our struggle, and even grief, to ask of ourselves, ‘What does my partner or kid or parent or friend or co-worker or neighbor or even this stranger need right now?’ and doing that thing graciously, patiently and with a smile is a great way both to make someone else’s day and to regain a sense of control for ourselves, which we desperately need in a time marked by fear and unpredictability.”
Do something different
One of the most effective ways to pull myself out of a fog is to do something different, especially something tactile, because life is otherwise so digital. When I was recently feeling deeply sad, I did a small tile-painting project with my family; it wasn’t an accident that I chose a detailed design that forced me to focus on tiny brushstrokes instead of my sadness. Hurley, author of “The Happy Kid Handbook” and “The Depression Workbook For Teens,” suggests people sing their stress. “It sounds silly, I know,” Hurley says, “but replacing your favorite Harry Styles lyrics with the story of your stress can help you work through your pressure points while you vent your emotions by way of singing.”
Cut the video, if necessary
Although human connection remains crucial, Zoom fatigue — for both kids and parents — has reached a new level. It’s okay to retreat from video and find a different way to connect. For example, maintain your connections through quick texts, voice memos or a card in the mail. And encourage your kids to get outside (masked, of course) with friends as much as possible.
Embrace rituals of any scale
Rituals — purposeful, meaningful practices — are powerful. Years ago, an educator friend shared that one effective way to get a sense of your kids’ daily experience is to play “high/low”: to simply ask for a high and low moment from the day. This ritual helps my family talk about the good and the bad in each day, and often leads to conversations about gratitude, resilience and more. Rituals can be a simple daily touchpoint like this or something more significant. “Rituals help us bond, process stuff, realize gratitude and ultimately keep going,” Lythcott-Haims says. She says she’s going to organize a ritual “to mark the year anniversary of the pandemic for my family, which includes my partner, two young adult children and my 82-year-old mother.” Lythcott-Haims plans to ask her family for their memory of when everything changed, one positive thing they’ve learned about themselves over the course of the pandemic, one thing they’re grateful for that’s happening in their life right now and something new they’re doing.
Identify a low-bar, small comfort
On a recent “Edit Your Life” podcast episode, I talked about how when things are so relentlessly difficult, it’s important to identify seemingly mundane, small comforts that can serve as touchpoints throughout the day. Identify a low-bar, small comfort, and lean in hard. For me, that’s setting up my coffee the night before, so all I have to do is press the “on” button in the morning. My feelings are so fragile these days that when I’ve forgotten to do this, I’ve let out a pained, primal groan, and on the days I remember, I start the day smiling.
Throw your stress in the dumpster fire
Want to show this pandemic dumpster fire who’s boss? Hurley has therapeutic advice. “For kids, pairing an activity with stress release makes a big difference. Try a little trash-can basketball to get the negative emotions out. Write each stressor on individual pieces of paper, crumple them up, then play a game of Horse as you throw those feelings away.” If your child isn’t into basketball, Hurley says, “kids can ‘fly away feelings’ by writing their worries down and making them into paper airplanes.”
So much remains out of our control. Allowing yourself and your children the space to feel feelings — while also focusing on small, tangible actions and comforts — will be key as we work our way through the next phase of this very long haul.
Christine Koh is a former music and brain scientist turned author, podcaster and creative director. You can find her work at christinekoh.com and on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook at @drchristinekoh.