My descent into chaos began with a failure of imagination. When I headed north into the Russian Arctic in August 2019, I was writing a book about Dutch sailors stranded for the winter more than four centuries ago. I wanted to see for myself the place they had been trapped.

Instead of finding a northeastern passage to China, the crew of the doomed ship I was researching lost their vessel to ice. They wound up facing months of polar night, fending off attacks by hungry polar bears, and enduring year-long near-death experiences.

I’d long been aware of the risks of going to the Arctic, where small problems can easily cascade into crises. But it turned out that it wasn’t Arctic voyaging that I should have been worrying about — it was returning to my suburban Virginia home.

Like William Barents, the navigator of the Dutch voyage I was researching, I’ve gone on three Arctic expeditions. Each time, I came back to find my family in greater distress than when I left. After I returned from my second trip, late in 2018, my mother was diagnosed with dementia, my stepfather with Stage 3 lung cancer, and my father with pancreatic cancer. While I was at sea on the third trip, the next summer, my beloved cousin, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, died at 47.

In early 2020, just as the novel coronavirus began to circle the world, my uncle — the one who had regularly offered to buy me a drum kit as a child — learned that he had advanced colon cancer. We lost him near the end of April, followed by my stepfather in early May. My father had surgery and stabilized, but my brother and I took turns caring for our paranoid mother in Virginia. In a judicial system that had slowed to a crawl because of the pandemic, we had to pursue legal guardianship of her against her will. It might not have worked at all, if she hadn’t threatened an officer of the court and claimed to be friends with the president. Months later, she went into assisted living, believing every day that her dead husband would pick her up the next morning.

Competitive suffering is surely a fool’s Olympics. It’s useless to pit the bitter saga of my Arctic Dutchmen against the recent cascade of devastation in my own life. And both tales of woe are a speck in the sea of hundreds of thousands of Americans lost to the virus this year — let alone the more than 1.5 million people dead worldwide.

Still, as I finished work on my Barents book, trapped at home in a caregiving role for which I was completely unsuited, I felt ever closer to my stranded sailors. I would ultimately draw lessons from that crew in the Arctic, looking not for consolation but for strategy. These lessons likewise apply to life in our botched state of Pandemia.

The first is that damage is sometimes self-inflicted. My sailors not only poisoned themselves with polar bear liver — layers of their skin peeled off from head to toe — but also nearly asphyxiated themselves as well by burning toxic ship’s coal in their cabin without ventilation. At times, the very things they did to survive made them the biggest threat to their own survival.

The same could be said for me. As the situation spiraled out of control with my mother in the house while my husband and I were working at home and the kids, at least nominally, attending virtual school, I took on more and more challenges. I began Russian classes — at first in person, then, starting in February, via Zoom. I promised my agent my next book proposal. I agreed to write a short music biography. I said yes to a request to write the preface to a book on Chinese detention policies in the Xinjiang region.

By the time I began taking written exams toward certification for dry-suit scuba diving, I was doing too much — all in an effort to regain at least a little control over my life. And, unsurprisingly, everything I was juggling increasingly made things worse. Some days, the physical sensation of my body under stress made me wonder whether I was having a heart attack.

Second, I came to see more clearly that standing on ceremony is not worth a human life. The first sailor to die on Nova Zembla was the ship’s carpenter. The frozen ground made burial a grueling, sometimes impossible task. Forced to choose between building a shelter and burying their mate, they gave up familiar rituals in favor of those who were still alive. The men tucked his body into a crevice of a hill amid snow and ice before going to gather more driftwood for lumber.

While I was retracing Barents’s route at sea, I missed not only my cousin’s death but also his memorial service. Even driving an hour and a half to pay respects to his widow months later was fraught with awkwardness inflicted by the virus. I traveled to visit her because I wanted to deliver an advance copy of my Arctic book, so she could see that it was dedicated to her husband. We sat masked and socially distanced in the backyard, agreeing not to hug or touch.

It would have been just as foolish to hold an in-person funeral for my uncle or my stepfather. For now, the ways we can express our grief will be insufficient and incomplete.

Third, crises can seem to be over before they are really done. As they tried to get home to the Netherlands in 1597, Barents’s crew members often thought they had exhausted their last reserves of strength. They dragged their boats and provisions across the top of the final iceberg blocking their way to open water — only to realize a day later that they would have to do it all over again.

Last year was similarly relentless. Before the pandemic took hold, I found an assisted-living facility not too far from my house, but we held off on moving my mother there when the virus began to spread. As time went on, residents continued to elude the virus completely. My brother and I still waited half a year before signing the lease. A month after my mother was in her new quarters, I began to relax, confident that the worst had passed. That was the week the facility got its first cases, among both staff and residents. They are still battling to keep it under control.

Finally, I learned to remember that things can always get worse. One afternoon off the Nova Zemblan coast, Barents’s ship was nearly lost to an iceberg. Escaping danger brought the men into a precarious spot near an island with the wind in the wrong direction. As they scrambled to turn the ship, they woke a polar bear, which moved to attack them. They had to abandon the first crisis to face a more pressing emergency.

Back in Virginia, as I wrestled with the growing threat of the virus in my mother’s facility, my husband went for an evening run. Three blocks from our house, he suffered a brain aneurysm. He would spend more than a week in intensive care, obliterating any possibility of bringing my mother back to our house.

I have no inspirational mottos to offer. Not everyone stranded on Nova Zembla that winter survived.

I wondered at times whether I would get through the year. And it’s already clear that not all of us will make it through this new one. Even with vaccines in the first stages of distribution, thousands of people are still dying needless, preventable deaths — and will continue to do so every day. If Barents and his men have any lessons to offer, it’s that we should mourn later, fight to save one another now and brace ourselves for weeks, if not months, of rough seas ahead.