Aug. 10, 2020 -- Donna Schuurman lives in Oregon, clear across the country from her mother in Maryland. Her mom, who is 91, resides in an assisted living facility in Baltimore that won’t allow visitors during the coronavirus pandemic. “I can’t fly out to see her, and I’m not allowed to see her,” Schuurman says.
“I’m FaceTiming with her, but just even the idea that I may never see her again -- if this wasn’t happening, I could get on a plane and hold her hand and sing to her.”
A lost chance to say goodbye to an aged parent, a promising romance that fizzles when a pair can’t meet in person, a career that stalls when a prized job vanishes, a dwindling shot at parenthood when an infertility clinic suspends all in vitro fertilization treatments -- these are the casualties of our lives on pause during the coronavirus pandemic.
“The year has been sort of canceled,” says Schuurman, EdD, a grief counselor and senior director of advocacy and training at the Dougy Center, an organization in Portland that supports grieving children and families. “Many things that we thought we were going to do -- and our norms -- have all been canceled, and with that comes an overwhelming sense of loss.”
People of all ages have been affected. The young have missed out on celebrating key milestones, such as high school or college graduations. Families have postponed memorial services and weddings, uncertain when they’ll actually be able to hold large gatherings again. Retirees, now unable to globetrot, are forced to set aside their travel dreams.
Plans on Hold
Maylynn Oswald and her fiancé, Adam Newsom, postponed a wedding with 150 guests that was scheduled for this October. The couple became engaged last fall. “Straight out of the gate, we went ahead and booked the wedding planner, photographer, a DJ, a caterer, the venue,” says Oswald, of Atlanta. They wanted to hold their wedding on a farm in North Carolina and spent about $6,000 on down payments to vendors.
Despite holding out hopes, Oswald, a hairstylist, and Newsom, a marketing director, decided in June to postpone their wedding. “We were getting to the point where we had to order invitations and everything was still so up in the air,” she says. “We wanted our wedding to be a big party, a big celebration. We consulted with our wedding planner, and she thought we wouldn’t be able to have that kind of party, even in October.”
For the most part, she and Newsom took a pragmatic approach, she says. “This is just what we need to do in this year, being put on hold.”
But emotions surfaced for Oswald: “I cried when I had to cancel the honeymoon hotel.”
Oswald and Newsom have set a new date for their wedding bash: October 23, 2021.
For Emi, a 30-year-old New York City resident, this year was going to be full of new beginnings. “I thought 2020 was going to be the year for a lot of big changes for me,” says Emi, who asked that her last name not be used for privacy.
She was planning to move from New York to Colorado, where she has close friends.
“I was trying to move to Denver in June of this year, but when COVID first started happening in March, I started to panic a little bit,” says Emi, an executive assistant at a hedge fund. She had decided to move “with or without a job,” but when she saw friends becoming unemployed, she reconsidered. “I’m very fortunate to have a job right now, so I thought it was a good idea to hold on to this job for now.”
She’s no longer sure the move to Denver will happen at all. In fact, she’s also considering moving back to Ohio, where her family lives.
Her career plans are uncertain, too. After 8 years as an executive assistant, she wanted to explore another line of work, possibly in the arts. “I have a background in music, not professionally by any means, but I’m a violin player and I’ve been in a community orchestra,” she says. “A job that I’ve always wanted to consider is maybe something in arts management.”
But her plans are in limbo for at least the next several months. “The pandemic made me second-guess exactly where I want to be,” she says. “This is really a wild time. I think a lot of things are up in the air until there is a vaccine.”
Hope and Dreams Delayed
When the pandemic sparked nationwide shutdowns in mid-March, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) had put out guidelines on March 17 calling for fertility clinics to close for an indefinite period to help limit the spread of COVID-19 and conserve medical supplies, among other reasons.
The ASRM stated that treatment should take place in cases of extreme urgency, such as cancer patients freezing their eggs before chemotherapy
Beverly Reed, MD, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist in Grapevine, Texas, says that losing even a month of treatment can be critical for some women, especially those in their 40s. At first, she and her patients were shocked by the clinic closures, but understood the reasons, she says. Then patients started questioning why they were prevented from conceiving when fertile women could still get pregnant.
Knowing that some patients could lose all chances of having a baby with their own eggs, Reed posted an online petition calling for the ASRM to recommend that clinics reopen with COVID-19 precautions in place. “Fertility treatment is both necessary and time-sensitive,” she wrote. The petition garnered more than 21,000 signatures, along with numerous comments from those who signed it:
“I was 3 days away from starting my injections for IVF when I was told it would have to be postponed. I’ve waited 10 years to have a child.”
“I am in a same sex couple and we have no other option to get pregnant. We are devastated.”
“It takes a lot of time, money, and stress for us to even have a CHANCE at a baby, and this is only wasting my opportunities and crushing dreams….What if this month would have been the successful month?”
“You can go to the eye doctor, the chiropractor or the liquor store — but I can’t continue my fertility treatments? It’s unfair and cruel.”
Amy Schmidt Zook, a 43-year-old resident of Fort Worth, Texas, had undergone a procedure to retrieve eggs two days before the ASRM guidelines went into effect. Instead of transferring a resulting fresh embryo into Zook’s uterus, the clinic froze it until embryo transfers could resume. “For it all to be put on pause was scary,” Zook says. .
“We hear all the time, ‘We’ve got to get on it. You are at the very end of your fertility. We have to do things quickly, and you have no time to waste,’” Zook says.
Being of older reproductive age, as in Zook’s case, wasn’t considered an urgent reason for treatment.
Zook, a former emergency medicine doctor who now stays home full-time with her children, ages 2 and 6, said she wanted a third after struggling to get pregnant with her second child.
“When I had my son and then when we had to try so hard to have my daughter, something just changed and it made me realize this is what I wanted. I want to be able to be with them when they’re little, and I want to be able to see their milestones. That is, I guess, why I feel like it’s my greatest achievement.”
An Accumulation of Losses
While Oswald and Emi are young and have time to recoup losses, it’s harder to come to grips with missing out on a last chance to have a baby or to spend time with older parents before they die.
It’s understandable to feel angry and sad about losses that have stemmed from our lives being put on hold, Schuurman says. “These feelings are normal in a situation that feels out of control, which makes us feel powerless.”
Life brings an accumulation of losses, she says. In her long career as a bereavement expert, she has traveled to various sites of disasters, natural and manmade, to counsel people who have suffered tragic losses. For example, she talked to parents whose children died in the Sandy Hook school shootings, as well as survivors of Japan’s Kobe earthquake in 1995.
“They’ve lost not just loved ones, but a sense of safety and control,” she says. They’ve also suffered “a loss of the assumptive world, like ‘how I thought things were going to be.’”
With the pandemic, many of us have felt similar losses -- a shock, given the American penchant for pursuing more choice, control, and success. “We live in a society that’s ‘succeed, move on, make money,’ and we’re in a stasis kind of time,” Schuurman says.
She also points to a commonplace American belief “that we’re immune from the kinds of problems that the rest of the world has, and clearly, we’re not,” she says. “Because it is 100% worldwide, every single person is at risk. It shifts everything in how we assumed the world was. There’s a surrealness to it.”
Amid such an unsettling time, Schuurman says, “How do you regain a sense of control when you’re powerless about so many things?”
There are unhelpful ways to cope, such as numbing oneself with alcohol or drugs, or stewing and ruminating on “a very real, frightening situation,” she says. The same goes for overeating or oversleeping. Alcohol sales have increased during the pandemic and a recent survey found that people have said they are drinking more.
“Find things that you can control that are healthy for you,” Schuurman says. “Find things you can do where you can channel all of these feelings into something that helps others or that feeds your soul, whatever that may be. It may be knitting or making face masks or protesting.”
Right now, our well-being also depends on keeping social connections, she says. She urges people “to still reach out socially, to not cut those connections.”
“We try to support one another, we stay connected with family and friends, we make the calls, we try to do Zoom get-togethers,” Schuurman says.
Beyond human connection, she’s seen through her experience in grief counseling that a spiritual or religious perspective can help people integrate losses and remain resilient, she says.
“Having a belief in something beyond just what we see here and our lives here -- that tends to be a protective factor for people, whether that is God or spirit,” she says. “This is hard, but this isn’t the end of my life.”
Life Goes On
The sense that 2020 is a lost year evokes mixed feelings for Natalia Skritskaya, PhD, co-founder and director of the Complicated Grief Clinic of New York and a research scientist at Columbia University. “It does make sense. We cannot do things the way we used to or how we planned. We have to wait it out and see how things develop, and it could be a year,” she says.
“On the other hand, it’s still life. Crossing the year out of our lives maybe is not totally wise, to count it as a lost one,” says the clinical psychologist.
There’s a broader lesson for people who have lost cherished things during this year on hold, whether it’s a relationship, career advancement, or another important event or opportunity. “Trying to protest the reality or refusing to accept the reality -- when it’s excessive, when the person is not willing to adjust their thinking or modify their idea, that could backfire in the long run and make it difficult for the person to adapt to the challenge,” according to Skritskaya.
“Loss is not new to our lives,” she says. If you think about the history of humankind, life wasn’t all rosy. There were illnesses and separations and deaths of loved ones, and it seems that we have instinctive capacity to adapt to difficult life events. You might call it resilience.”
Distinguish what you can and cannot change, she says. That’s crucial, because when people face losses beyond their control, they can get caught up in how life could have turned out differently.
It’s natural to do so, but “if we just keep spinning our wheels when we cannot really change the situation, it will add to our suffering and unhappiness.”
During this pandemic, the pause in our lives gives us a chance to evaluate what’s truly important to us, Skritskaya says. “What are our core values? Trying to align our lives with those core values and things that are truly interesting to us -- living life according to our values and true interests -- is a potential antidote to life challenges.”
We can also boost our sense of contentment during this trying year, she says. “Even small things matter. Try to add to your day-to-day life some simple, small pleasures,” she says, such as going out to see nature or taking a couple of extra minutes to enjoy your coffee or chatting with a friend by phone.
These acts trigger positive emotions that serve as buffers against the negative emotions and anxiety that are abundant already, she says.
Making Peace with Losses
Like many others with parents in their final years, Schuurman is making peace with the possibility that she might never again see her mom alive. Her mother, though, doesn’t fully grasp the situation and asks, “When are you coming out?”
“You recognize the painful part. I might not be able to be there when she dies,” Schuurman says. “You also remember the good times. What are the positive things that this person brought about in your life?”
“I don’t mean from a saccharine or Pollyanna standpoint, but recognizing that the sadness and the gratitude can coexist.”
People manage loss and uncertainty better when they’re able to hold two viewpoints at the same time, she says. “I can within my being hold both joy and pain. I can have sorrow and I can have celebration. “This is a terrible time and there’s opportunity in it.”
She’s grateful that she was able to see her mother in November while she was back East for a conference. “That gives me a lot of peace and gratitude. I spent 2½ hours with her without any idea that, wow, this literally could be the last time that I see her. I’m aware of that because of her age, but I would have no idea that COVID or something like that would prevent me.”
As a hairstylist, Oswald lost clients for 8 weeks when salons shut down and has since returned to work with pandemic precautions in place. During those 2 months, her life felt like “chaos,” she says. She began to see an upside to postponing the wedding. “It felt like it would be easier for me to compartmentalize if we just moved the wedding to another year. I needed to focus on getting back to work and making money, and it just felt frivolous ordering a $1,000 wedding cake when I hadn’t worked for 8 weeks.”
Even though she and Newsom postponed their big celebration until 2021, they hatched a plan to still get married this October in a small ceremony with both sets of parents and her sister in attendance. “We just threw it all together, and we’ll go ahead and do a small thing on our original date,” Oswald says.
And she’s found an unexpected bonus: “I get to wear my wedding dress twice.”