Columbia Copes

Posted On May 7, 2020

We’re in this together, so reach out to each other, say Columbia therapists  

By Warren Hughes

Columbia therapists Dr. Rhea Merck and Dr. Amy Montanez have been helping clients navigate challenges in life for years, but their counsel has been especially sought during the pandemic as people everywhere are threatened by illness and loss.

“It is hard to recall a time in our lives when life was as messy and complicated as it is right now in the waves and wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the rare community that has not been hit and Columbia is no exception,” Montanez says.

At its worst, they say, people are depressed, knowing people who have died. Financial worries are also very real, whether you are the CEO of a major business, a receptionist at a veterinary clinic, a salesperson at a boutique or a cashier at the grocery store. Even at its least demanding, people are aimless and bored if not frustrated and irritable.    

“That weird feeling you have right about now. It could be grief. The bodily sensation of spinning and disorientation, the ground feeling a bit shaky under your feet. The sleep-disturbed nights. The knot in your stomach. The lack of motivation. It could all be grief,” Montanez says.

“Grief is the sense of loss we feel when something we value is gone. It can be something tangible, like a person, pet, or object. It might be losing an activity we enjoy like playing sports, attending church, or shopping and eating out. Intangibles, like a sense of certainty or well-being, freedom to move around as we wish, daily routines, relationships we normally count on, even something we haven’t yet been able to name can be grieved. And it all leaves us with this weird, disoriented sensation,” she explains.

Montanez is especially concerned about the complicated grief of people who are going through major life transitions during this time. “End of life and beginning of life rituals that normally bring people together to hug, hold, kiss, and physically surround each other are now nothing like we ever imagined. Prayers are raised in the parking lots of hospitals for dying family members. Priests are doing last rites over the phone. Only the closest of family members attend funerals, or funerals are postponed indefinitely. Widows - wanting the physical presence of others are at home – are having food dropped off on the stoop without a hug or touch,” she notes.

“At the other end of life, a couple pregnant with a baby are completely quarantined to ward off the threat of this virus. Partners will not be allowed in the delivery area while new mothers are laboring alone. Parents live scared for the lives of their new babies, unable to allow even grandparents over to welcome the newest member,” she adds.

“We are all learning new ways of living right now, and new means we aren’t going to be good at it. And so, as we grieve, we will limp along together, texting and talking, walking and wandering, zooming and praying, and trusting that in the end, we will figure out what we need. We will grieve, our own messy way of grieving, and then, when we are least expecting it, we will grieve again.”

Regardless of your circumstance now, to cope with your feelings, she says, “I highly recommend doing something creative with your weird, grief-y feelings. Write, paint, dance, garden, cook, sing, design, journal. … anything to get more of the brain working. Please be kind to each other. You don’t have to understand why another person is struggling. Just be there for them. None of us understands what this is doing to us yet.”

Weighing in from her professional perspective, Merck says not knowing what may happen affects everyone now.  “Uncertainty has become our new normal,” she notes, explaining, “The truth is, we probably all feel like we’re failing to some degree right now. We simply don’t have a template for this time of ‘sheltering in place.’ We’ve probably never dealt with being warned that our mere presence with another could make them sick.”

Amid the uncertainty, however, the global-wide pause button has provided some relief, she observed. “Maybe there is a lesson here. We are all operating at a completely different pace and in different spaces. I am watching families reconnect. People strolling all hours of the day and night, talking together, walking the dog. Riding bicycles. Beautifying their yards. Planting gardens. Playing games at home.”

Even so, she concludes, “I am painfully aware that people are out of work. Small businesses will undoubtedly close. And I am sick for all of those people. …My own daughter has been out of work for almost three weeks now when the small business where she worked closed. “

Montanez and Rhea Merck began writing a blog in 2015 and regularly published their skills for coping with life’s messes for almost three years before taking a brief hiatus. Their followers now are taking comfort in the counsel they can access on the popular blob the counselors revived as the current crisis unfolded. They are also working on a book to be published soon.

As for now, “Montanez says, “We’re all in this together. We are all being shaped by this time in history and we will be changed by it. … “It’s uncharted waters for all of us and finding peace in this disruption of our ordinary lives is challenging.” She adds, “We want to shine a light on the nuances of all this messiness and help people find the everyday marvelous.” There are absolutely real crises among families right now, including unemployment, small business losses, retirement threats, disruption in education, and real-life problems that will have extensive consequences, they acknowledge.  

“But we must warrior on. We are called to be creative. We need to think out of the box. We will survive when we pull together as a community,” they emphasize. As both colleagues and friends, the therapists have fired up their computers and revitalized a blog series to help people cope with the challenges everybody is facing in this unprecedented time. In the search for coping tips and comforting messages, they can be found on their website MessyMarvelous.com. Look for them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.