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On coping with chronic sorrow and COVID-19

We are responding normally to an abnormal situation. We are doing our best.

Photo by Benjamin Combs on Unsplash

Chronic sorrow, a term which has been used in the medical literature for many years, is described as a normal response to an abnormal situation. Specific characteristics, as described by Eakes and colleagues in their article “Middle-Range Theory of Chronic Sorrow” (Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 1998) include a perception or sadness or sorrow over time in a situation with no discernible end; sadness that is cyclical or recurrent; sadness that is triggered internally or externally and brings to mind a person’s disappointments, losses or fears; and sadness that is progressive and can intensify. The ambiguous or never-ending nature of the circumstances precludes resolution and instead precipitates periods of intense sorrow, sometimes described as loss in bits and pieces.  It is the disparity created by what one desires or what one had in the past with what one is experiencing that is the common denominator associated with chronic sorrow.

It occurs to me that we as a society are collectively experiencing chronic sorrow as we grapple emotionally with the impact of the pandemic.  Although recent news about vaccination development is quite encouraging, and some vaccines are already being distributed, much about the vaccines’ effectiveness and how and when they’ll be widely distributed remains uncertain.

A roller coaster of information

This massive uncertainty interferes with our ability to focus on the future.  We face a roller coaster of information that raises our hopes, only to dash them. It is impossible to forget about the virus as we are surrounded by masked individuals and a parade of news about business and school closings, thus constantly triggering anxiety. We aren’t getting clear messages from our leaders about how we can protect ourselves. And we constantly mourn the loss of things we used to take for granted that are no longer possible: a restaurant meal, a large family reunion, a sporting event, a grandchild on one’s lap.

When this period in our history is over, most of us will resume our lives relatively unscathed, although it may take a while for some of us to get back on our feet financially or for children to catch up academically. But for those who lose a loved one, suffer enduring health problems, experience such severe setbacks that dreams and futures are forever dashed, chronic sorrow may continue to circulate.

Meanwhile we must do our best to live with this very challenging situation. Most of us are familiar with ordinary coping skills: keep busy, think positive, maintain healthy habits. All easier said than done in our current situation.

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‘And Therapy’

Before I retired as a psychologist, I found particularly useful a strategy for managing intense emotions that I have heard called “And Therapy.” Such therapy begins with the concept of validation. When a client told me his or her most personal feelings, I was quiet and just listened. If I did make a comment I would validate these thoughts or feelings with words like “I understand why you feel that way.” Or “I would feel the same way if that happened to me.”

photo of article author
Martha Bordwell
The concept of validation is one we could all use during this period. Allow our friends and family to express their honest feelings without trying too hard to “buck them up,” without arguing about which approach to the virus is the best one, and without trying to change their minds.

At the same time, we have a right to assert our own feelings and opinions, with statements such as “I understand that you want to spend more time with the grandchildren, but I just don’t feel that is safe right now.” “My reading has convinced me that masks protect both you and me.”

‘And what do you think … ?’

After a person has a chance to fully express his or her opinions, it is appropriate to move on to the “And” mentioned above. As in “And what do you think you should do about it?” or “And what do you think should happen next?” Using words such as “but” or “at least” are invalidating and judgmental, because they imply there is a right way to feel. One benefit of the “and” is that it often focuses on behavior. It is important for individuals to be aware that whereas they can’t easily control their thoughts or their feelings, they can control their behavior.

I think all of us can practice the two steps of “And Therapy” without needing a degree in psychology to do so. 1) Listen and validate. 2) Add an “and,” not a “but.”

While we wait out the virus, we must give ourselves permission to label what we are feeling as a form of chronic sorrow. We are responding normally to an abnormal situation. We are doing our best.

Martha Bordwell of Minneapolis writes about current events, family life, and travel.


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