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Every day, it’s easy to find more optimistic news about COVID-19. Thanks to the vaccine rollout and ongoing research that demonstrates the effectiveness of vaccines in real-world settings, to some, the pandemic may feel “almost over.” (Of course, this depends on where you live, as many parts of the world in India, Europe, Africa, and South America are experiencing troubling resurgences and spikes.)
This easing “back to normal” news is supposed to fill us with joy, excitement, and hope. But for most of my patients —many of whom live with chronic illnesses — it actually brings about apprehension.
Some are scared about the unknown; about what life will be like in a post-pandemic world.
Some are feeling “jumbled” — a mix of emotions that they want to sort out.
Some are grieving all they’ve lost.
Some are confused about what it means to go “back to normal” because, as one patient said, “my life wasn’t ‘normal’ before — I can’t imagine what it will be now.”
One emotion that none, or very few, are feeling: excitement.
Fear, grief, confusion — there are all familiar emotional to people living with chronic illness. The pandemic, and now the idea of a post-pandemic world, has only intensified those feelings.
So what do you do? How do you handle all the emotions and start the next chapter? Here are a few pieces of advice.
1. Take it at your own pace
Yes, many people are rushing to return to life as it was before March 2020. But you don’t have to go at their speed. Pay attention to what your body and mind are telling you and go from there. Just because other people are booking flights for long-awaited vacations or buying concert tickets for summer shows doesn’t mean that’s the right choice for you, right now.
Think about what you’ve been truly missing the most and think about how you could start to incorporate that back into your life. Maybe it’s an outdoor meal at a friend’s home, or a visit to a local beach or park you may have been too nervous to visit last year before you were vaccinated. Maybe it’s simply getting a haircut or a manicure.
(Of course, many of these choices also depend on whether you or the people you’re with are vaccinated and other factors about COVID-19 risk, like whether there will be masks or social distancing.)
There is lots of uncertainty and ambivalence as we all navigate a new way of being, and you get to choose how you want to do it.
2. Take care of yourself
Everyone moved into lockdown in a similar timeframe. Moving out of lockdown and isolation is happening with great unevenness. It is less clear what is safe to do — or not. It is less clear what a vaccination means, especially for people with chronic illness. (Here’s more information on recommendations for activities after being fully vaccinated for the immunocompromised.)
It is not yet known how much, if at all, people should travel, eat inside with strangers, or hug each other.
If you feel like you’re making it up as you go, you are right. There is no map. And it is extremely stressful to be so uncertain. It takes energy and time to figure everything out. So get rest. Eat as well as you can. Move your body in ways that feel good. Get support. Get more support. Take your time, even if others are pressuring you (and they will).
3. Take time to grieve
Living with chronic illness means you are no stranger to loss and grief. But there have been so many losses in the last year, and they continue to pile on top of each. There’s the loss of time with loved ones (those supports you count on); loss of health in significant and unanticipated ways; loss of where you thought you would be in your work, or your plans for your life; actual deaths that you couldn’t have imagined.
This has been such a sad time. There is such a wish we could be done with loss and grief. That we could zip through those “five stages” and not have to feel this — again.
But here is what I know about you. Because you have been willing to feel and let these painful emotions move through you, you have become emotionally wiser — and, in many ways, stronger (even if you don’t feel like that this minute).
You have experience being a warrior of the spirit. You know that this grief will pass. You know that you can imagine a lighter day, because you have experience. You know how to ask for help. You know how to rest when you need to.
You have been willing to feel and let these painful emotions move through you and, in doing so, you have become emotionally wiser and stronger (even if you don’t feel like that this minute). You know that this moment will pass, because you have experienced better days.
So let yourself set the pace you need. Give yourself the best care you can. Grieve and let yourself be sad, and then let the new things begin to emerge for you. Ask for a hand, and lend a hand.
We will move into this next chapter together.
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