My Australian city had its second wave lockdown from mid-July 2020. As we now slowly emerge, to say that the successive lockdowns were difficult, isolating, lonely, and depressing was an understatement. While it has been encouraging to see my city and suburb now tentatively coming to life, people are still keeping inside, and I wonder what this whole pandemic has done to our mental health and spiritual wellbeing.
Part of the reason for writing this post is so that I will not forget what it was like, as uncomfortable as that still feels. I do not want to forget for fear of losing the lessons I learnt and am still learning on this journey. Many things did and did not happen the way I thought they would. Herein lies the first lesson – have no expectations.
Those who are reading this in the northern hemisphere may have just returned to tighter lockdowns and restrictions than before. You might be feeling robbed of your freedoms in new ways. You may be feeling hopeless or unsure of what do to. What follows is my perspective from the southern hemisphere, in the hope that it may be helpful for you.
We survived the first wave from March to June. Things were cautiously opening up. I’d only just returned to my big, but now very cold and forlorn church. Nothing felt the same. People were missing. While I was happy to participate in the Mass, receive Jesus in the Eucharist, and to serve in singing, in truth my heart was struggling. I knew this vast space so well, where I had grown up seeing hundreds of people pass through, attended and sang at many Easters and Christmases, celebrated our 150th anniversary Mass, and been present at other times of joy and sadness. I had met and lost friends there. I remembered them all. Now it was unreal and unnatural to see things the way they were. The place felt desolate in spirit. I could feel the heaviness and absence of the Catholic family weighing upon me, and Christ alone in the Eucharist within the tabernacle.
A mere four weeks later came the announcement that cases were rising and my state would be shut down once more. The dreaded second wave – what many of you are now going through. Places of worship, businesses, workplaces, and all ‘normal’ ways of interacting with others would cease. Here was the beginning of what would turn out to be a painful rollercoaster ride in my personal and spiritual life.
Our second wave was nothing like the first. There were no zealous articles about bread-making, crafty hobbies, or any sense of novelty about this lockdown to come. People in my state were weary but willing to endure it during our cold winter indoors, so wanted to get it over and done with. If it was to be done for a few weeks, it would be best to get it done now. Our restrictions ended up being amongst the tightest in the world and a few weeks turned into several months. This was primarily due to the state’s major hotel quarantine bungles, poor contact tracing systems, insufficient human resources, and disastrous mishandlings in aged care resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people. There was heightened and prolonged fear in my family (consisting of two elderly members), alongside copious prayers. Shopping trips for food essentials in my household were limited to the younger and stronger members (myself and another) and only fortnightly. We went nowhere and saw no one for months on end. There came a point when we rationed our food and supplies between grocery shopping trips to avoid contracting and spreading the virus. We chose to do with less. I chose to eat less. I ate enough, but experienced times of mild hunger. The spiritual hunger in me however, was far greater but not being sustained well without the Sacraments of the Catholic Church. Amongst many other things, when mask-wearing was made compulsory (this still remains for a time yet), carrying heavy shopping carts and bags while breathing heavily was almost unbearable (no drivers in our home). Our neighbourhood became a ghost-town. Our nightly curfews rendered our world eerily silent.
All of this is not to scare people, but my experiences certainly made me feel, understand, and appreciate things I had taken for granted before. It also made me understand at a deeper level how broken our society truly is, and especially how we treat the elderly. We had also chosen to implement our own restrictions on top of the official government ones to protect our family as much as possible. Being the youngest member of my family, this was not an easy decision, especially when my friends (who left me to myself or with whom I had stopped communicating due to depression) were enjoying more freedoms. But protecting elderly family members, oneself, and others involved major sacrifices we managed to make for month after month. Looking back, I honestly do not know how we and especially I coped. It is only through the grace of God.
While my city is still quiet and we thankfully have had no new cases of Covid-19 for one week now, there is still an atmosphere of wait and see. Working from home seems to be the new ‘Covid-normal’. Our spring is here and summer approaches. The warmth is a reprieve, but we do not know what is to come. Some have already partied on beaches and during a horse race (the Melbourne Cup), while others are outdoor dining. Our places of worship, however, are still limited to ten indoors as at this writing. I still worry that many people have not taken this time as seriously as we all should be. As far as I am aware there has been no collective discussion or plans for a memorial of some sort for those who died, or a process of debriefing to unburden our souls. How will we learn from this if we do not discuss what has been happening and why? While many good things have been happening to help others, the approach is hit and miss. People have largely been left to cope by themselves, even by some in our churches who are meant to shepherd us in the name of God. Even Christ Himself was abandoned.
So what do you do if you are in a second wave and locked down once more? What were my lessons? What do I think you can do to help yourself and others?
- Invest in yourself first – you might have heard this many times before, and while it used to irk me as a phrase of arrogance and contrary to a community spirit, it is true. You cannot help others if you are down on yourself. During the second wave I lost friends. They disappeared or ‘ghosted’ on me. The online meetings and communications suddenly stopped. I tortured myself not understanding why, when I had poured myself into loving and caring for them before, they had left me alone. Throughout this pandemic I reached out to others and showed my love, but was left in silence. People are undoubtedly coping (or not) in profoundly personal ways. Something may have happened to them. It cuts deep. Pray that if their heart is true, your true friends will come back to you if they also want healing. They will realise that you were a genuine friend ‘before Covid’. If not, let them disappear and try to improve yourself.
- Spiritual nourishment – I set about seeking ways to invest in myself online. The United States Catholic community was a wellspring of goodness for me. There were free virtual Catholic conferences I signed up for; I found a wonderful local spiritual director after participating in an eight-day online Ignatian retreat; I completed a Catholic vocations and discernment course; purchased beautiful Catholic books (okay, this is my perpetual weakness, pandemic or not); began journaling again; signed up for formal singing training next year (after twenty years of self-taught singing, it is never too late to learn a new technique); and I am still very much a work in progress. I also spent time on the fundamentals – praying the Rosary, reading Scripture, praying to the Saints, praying novenas, the Divine Office, the Examen, and appreciating silence and stillness.
- Read and write – read books from your existing library, free e-books, blogs, Twitter, or other social media. I know that social media is not always the best place, especially when we are saturated with such negative news, but it can also be an amazing space of goodness. I purposefully sought out good Catholic websites and Twitter accounts, quotes sites, Scripture passages sites, and other uplifting sources of information. I highly recommend starting a paper journal during your lockdown. Physical writing can be reassuring. You may feel uncomfortable putting your experiences down, but you will find it healing. You may also surprise yourself over time and can leave a legacy for yourself and future generations who may want to understand what you went through in 2020. My journal and blog writing has allowed me to feel like I have a voice in isolation, and the thought of helping others enriches my heart.
- Comedy – find something to smile about, eventually. I was in a very dark place during much of the lockdown, but on my Twitter feed, and on YouTube, I found some comfort in the most ridiculously simple cat and dog videos. I found some measure of peace in the simple and funny things in nature. In the absence of many things – and connections with people – I truly longed for but could not have, these little things often helped me get through the day.
- Nature: animals – apart from God, my beautiful dog immensely helped my family and I get through our lockdown. His constant presence, soulful eyes, funny noises, demands for backyard play, and loyal companionship were a true solace for us. We also had many birds remain with us during the cold grey months and into spring. If you do not have a pet during your lockdown, find a way to buy or even babysit one. Be it a cat, dog, fish, or adopting a local feathery visitor, you need something outside of yourself to love and care for.
- Nature: gardens – having a garden to watch over, care for, get lost in, plant, or clean was fundamental to my wellbeing. Nothing restores and revives like nature. Even in the inner-city, the garden space I was fortunate to have provided me with points of interest, colour, and retreat. If you live somewhere that does not allow for a garden space, see if you can purchase a vertical garden wall or an indoor plant to nurture.
- Pray – unless your church is very proactive in keeping in touch with you (via online, telephone, or letter), you may find yourself alone on the church support front. This is unfortunate, but can be a reality for many. Use this time to work on your personal relationship with Jesus Christ Himself. This means spending time with His Word in Scripture, speaking to Him (that’s what prayer really is), and inviting Him into your life. Some of His representatives on earth will disappoint us, but we don’t worship them – Christ is the one we worship. This was the greatest challenge and sadness in my pandemic experience. I love my church, community, and priests, but when it came to providing real-life support, pastoral care, and presence when it mattered the most, there was nothing. A vocation to the priesthood and religious life demands more for the flock. Unfortunately however, the talk does not always translate into action. To counter this, find out what other good parishes are doing online and tap into their resources. I watched Mass online provided by my city’s main Cathedral, and found much to be thankful for via the abovementioned Catholic resources and prayers. See if you can do the same.
- Light a candle – there was a period during the pandemic, when friends had fallen away, when I was in a very dark place mentally and spiritually. It was so deep that I lost interest in my life, could not sleep well, and could only light a small candle in the darkness of my room. I did not have the energy to pray at length, but could only utter words while watching this candle during the night. Placing it in a very safe place, I was able to sleep with this tiny candle which carried me through to the morning light. The ‘Surrender Prayer’ by Fr Dolindo Ruotolo was my only help. Know that despite everything around you, Jesus loves you so much and will never leave you.
- What about music and creativity? How ironic and sad it is that the very industries which uplift our spirits – music, the arts, creatives – have been the ones hardest hit during this crisis. God works through creative pursuits! God is the greatest Artist. Music reaches our souls like no other medium can. I have known and felt this through many years of first-hand experience. And yet for many weeks and months, until recently, I could not sing at all due to the spiritual and mental ravages of this pandemic. If it takes just listening to music to help you, then just listen. Perhaps combining some time of listening to gentle music with your candle may be enough. One piece of music which moved my soul is provided for you below.
- Reach out – Finally, if you are the one who has cut off your friends and/or family, please don’t do it to them forever. If you need space, at least let them know. As someone who has been on the receiving end of this, it wreaks major havoc on another person’s heart when a friend or family member vanishes into thin air. If you do not feel like speaking to anyone right now, or have fallen out with someone, write a letter or email apologising and explaining why, then send it or hold off until you are ready. But please, don’t abandon anyone who only genuinely wanted to care for you. While investing in yourself first is important as in my first point, community and companionship is in our DNA as human beings. Ultimately, the lockdown will end and you may see them again through necessity or by ‘chance’. It might get awkward. Ample forgiveness – giving and receiving – will be necessary after this is over. Some terrible relationships deserve to die, but they often just need work, understanding, and even more compassion than usual at this time. Don’t let this pandemic destroy the good relationships and people who loved you before March 2020.
My prayers are with you all.
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