Patti Defilippis of St. Luke Productions drew upon the stresses she was feeling, which were pulling her away from God, to produce Hope and Trust Rosary. (Courtesy St. Luke Productions)
Patti Defilippis of St. Luke Productions drew upon the stresses she was feeling, which were pulling her away from God, to produce Hope and Trust Rosary. (Courtesy St. Luke Productions)

The first anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic is nearly upon us. 

The disease, first identified in China in December 2019, with the World Health Organization declaring it a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” in January 2020, has long outstayed what was never a welcome. 

From our West Coast perch, it seemed surreal at first when an outbreak hit Seattle. Then thousands died every week in New York City and along the East Coast. Oregon’s governor, like governors of most other states, asked citizens to stay home. Schools, businesses and churches closed their doors.

No one, from the public health experts to essential workers warily scanning groceries — in stores with emptied shelves — knew how long it might last.

Perhaps just until summer, we naively hoped.

“If you think we’re in a new normal, we are,” said Dr. Robin Henderson, a psychologist and head of Providence Behavioral Health in Oregon. “In the spring we were all thinking there was a time limit, like all disasters. There’s the event, the aftermath, the cleanup and then you move on.”

COVID-19, though, now responsible for a quarter-million deaths in the United States alone, continues to grind on. What we’ve come to now is a state of chronic stress,” said Henderson, explaining that the hormones our bodies release under stress can hurt us. “Adrenaline was never meant to be a long-term thing. We are resilient. But for resilience to happen we have to acknowledge that stress is happening.”

On top of the stresses COVID-19 brought, other anxieties and outrages piled on. The president was impeached; there were anti-facemask and anti-lockdown protests; the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black victims of police brutality; the Black Lives Matter protests — and counter-protests; the election and with it, more protests.

Most recently, yet more news has emerged about how many at the Vatican were aware of allegations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick decades ago.

Personal trauma accompanied the pandemic: for some, job and home losses, the illness or deaths of loved ones; and social isolation to varying degrees for all.

Political polarization also has traumatized Catholics of all stripes. For many Republicans, Democrats have become the enemy, dupes to socialism with plans to defund the police. In turn, many Democrats see Republicans as willing to align with racism and violence, turning their backs on civil norms that have made ours the oldest functioning democracy on the planet.

Attending Mass still feels dangerous to many older Catholics and those with health concerns.

Our losses seem to have no end. There are no more concerts, cheering in the bleachers at sports games, or making a casual decision to go see a movie or invite friends over. The holidays loom as sources of contagion rather than joy.

Henderson lists sleep disruption, frayed nerves and tempers, eating disorders, depression, isolation, heart problems and despair as some symptoms, adding that the long-term effects on youths is something we don’t understand.

She’s most concerned, however, about young parents.

Ana Maria Milburn McClellan, a licensed clinical social worker and manager of the Mental Health Department at Northwest Family Services, agrees. She couldn’t guess how many parents she’s talked with who are stressed by their children’s school situation.

Sometimes they tell her their children aren’t doing their assignments, other times it’s about the stress of trying to do two jobs at once: oversee their children and do their own work.

“It’s having children home all day and not feeling fully competent,” Milburn McClellan said.

Add to that language barriers — with older children sometimes trying to translate and explain instructions — and the home situation becomes even more fraught.

She warned that post-traumatic stress disorder is a possible outcome of the chronic stress for all populations, advising that it’s important to know when it’s time to get help. “One of the strange blessings of all this is that mental health is easier to get,” said Henderson.

She advises calling for help before the feeling of being overwhelmed and depressed becomes something worse. “Our crisis lines are here for a reason.”

Both Henderson and Milburn McClellan urged people to be mindful about caring for themselves.

That doesn’t come naturally for most people. “Taking care of our body when we’re stressed goes by the wayside,” said Milburn McClellan.

“Self-care is the most important thing we can do,” said Henderson. She appealed to everyone to remember the stress we’re all under and to be more forgiving. “We’re in this together,” she said. “There will be days when I hit my ‘COVID wall.’ We should talk about that, normalize it. And it’s especially hard for parents with kids in school. We’ve got to give each other the grace not to be perfect.”

Milburn McClellan emphasized the importance of getting enough sleep. Without it, we’re more likely to make poor decisions and our ability to tolerate stress is decreased. Sleep affects our emotional resilience and our stability. “There’s a reason sleep deprivation is used as a torture technique,” she said.

Both women suggested getting together with friends via regular Zoom meetings. “We need each other more than ever to normalize this together,” Henderson said.

Milburn McClellan practices gratitude, and being specific about it. Writing thank you notes, making lists of what you’re grateful for today, and praying. “I’m so grateful for my grandmother teaching me what she called the travel prayer, three Hail Marys and the St. Joseph prayer. So now that’s part of my life.

Patti Defilippis of St. Luke Productions turns to prayer first and foremost.

Her solution has been praying the rosary. “I cling to it,” she said, admitting that there’s irony in the fact that it’s harder to pray when stressed and yet that’s exactly when you most need prayer.

She wrote the Hope and Trust Rosary from that perspective: how difficult it is to feel the presence of God in a time like this one. “Even St. Thérèse wrote about struggling in the fog of the dark night of the soul,” said Defilippis.

And that, she added, is why the rosary is such a great tool. “You don’t have to feel, ‘I really want to reflect on the mystery of God’ — when really you’re thinking, ‘What I really want to do is sudoku’ — to benefit from it.”

Defilippis thinks the image of Jesus hidden in Mary’s womb is worth pondering. “He’s there for us as well. We have to believe and trust that God is in our midst.”

When we are overwhelmed by events, those are exactly the times God uses to draw us closer. “To trust more,” said Defilippis. “We’re always insecure. We have no choice but to trust in God to move forward. Children will be born, weddings will happen and people will die. We’re here for eternal life.”

Henderson doesn’t think COVID-19 is going anywhere anytime soon: The Institute for Health Metrics at the University of Washington just released a new forecast that backs her up. They predict there could be as many as 400,000 COVID-19 deaths in the United States by February if Americans don’t take mask wearing and social distancing more seriously.

Henderson does, however, believe that societal stress is bound to lessen. “I do have hope that once we get through the election some of the fervor will let up, and some of the divisiveness will begin to heal,” she said in mid-October. “We have to come to see each other as having differing opinions in service to the same goal and be open to healing our communities together. Rather than responding in anger, we’re going to respond in inquiry and care, and seek first to understand.”

Defilippis echoes that note. “We really do need to find compassion for each other, for everyone to realize that most people want to do good.”

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