Dr. Theresa del Tufo is an organizational consultant and author. Her fifth book, “Women Powered: A New Paradigm of Influence and Equity,” is now available. She has been a resident of Dover for more than 50 years.
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” — Khalil Gibran
Damaged. Broken. Traumatized.
The whole world has been damaged by the COVID-19 pandemic that started in 2020. It’s now July 2022, and our lives are still compromised by this rude and unexpected guest.
In this country, no one age group has been more affected than older Americans. They are the most at risk of dying from COVID-19, which is validated by the most recent data reported by The Associated Press.
More than 700,000 of the 1 million deaths in this country are in the 65-years-and-older age cohort, which is disproportionate to their population. Seniors have been advised during this pandemic to stay home and avoid large gatherings, which has caused a heavy toll on their mental health and, in turn, affects their physical health. This lack of human contact and isolation has resulted in seniors experiencing greater anxiety, depression and loneliness, which, according to a study conducted by the University of California, San Francisco, are predictors of serious health problems, even death. The study notes that loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%, comparable to the damage caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
The loneliness epidemic, which is one of the unintended side effects of staying home and lockdown to prevent the spread of infection, has hit this population in significant ways. I see it in my older friends’ blank gaze, their listless eyes, their hunched silhouette, defeated gait and their silence. True, they have the cumulative wisdom, strength and resilience borne out of the many sufferings and traumas in their lives, but they are not superhuman. They are worn-out, beaten down to a pulp, and then some. The mythical resilience and courage to move on are gone. There’s not even any attempt to try to “put on their strong hearts” — what author Ryan Holiday (“No One is Unbreakable,” 2022) calls “an inner citadel, a fortress of power and resilience that prepares you for the difficulties of the world.”
Broken bodies; broken minds. And maybe, broken hearts. Too weak and too exhausted and beaten down by life to fight back. Death is an easy exit. No more struggles; no need to worry about being a burden. It’s a clean break. This is a sentiment that I hear time and again, voiced by my friends and acquaintances in this at-risk age cohort.
One friend noted that the predicament she is experiencing right now is much like being swallowed by the black hole of our universe, where the gravitational pull is so strong that every glimmer of light is extinguished by the black hole’s energy.
Connect with elders
During tough times like now, we have to remember to support and care for our older citizens. There are many practical ways that we can alleviate the loneliness and trauma facing our older relatives and neighbors: Engage them in holiday celebrations and other special occasions. They can participate in a video chat or a small gathering. Sons and daughters can connect weekly through email, text and telephone conversations.
Better yet, get vaccinated and wear a mask, so you can check on and connect with your elderly mom, dad and older relatives. Neighbors can check on their elderly neighbors and offer them assistance in tasks they’re unable to do, like wheeling their garbage bins to the curb, cutting grass or going to the grocery store for basic items that they need. There are a million and one things to do for our seniors, as long as we care and are willing to help and serve.
Whenever I feel trapped and confused, in what feels like a swirling miasma of suffering and pain, I call on my imaginary grandmother. Her name is Lola, and she resurrects before me to share her strength and legendary wisdom. I sit comfortably on her lap, as she engages my hungry heart with stunning narratives of her life experiences. She invariably would end up with a message, not at all didactic or sermonic but magical and fun. She just has this knack of making learning fun!
Last week, I dropped my ceramic noodle bowl, and it broke into several large pieces. Instead of discarding it, I remembered what Lola told me about how she fixed her broken cup by joining the loose pieces with a golden thread of lacquer. She pointed out that she learned this practice when she worked in Japan. In one of our encounters, she told me about this art form called kintsugi, which literally means “golden joinery.”
During my sensible hours, I did some additional research and uncovered interesting facts about this elusive Eastern tradition. Practitioners use gold or silver dust, resin or lacquer and “glue” the pieces together, with minimal overlap or open space. In philosophy, it celebrates the history of the broken object, rather than hiding it. It embraces its imperfection and designs a new and better version of the broken pieces by putting them back together again, much like people. People are adaptive, resilient and strong, even in the face of unimaginable suffering and pain. They do live and survive — many times stronger and more courageous than before.
Kintsugi is a powerful and inspiring metaphor of the totality of human experience. Suffering, illness and pain are part of the fundamental essence of life, which we need to understand and appreciate. They are a segment of the eternal and predictable cycle of life. Let’s allow bad times to help us learn and grow. Its temporary dominance will soon come to its natural end, as we await the coming of a healthier and happier tomorrow.
In the fullness of time, most of us will find the courage to face all the challenges posed by this uninvited pandemic. Gam zeh ya’avor. This, too, shall pass.
Live the rest of your brief but spectacular life with an open mind and a courageous heart. And call or visit your mom and dad.