Suddenly, life as we knew it looks altogether different. With a pandemic unfolding around us, everyday life has changed in ways many of us never imagined. While we take steps to keep healthy and protect ourselves and loved ones from the new coronavirus, COVID-19, we may also feel that the ground beneath us right now is unsteady, crumbling even.
Hospital chaplains are familiar with this territory. Daily, they talk with patients struggling to make sense of life-threatening illness and the upending of their lives. They regularly offer comfort to patients and their loved ones in times of uncertainty and fear.
What can they offer us now in this unique time of crisis? We reached out to some of our Samaritan Health Services to hear their suggestions.
First, recognize that we are now experiencing loss, said Douglas Hollums, chaplain for Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital and Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital.
“Our previous ways of living are no longer available to us, even the simple practices of visiting with family, or going to school or a restaurant, all that has changed, and we don’t know for how long. That brings grief and we don’t know what to do,” he said.
“Not knowing what to do leads to fear,” Hollums said. “For those of us with a faith tradition, we have been taught to trust in someone greater than ourselves, whether that is God or a higher power, whatever name you use. We must release ourselves to that trust and realize that we cannot understand everything. There will be a lot of ‘whys’ and we won’t figure them all out, but in that trust, we can find the hope that we will receive what we need to work through it all.”
Petros Savva, chaplain at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center, recommends doing what has worked for you before in times of struggle.
“I like to ask people, ‘Where do you find meaning or purpose outside yourself? Wherever that is, that is spirituality,” Savva said. “How do you get to that place where you find peace or joy? This is very individual for everyone.”
You could find that peace and joy by listening to special music, sitting in prayer or silence, or digging your hands into the dirt of your garden, cooking or creating something new.
Control What You Can
What you may find is that the lack of control we are experiencing with the pandemic right now is frightening to you. That is normal, said Edward Wangenstein, chaplain at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center.
“When we feel a loss of control, we need to focus on the things we have control over. One of the things we focus on as chaplains is to help people to not define themselves according to their struggle,” he said. “For instance, avoid defining yourself as a sick person. Instead, remember that you are a person with hobbies and accomplishments with people who love you, and you just happen to be sick.”
When it comes to stressful situations, Hollums suggests thinking in terms of being “the thermostat rather than the thermometer.”
While a thermometer reflects the temperature, it can go up or down in minutes, while the thermostat in our home is set to regulate temperature. Using that analogy, “to be the thermostat in a tense situation means you work at bringing the tension down rather than reacting and increasing the tension,” he said.
Reach Out to Others
One way you can take back some control in this unsettled time is to reach out to others.
“We are social beings; even those of us who identify as loners still need some contact with people,” said Hollums. “Now is a good time to call someone. If you know someone is alone, contact them and check on them. That act of giving will help you both.”
“This is an opportunity to pay more attention to each other’s needs, to hear each other more, to hear the pain in each other’s hearts and to ask how we can help,” he said.
“Giving of ourselves to others takes away that sense of loneliness and powerlessness,” Hollums noted. “You can be that first step in healing loneliness.”
As social beings, we are used to gathering in community, whether it be in the more formal faith group setting or casual gatherings with family and friends. The current pandemic has forced us to rethink community in creative ways.
Most faith communities, for instance, hold their services now through live streaming on social media so that congregants can log on and participate from their homes. Families and friends are discovering that video connections through Skype or FaceTime can provide a reasonable facsimile to being together in one room. Many virtual communities offer free webinars; a quick search of Google could find you connecting with people from all over the world around your favorite topic. And for those who aren’t especially techno-savvy, why not revise the lost art of letter-writing? The United States Postal Service continues to deliver mail.
With important holidays coming up soon, this new way of communicating may feel extremely lacking. Hollums suggests that if you haven’t already, call your pastor or group leader and find out how you can stay connected.
“We know there is great value in face-to-face gatherings, but I encourage people to explore new ways of doing that safely,” said Hollums.
“There is value being in solidarity with others through prayer or silence, even online,” said Wangestein.
If you find that this crisis is prompting you to reevaluate what is important to you and what is not, that, too is to be expected, said Wangenstein.
“Through all this, we bend our ear, trying to hear what we need to understand as a human being,” he said. “Our society is so fractured; maybe this time can help us to learn how much we really need each other and also what we have in common. We are all prone to the same disease, for instance.”
We can pay attention to the bigger questions of ourselves as individuals also, said Savvo.
“This is a good opportunity to ask ourselves, ‘Who am I? What is my purpose in life?’ Listen to what is going on in your heart and ask how you might live differently.”
Wangenstein recommends looking at how you are spending your time and your money. Is this how you want to continue living, or are you feeling an urge to move in different directions? Journaling may help uncover those answers, as can having a deep conversation with a trusted friend.
“Right now, we are in a slowed down pace, but our usual tendency is to go from one obligation and responsibility and event to another, and then to another. Now’s a good time to ask yourself, ‘What is alive in me today?’ and noticing what comes up. This information can help us deepen our self-awareness, and get clearer about who we want to be,” said Wangenstein.
Also, don’t forget to exercise and eat well during this time to support good health. If you have additional demands on your time, such as having restless children at home, or being plunged into an unexpected job search, remember to take time for yourself, whether going for a walk outside or sitting quietly in meditation. Avoid escaping with addictive substances, and instead, look for ways to constructively help you cope with the stress. Why not take this time to develop a healthy new habit?
One of the constants in life is struggle. While a pandemic is new to most of us, crisis of one type or another is not. The important thing to remember in this latest one is that which lifted you up previously can also work now.
“If we have been practicing a faith or spiritual tradition, these are the times in which the rubber meets the road, the times we have been practicing for,” Hollums said. “Now is the time to draw upon that which provides hope for you. Whatever avenue has worked for you before, do that.”If you or a loved one is experiencing a serious illness, specialized medical care is available through Samaritan Supportive Services. Care is focused on providing relief from symptoms, pain and stress to improve quality of life for both you and your caregivers.