The Triumph of Resilience in a Pandemic

John Stephens, MD, MBA, CFA, CFP®

Dec 4, 2020

Only six months ago, when the full force of the pandemic hit the U.S., there was an unspoken agreement that we would all learn to cope, cheerfully and creatively, with the drastic changes in our lives. So we cracked open bottle after bottle for happy hours via Zoom. We binge- watched Hulu and Netflix. We baked and ate comfort food without guilt.

Well, we’re all tired of banana bread and the novelty of online cocktail parties has faded. Life has settled into a dreary monotony. The forced optimism of last spring has gotten wearisome. Summer brought disappointment and dread and there’s no end in sight. Lockdowns are lonely. Masks are annoying. After months of confinement, home feels like hermitage to some of us. We’re in a new phase of the pandemic. Call it a COVID crash.

Our resilience in the face of adversity is so also being tested even further by other events. There are deep and distressing fault lines opening up in our culture and society. A tense election season is behind us. Economic instability and volatile markets are rattling not only the nation, but also the world. What’s happening to us and what can we do about it?

First, I believe we need to honestly and openly grieve our losses, which are many. Some of us have lost loved ones to COVID. Others have lost jobs. Some retirement plans have been derailed while a generation of young people eager to start their careers is stalled behind the starting gate. Perhaps hardest of all, we’ve lost most of the ceremonies and rituals that define our lives: funerals, graduations, weddings, reunions.

All this hit me hard last spring. I’d hosted a reunion of some friends from medical school in late February, among them my former roommate, a successful gastroenterologist from Boston. I don’t get to see him often and he’d recently been diagnosed with cancer, so it was a rare treat to relax with beers around the backyard fire pit with him and our friends. Now in our 50s, we still share the strong bond we did in our 20s. On his way home, though, he and his wife stopped to visit Nashville, where he suddenly and devastatingly developed acute complications from the cancer treatment. He died about one week later.

Due to government restrictions on gatherings, there was no wake and no funeral. His wife was also one of my med-school classmates but I couldn’t be there to comfort her when she needed it most. In the weeks and months that followed, everything — his visit, so full of joy, then his death, far from home — seemed surreal to me. With no funeral, my grief felt strange and unsettling. It is taking me months to come to terms with his death. Therapists call this an ambiguous loss, an emptiness so vague and undefined that we don’t know how to grieve.

I’m not alone in this. We’re all experiencing ambiguous loss in one form or another these days. It isn’t just the big events or traditions that we’ve lost. Even things as ordinary as meeting friends for coffee, going to yoga class or singing in the church choir are off-limits leaving us unmoored. COVID hangs over the future like a fog. We’re striking long-anticipated trips and events off the calendar month after month. Trick-or-treating with the grandchildren? Cancelled. Christmas? Who knows. Some of you are recent retirees who spent years looking forward to all the dreams you plunked onto the bucket list. The pandemic punched a hole in your bucket.

At the same time, we need to acknowledge a painful truth. Some of the platitudes we’ve embraced in the last few months are just plain wrong. We’re not in this pandemic together. We may be in the same storm, but we’re not all in the same boat. Like a hurricane, the pandemic is battering our lives leaving some in a shambles while others are only lightly damaged. What’s worse, it seems likely that it will continue to rampage through our lives for some time, inflicting destruction without notice.

The pandemic is a crisis with no end in sight. Our challenges, losses and hurts are uniquely ours and ours alone. That’s not to say we can’t mourn our losses even knowing that others have had it much worse. That’s where empathy comes in. There’s no point in comparing our suffering. We’re all struggling in one way or another.

What’s the Salve for All This Heartbreak?

I have to believe that there’s got to be some respite in sharing our experiences with others we can count on to understand and empathize. I hadn’t expected to be overwhelmed with grief over my friend’s death at a TCI meeting last March, but I learned in the moment that grief isn’t logical, linear or predictable. I choked up unexpectedly after mentioning the loss, but afterwards I was profoundly comforted by my colleagues’ outpouring of care and concern.

There’s plenty we can do to soften the harsh edges of these hard times. Figure out what you can do to help in your family, your workplace, your community — then do it. Maintaining strong connections with loved ones is particularly important in light of the isolation we’re enduring in this pandemic. So plan that family getaway and put it on the calendar. Support an employee or co-worker in difficult circumstances with more than just kind words. Ask what they need — a homecooked meal, a ride, a loan — and do it. Find a meaningful cause and donate money or, better yet, time.

Expressing generosity of spirit doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. Even the smallest things go a long way. Over-tip a waiter. Thank the harried clerk at the drugstore sincerely for ringing you up. Drop off a couple of bags of groceries at the local food bank so someone in your town won’t go hungry tonight. Or simply listen to someone who needs to talk.

Sure, it might be awkward at first. After all, we’ve been instructed in the strongest possible terms by health experts and the government to avoid connection, even the most benign. Distance is the watchword of our times. That’s one of the reasons why our connections to each other are fraying, if not outright broken. Some generosity of spirit will go a long way towards replenishing the storehouse of goodwill and resilience that has been sorely depleted in recent months.

There will be risks. Weigh them. Minimize them. Then, take action. For a family vacation at my brother’s lake house this summer, I risked flying as did my wife and three of my five daughters, the other two drove. We were careful and we were fortunate. No one got sick and the experience of being together with family was one of the most memorable of our lives. My oldest daughter got engaged that week. Her fiancé proposed in the middle of a family photo shoot at sunset on the boat dock; he dropped to one knee and held out the ring as everyone on the dock shrieked with excitement. Even the neighbors shouted their congratulations. Sharing that moment has cheered all of us and strengthened our bonds in the weeks and months since we left the lake.

Generosity of spirit requires risking vulnerability and letting go of our tight grip on control. Type A personalities like me always have to have a plan — not to mention a contingency plan or two — and stick to it. Of course, as a financial advisor, I’m a major proponent of a well-structured retirement plan. Sometimes, though, adversity tests our mettle, our flexibility and even our ability to believe in the promise of a plan.

In the words of that remarkably philosophical pugilist Mike Tyson: “Everybody has a plan ‘till they get punched in the mouth.” When asked to explain his comment, Tyson went on to say, “Let’s see how you deal with it, a blow completely unexpected. Let’s see what you got.” That’s how we need to think about this pandemic: a blow, completely unexpected that knocked the breath out of a nation. Under the circumstances, making a plan seems like a radical act of optimism. So don’t be afraid to plan, wholeheartedly, for an unforeseeable future. Right now, we’re in the middle of planning a wedding for our daughter. We’re also thinking about our next family getaway. Maybe Machu Picchu. Certainly a rental house again on my brother’s lake in Alabama for Thanksgiving. Maybe it’ll just be a barbecue in the backyard and some cold drinks around the fire pit where I spent such happy hours with my old med-school roommate. Whatever it turns out to be, it’ll be great!

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