You Seem… Different

By Jennifer Hill Buehrer LMSW

I was reading an interesting, and frankly discouraging, article this week in the New York Times about how nursing homes, which have been the most restricted places in the country through this pandemic, are starting to open up, and what that is revealing.  The author spoke to families of elderly loved ones in nursing homes who, now that they are allowed to visit, are finding people to be different:  more frail, less engaged, and ultimately reminders of the year that was lost.

Many of us still have not seen most of our extended family members.  I haven’t seen my nieces and nephews who live in another state in over a year and a half.  It’s been even longer since my father saw his grandchildren.  We look forward to reunions that we all hope will happen this year and anticipate how joyful it will be.  I never really stopped to think how those reunions might be tinged with grief for the year that was lost, and all the milestones missed.   I’ve shared in previous articles that my father has Alzheimer’s.  By the time he sees his grandkids again, they will hardly recognize him.  He may or may not recognize them, literally.

I know – this column isn’t supposed to make you feel worse.  That is certainly not my intention in writing today.  But the fact is that we’re all grieving something – or things – as a result of this pandemic.  And it’s important for us to acknowledge it, talk about it, and process it (we social workers looove to process).  At the same time, it makes me think about how this experience has likely changed all of us in one way or another.  This grief of which I speak is in response to changes that aren’t good ones.  But I do not believe that all the change that you and I have experienced over this past year has been bad.  I simply have to believe that this pandemic has led many if not most of us to grow or change in some way that makes us better.  It might be that we won’t always see that until we get to the other side of it.

What kinds of changes in yourself and your life have you seen over this yearlong challenge?  Have you been cooking more, maybe reinstating the family dinner?  Have you taken up a hobby you never considered before, or made some progress with hobbies you might have neglected?  Or maybe there’s been something deeper or bigger that has changed for you.  Maybe you’ve tapped into a well of empathy you didn’t know was there until you were in a position of watching other people struggle through this pandemic.  Maybe you’ve decided it’s time to completely change your personal or professional life.  As we roll on, and it seems that the changes in our everyday lives are going to continue much longer than any of us expected, I think it’s helpful to step back and examine ourselves in this context.  Nothing gives you the opportunity for self-reflection and improvement like a collective crisis – one that forces change, whether you like it or not.

I think in order for us to survive the grief that comes with the negative impact of the pandemic, even as we see cases increase yet again, we have to be intentional about making and maintaining positive changes in ourselves.  Whether it’s self-examination, self-improvement, or positive action in support of others, each of us can find a way to come out of this thing better people – or at the very least more authentic.  I’m starting to think that I’m only just beginning to see some of the ways it’s changed me.  And one way or another, I intend to make it a good thing.

Jennifer Buehrer, LMSW is a palliative care social worker at St. Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor.