I almost didn’t write this post. I mean, here we are in the middle of a pandemic, when you might expect a pervasive mood of doom and gloom. Instead, I see people thinking positive, reaching out to help each other. People establishing their own self-care routines, finding creative ways to be ok. Why not just savor the moment?

Apparently, I am not the kind of person to leave well enough alone. I prefer to turn over all the interesting rocks to see what’s under them.

In this case, it turns out that SAMHSA, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, has some expertise in Disaster Recovery. They’ve even created a template that might show us how this can be expected to go. I think the pandemic qualifies as a disaster, so this could be expected to follow the pattern. An incredibly long lasting disaster. Unprecedented, in fact. So we don’t really know how it’s going to play out. But the Phases of Disaster chart suggests a potential path.

Phases of Disaster

SAMHSA’s website explores each stage a bit, but they’re talking about disasters with a fairly limited duration – a hurricane, for example. Hurricane season might last for months, but the hurricane itself is a discreet event. Hurricane Katrina, for example, led to flooding that lasted much longer, but the floods were still short compared to Covid 19.

Pre-Disaster >> Impact >> Heroic >> Honeymoon >> Disillusionment >> Reconstruction.

SAMSHA describes the Heroic phase as “characterized by a high level of activity with a low level of productivity. During this phase, there is a sense of altruism, and many community members exhibit adrenaline-induced rescue behavior…” Right now, it seems like we all want to help. I’ve felt this myself. A fierce urge to DO SOMETHING that will make a difference. Whether it’s making masks, delivering food, or opening your hotel to healthcare professionals, like Ty Warner, owner of the Four Seasons hotel in NYC, has done, we want to make things better.

SAMHSA describes the Honeymoon phase as “…characterized by a dramatic shift in emotion. During the honeymoon phase, disaster assistance is readily available. Community bonding occurs. Optimism exists that everything will return to normal quickly….” . I see people creating community, inviting each other to virtual tea parties, teaching each other skills and offering free classes. People are thinking positive, hoping to build a better future in the space that has been razed by the virus. This Honeymoon phase is short lived. But we may be teaching ourselves how to hold space for each other. I have some hope that our new skills and understanding will help us get through the Disillusionment phase.

In the Disillusionment phase “…optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll…” I can imagine this too easily. People will be sad and angry. Ok, despairing and furious. There will not be enough resources, and what there is won’t be fairly distributed. Racial disparities will be glaringly obvious to all but the most willfully obtuse. My imagination, fueled by fear, pictures a disturbingly dystopian future. This is why I paused – do we really need to think about this? Now?

But of course we do. There’s no need to imagine the worst, but If we don’t understand what’s happening, then we’re likely to misinterpret it. We might think that all our efforts at being helpful and building community have failed and the whole world is terrible. But if we know it’s a perfectly normal development in the process, we can keep working through it. Maybe we can prepare ourselves for the next phases.

Of course, I don’t really know. This is my first disaster. I was around for the tornado that went through Louisville, Ky in the late 70’s. But I didn’t experience personal losses or the need for recovery. I want to go find some people who have survived major disasters and ask them 100 questions.

I might do that, but this is a time for uncertainty. There is no template to tell us definitively how this will go, and no way of knowing exactly how each of us will experience it.

As a trauma expert and a coach, there are a few things I believe that I can rely on. Here are my top four.

  • Whatever you’re thinking or feeling right now is normal. Whatever you’re thinking and feeling about this over the next year or two is probably going to be normal too.
  • We’re going to have a lot of feelings we don’t like and will want them to go away. We will try to avoid the feelings in countless ways that aren’t actually helpful.
  • We will not want to face the damage and pain that Covid 19 is going to cause. We will minimize and deny, we’ll try to bargain it away. We will want it to already be over.
  • We will get through this We can get through this with less suffering if we can sit with the discomfort, if we can face this with a nonjudgmental curiosity, acknowledging all our feelings, and if we can be compassionate with ourselves and each other.

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