Three funerals and a vacation: Using my professional experience to understand my personal journey navigating a pandemic

TheHealthPsychologistConversation Corner

Kristina Pecora, PsyD, MAPP

Kristina Pecora, PsyD, MAPP
Clinical Psychologist
United States Institute of Peace & NVision You, LLC

My husband and I were fully vaccinated at the end of April. We looked forward to re-emerging from the pandemic celebrating a return to friends, family and “normal” life. The post-vaccine invites did, indeed, start coming in . . . for funerals. Suddenly, we looked at our calendar and realized we had three funerals in 5 weeks, scattered throughout the Midwest. This was not what we expected.

Admittedly, we had some moments questioning how much of this we could attend. We carefully considered our own mental and physical health and asked ourselves if it was worth traveling for or could we take part virtually. We wondered if we were emotionally ready for that level of family togetherness. We wanted to honor the people we lost and also pondered if we could mix in some happiness with all the mourning.

While we have three funerals, there were sadly more deaths. Between our two families, we lost five members in the last 15 months, more than we have ever experienced, with relatives ranging in age, fitness and general health. That feels significant and more than coincidental. While we feel incredibly lucky that our families were spared the trauma of direct COVID deaths, we cannot rule out that some (perhaps all) may have been COVID-adjacent victims – organic failure brought about by the stress of living through a pandemic. The isolation created by lockdowns and social distancing. Perhaps the delay of regular medical care. We struggled to make sense of all of this death amidst a year of so many upheavals and other losses.

As a psychologist, I’ve been talking about the pandemic with clients for many months now. I’ve been helping others face lockdown logistics, and their subsequent re-openings, with care. As a trauma-informed therapist, I’ve been considering how to use the treatment literature to my advantage and I keep coming back to Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET; Schauer, M., Neuner, F., Elbert T., 2011) and its prescriptions for both intrapersonal growth and formal processing techniques as the most helpful protocol to re-emerge mindfully.

NET is an integral part of gold-standard trauma-informed treatment (APA, 2017; SAMHSA, 2014). It helps integrate trauma into one’s personal story, offering a way to process what has occurred and find – or make – meaning of (often befuddling) events. The system of crafting this narrative is what is truly therapeutic by allowing people to write in such a way that re-creates memories in context, reviewing for thematic patterns and events and making a coherent story. This process helps us understand that our lives do not stop at trauma, and empowers us to decide the impact of such events on our lives.

With the power of this method in mind, I started to craft my personal narrative of the pandemic. As I mindfully processed my pandemic experiences with my family – via video calls – I contrasted these recent memories with the older ones in the physical presence of my family members who passed.

The main theme that emerged was community – that connection to others and that network of bonds created by shared experiences and meaning. While we have all shared certain events during the pandemic, these funerals I’m slated to attend may be a way to specifically celebrate memories and experiences that came before. This version of community is the one that I’ve been missing. And the way I’m celebrating it is by making sure we are present as a family to say goodbye, to tell stories and give hugs, to share those stories of all that time before the shared trauma.

I recently learned of a young colleague’s sudden and unexpected passing. He too is added to my process and narrative, but I have decided not to travel for the funeral. I have a small vacation planned to see a friend I haven’t hugged in over two years. I know he would understand. As I navigate this pandemic age, I am extending self-compassion and understand my need for this other kind of community engagement because I’ve been doing the work for myself.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought on such a depth of complexities to people’s lives that affect us in so many different ways which likely includes our clinical practice and research. It’s important to acknowledge that the COVID environment is novel, especially in the context of career thus, it can be daunting and traumatic for us all. Burnout is a likely culprit of fatigue—fatigue of COVID subject matter, or compassion fatigue for both our colleagues and patients. It is all understandable, and at the same time it leaves us without strong and clear guidance for ourselves or our patients. And yet, it’s one of the true advantages of our field that each life experience we have, open’s a window for a deeper understanding of others.

We all have shared and unique experiences and this is an opportunity to use our research and clinical expertise to guide our family, patients, colleagues, and society in processing our COVID-19 experience and promote wellbeing in the pandemic era.

THP NET Infographic