When a virus breaks your heart

My spiritual director shared a useful analogy with me today. This pandemic is like a boulder dropped into water. It hits deep, and it has immediate, big, and lasting ripples.

Waves had been on my mind since January. They are commonplace in my monthly spiritual direction training weekends. The training center is on the shores of Lake Michigan, and we visit the shore during breaks to check in with the lake and each other. This past January, the winter wind was especially blustery, and the lake was much more active than usual. The waves had engulfed the beach and our well-worn walking paths. It was quite the site to behold.

I joined my friend Deb DeManno down by the shores. Deb is a photographer, and she took a photo of me as we observed the raw power of the waves and held onto the trees to counter the wind.

Liz stands on the shores of Lake Michigan and observes rough waves
Liz Angeli at Lake Michigan, January 2020. Photo credit: Deborah DeManno @deborahdemanno

Then, the following month, the lake was much quieter and just as alive. Same water, different forces at work.  

Lake Michigan's calm waters
Lake Michigan, February 2020

Whenever we go to training, we never know what the waves will look like. We arrive ready to learn. The waves can be all consuming, peaceful, destructive, joyous, cleansing, and unpredictable. We find value in being with them, in part because they bring us together, no matter how tumultuous they are.

Our lives have changed in unimaginable ways over the past week. We have lost control over our senses of normalcy, routines, and expectations. Each of our lives has been affected in different ways, and despite these differences, we are all experiencing waves of loss, grief, and heartbreak.

Out of all the ripples I’ve felt this week, two stand out the most.

Being with a broken heart

My field’s two largest conferences were being held here in Milwaukee at the end of March. At one of these conferences, I was presenting a roundtable with my local EMS community partners, including a division chief of EMS, two EMS physicians, one of my research participants who is a firefighter/paramedic, and my research assistant.

I’d envisioned this panel coming together since when I started working with EMS providers back in 2010, ten years ago. This conference was the ideal time because these partners didn’t need to travel out-of-state to attend. Plus, at this conference, I was going to celebrate my recent tenure and promotion and news that my book won an award. My academic community, research partners, and my family, most of whom live here in Milwaukee, would be there right alongside me to share it.

Then, in a series of emails, it all went away. Everything was cancelled.

My heart broke. It just plain broke. I was more disappointed and angry than I had expected to be. Why was I so upset? Part of me didn’t feel like I had a right to be so upset. I couldn’t understand why I felt so terrible about a completely understandable decision.

After a few days, I realized I was mourning the loss of events that wouldn’t ever happen. I was mourning the loss of shared in-person celebration, connection, and joy. All of it was more important to me than I realized.

Discerning reactions and responses

I’m teaching Rhetoric, Science, and Writing this semester, a first-year Honors English class. I re-designed the course to focus less on Western rhetorical theory and more on other forms of episteme. This course invites students to encounter knowledge in various ways by reading, reflecting, discerning, journaling, being in nature, and slowing down. We’re reading Braiding Sweetgrass and Radical Amazement, which we supplement with readings about rhetorical theory and field trips to a botanical garden and art museum.

As I was developing our remote learning plan, I stayed true to the course’s original intentions, not thinking at all that  COVID-19 is a prime rhetoric and science topic.

Then, I checked Twitter.

Some of my colleagues who also teach rhetoric and science courses shared how they were bringing the pandemic into their course plans. My first reaction? “Why didn’t I think of that? I should do that, too.”

But then my response slowly emerged. Why didn’t I think of that?

I didn’t think of that because this course is intentionally designed for students to focus on how they encounter the world around them. The course is an invitation for students to slow down and to tune their attention inward while they encounter the world around them. My students are already mired in pandemic news, and I did not want to require them to focus on fear, panic, or any other things that could heighten reaction and lessen response.

Finding value in heartbreak, reactions, and responses

Our heartbreak, reactions, and responses have much to teach us. We have to look underneath the waves, so to speak, to see what’s fueling them.

Among other things, they speak to what we value.

For example, a student shared on social media his reaction to moving to remote learning. Understandably, he said, “I didn’t sign up to go to Zoom University.”

What’s under that statement? Perhaps frustration, fear, and disappointment fueled it.

What values might be there, too? “I value in-person instruction. I value interactions with my friends and professors. I value the name of my university. I value my college experience.”

We value connection. We value sharing. We value our personal and professional relationships. We value unity, connectedness, and safety. We value certainty.

One thing is becoming clear—we value one another.

Questions to ponder

  • Have you experienced grief and loss this week? If you can, name it.
  • What values can you identify with those losses?
  • How have you reacted during this time?
  • How have you responded?
  • What fuels your reactions and your responses? Are they similar? Different?
  • What opportunities has this time brought forth?

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