I remember that my parents would wash the cartons that went into the refrigerator—and also the bananas. They sterilized motel rooms before we were allowed to touch anything. Long before hand sanitizer was a thing, they kept a bottle of rubbing alcohol in the car so we could clean our hands before entering restaurants. Most embarrassing was when they distributed their hand-made disinfecting wipes after the family was seated at the restaurant table.
But more than once during this pandemic, I’ve said, “My parents were right. About everything!”
I get it now. They were youngsters during the flu pandemic a century ago (in hard-hit Kansas, no less), and surely the devastation changed their families’ lives. I wish I had asked what that was like.
When our pandemic is over, how will we be changed? Surely we’ll think differently about crowded spaces, door handles, and whether it’s admirable to show up at work when you’re sick. There will be new learnings about health care, education, and technology.
By the time this article is printed, our country will have passed the grim milestone of 500,000 lives lost to COVID-19—a number almost too large to fathom. Experts call this phenomenon “psychic numbing”: While we can have deep empathy for one person, our emotional connection goes down as the number of victims goes up. One of our learnings, then, needs to be how to care even when our compassion has been numbed.
In a moderator’s town hall earlier this year, Brethren epidemiologist Kate Jacobsen fielded questions about the vaccine. The answer I remember best was not about physical health—it was about emotional health. Churches not only haven’t been able to process deaths from COVID, she said, but we haven’t been able to process any deaths. In fact, we haven’t been able to honor life transitions of all sorts, both negative and positive.
“Churches need to figure out how to pause and mark those occasions,” Jacobsen said. “We’re going to have a lot to work through. Now is a good time to plan for that.”
It takes as long to get out of a pandemic as it does to get into it, she added, and the healing is psychological, social, emotional—not just physical. “We will have months of collectively working through what we have experienced.”
No one can fully comprehend half a million lives, but each of us can cherish the individual stories we know. That’s one way we can work at our collective healing.
Wendy McFadden is publisher of Brethren Press and Communications for the Church of the Brethren.