Just 18 months removed from the massacre of Oct. 27, 2018, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community finds itself grappling with another inconceivable trauma — a deadly pandemic that has confined most everyone to their homes.
Nearly a month into self-quarantining, memories of past everyday routines — like gym attendance, careless ambling through grocery stores or brushes past strangers on sidewalks — are becoming more distant. People are adjusting to spending more time at home and indoors. Professional and familial demands, along with the general state of uncertainty presented by COVID-19, can add to the stress while prompting thoughts and feelings related to the shooting at the Tree of Life building, say local mental health professionals.
“We’re a year and a half out from the shooting and a lot of people have made a tremendous amount of progress in that time just in terms of finding a ‘new normal,’ as some people put it,” said Angelica Joy Miskanin, a trauma and art therapist at Jewish Family and Community Services. “And so now here we are again with this kind of situation. In some ways I think there’s a strange level of preparedness for some, and for others it’s sort of a return, or a reemergence of a feeling or feelings that were experienced early on after the shooting,”
Given the current state of affairs, it’s not surprising that people are having increased anxiety or “more feelings of worry, feelings of grieving, feelings of loss, feelings of being really unsure about what to do,” Miskanin explained. For some people, those feelings will serve as “reminders of that period of time following the shooting,” and yet there will also be people who will “not necessarily make that connection for themselves, because it just might not be there for them.”
For many individuals, getting through the first year after the massacre was a major accomplishment. After that, the feeling was “this is going to be a new year and hopefully new and better things will come,” said Lulu Orr, care navigator at JFCS. “Now it’s a whole different crisis. And I do know that there are some people that are feeling that grief more intensely now because they do have so much alone time.”
Although reactions to COVID-19 may resemble feelings experienced after the shooting, certain differences exist, explained Cindy Snyder, clinical director at 10.27 Healing Partnership.
While the language of “grief” may be relevant to the 2018 shooting, the current situation is better framed by “loss,” she said. “It’s a loss of physical connection. It’s a loss of routine. It’s a loss of spontaneity. It’s a loss of ease, almost.” For someone whose loved one has died or for someone whose loved one “is really sick and they can’t be with them, I think that’s also grief, but I think for the rest of us, who don’t yet have that same direct impact, it’s more about managing loss and hoping it doesn’t get to grief.”
There are other differences, too, according to Orr. When a loved one dies, especially through violence or trauma, survivors sometimes see a contrast with other people who seem to be “going along normally.” The pandemic, though, creates “sort of the opposite,” she said. “Everything is closed down and nobody can do normal, so I think that’s a big difference.”
Layered on top of all that is “this hyper-vigilance, which is called for in terms of what we’re being told,” along with a “mix of all the conflicting information that we’re getting,” said Snyder.
Despite the complexity of feelings, there are approaches to easing the situation, explained Stefanie Small, director of clinical services at JFCS. Whether it’s having a block party with people standing on their own lawns or partaking in Illumination Ovation — when people stood outside their homes for a few minutes, shone a light and clapped for essential workers — “you kind of have to look towards your smaller communities” along with the wider community, for support.
“As always, you need to reach out to others,” said Orr. “Everybody knows a couple of people who live alone. Call them. It’ll make you feel better and will certainly make the other person feel better.” The same goes for caregivers who prior to the pandemic might have been able to “get an hour outside of the house, away from whoever they’re caring for, and (now) they can’t. Reach out to them or go on a walk and leave them flowers or a cake that you baked. That will make you feel better and it will make them feel better as well.”
“One of the primary awarenesses that we need to hold is that after October 27, 2018 the neighborhood, the city, the county, the state, the nation, the world, really reached out and encouraged connection among people,” said Snyder. Whether it was gathering for conversation or prayer, or simply standing and crying together, mechanisms were put into place “to manage the horror of what happened” both on Oct. 27 and during subsequent acts of anti-Semitism and mass casualty. “The thing with COVID-19 is that all the ways in which we were supporting people to begin moving through the trauma have been taken off the board.”
It’s true that “we do not have the ability to literally stand shoulder to shoulder or put our heads on each other or hold hands. We cannot do that right now, but we can figuratively do so and it shouldn’t be dismissed as a poor replacement. It’s in addition to,” said Small.
“We have a great opportunity to be creative and to find different ways of engagement and being mindful and practicing self-care that we haven’t necessarily needed to access in the past,” said Snyder.
Between observing citywide undertakings and engaging in conversations with neighbors and colleagues, Small is optimistic. “After the 10/27 shooting one thing that we saw very strongly was that the community came together, and it was a very uplifting moment in time to know that in our darkest time there was a surrounding of love around us,” she said.
“This time, with this crisis, which is not unique to any one population in Pittsburgh, it reminds us again what a strong community we are.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.