By Martha Simmons
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
Last fall, troubling news images from Italy showed the historic flooding of Venice. Today, the Venice canals are back to normal, but they are eerily empty of their iconic boat traffic, due not to flooding but an invisible tsunami: the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19.
As of March 30, the disease had sickened more than 101,000 throughout Italy and killed nearly 11,591, according to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center.
Italy quickly became Ground Zero for COVID-19, taking over the title from Wuhan, China, where the disease first emerged. Hospitals are overwhelmed. Coffins are stacked in parking lots, and crematories can’t keep up with the deaths. The entire country of more than 60 million is on lockdown.
Quarantined along with them are Kip and Janet Dwyer*, Baptist representatives in Turin, a northern Italy metropolitan area with a population of more than 2 million.
In this Q&A with The Alabama Baptist, Janet Dwyer, who holds a doctorate in counseling, shared her impressions of the emotional trauma inflected by the crisis and how faith has helped her family during this difficult time.
Q: What strikes you most about the human condition in the midst of this crisis in Italy?
A: I have been really impressed with how willing the Italians are to do whatever is necessary for the good of the vulnerable. Italians truly value human beings, which is already evident in the way parents care for and sacrifice for their children. Italians also value extended family highly, and as Italy’s population is aging (Italy has the oldest population in the world, second only to Japan), people seem very willing to sacrifice their personal freedom to move around, go to work and live normal life in order to protect those they love.
The American in me was a little miffed at having my “freedom” taken away, but true freedom, as others have pointed out, is not doing whatever you want, but choosing to do what is right and good for the whole. I feel like Italians are modeling sacrificial love right now as they are following restrictions and caring for those around them.
Grocery stores here are not cleaned out. All the stores I have been to these days of lockdown have been fully stocked. Nobody is hoarding or buying more than they need.
To me, this is the big thing Americans can learn from Italy — the greatest freedom is to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Jesus. Right now, we have the opportunity to do that by sheltering in place as much as possible.
Q: Italians are a very sociable culture. How are people managing in this case of extreme isolation?
A: Italians are doing what you see Americans doing these days — church events have moved online, and in some cases there are even more prayer meetings and “gatherings” than usual as people are seeking to support each other. Friends have told us that they are having virtual birthday parties using Skype, Zoom and Whatsapp, and everyone has seen the videos of various cities in Italy with Italians out on their balconies at 6 p.m. singing and dancing together — at a safe distance.
Q: How can people deal with the emotional trauma of this crisis?
A: For me, the hardest days were the ones America is in right now — when the “rules” kept changing every day, circling closer and closer with more and more restrictions. The unknown, I think, can just skyrocket anxiety out of control because you’re sort of falling down the ladder of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Forget about trying to live a fulfilling life; people are now wondering, “Am I safe? Is my family safe? How can we not get sick? Am I going to be able to get food and supplies?”
Living under this kind of uncertainty is a low-grade, ongoing trauma. Not everyone responds to trauma by being traumatized, but framing the whole COVID-19 experience this way can help us set more realistic expectations for ourselves.
You can’t heal from a trauma while it is ongoing; the stress levels are too high. When a trauma is ongoing, most people are generally unable to achieve the level of safety necessary to process the experience fully.
As the initial shock and panic of the closures start to fade, we may find that we have more mental and emotional space to try to make sense of this global outbreak.
Having a robust theology of suffering and loss is a huge advantage. Suffering and loss are a result of the fall and Jesus has redeemed both through His death on the cross — Jesus’ resurrection proved that God uses suffering to accomplish good on behalf of all mankind. Jesus’ incarnation and model of humility normalizes loss — in fact, we as believers are called to renounce the things most dear to us as we follow Christ. If we are already making a practice of submitting our desires and dreams to Christ, we will be better able to cope with the losses we are experiencing through COVID-19.
At the same time, the idea that we can and should process all the losses and deaths right now, as the numbers of infected and deceased are increasing, is absurd. We can ground ourselves in the truths that we know about our God and our security in Him, but now isn’t the time to pressure yourself to work out all the implications and know exactly how you feel about everything.
It is enough to acknowledge what you feel moment by moment, develop practices for letting those emotions out physically, and move on to the next thing. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
We can all help each other by first acknowledging and regulating, best we can, our own emotions and reactions. For me, this has looked like journaling, prioritizing exercise (some of us will have to find new ways to exercise), watching TV that makes me laugh, baking and doing other indoor things that I enjoy.
When the crisis first started in Italy, I had no emotional room to bear to anyone else’s feelings. When our own “tank” is filled, we can better bear others’ burdens by listening to their concerns and understanding them from their perspective.
COVID-19 isn’t something any of us can fix, so it is a great opportunity to practice acknowledging each other’s reactions as normal and just sitting with each other in the pain.
*Names changed due to security concerns.