COVID-19 has caused many of us to experience loss in different ways: loss of jobs, loved ones, opportunities, normalcy, and place. In this interview, Tabitha Epperson draws from her experience with Hurricane Katrina to help show how we can better cope and become resilient despite the losses we've experienced during the pandemic.
Tabitha Epperson is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi. She has bachelor's degrees in history and political science, and a master's in cultural anthropology, with minors in Spanish and sociology and a graduate certificate in women and gender studies. Her research includes natural disasters, oral histories, and decision-making about relationships for religious students.
Jamie Aten: What did your experience with Hurricane Katrina teach you about the loss of space and home, especially now during COVID-19?
Tabitha Epperson: My experience with Hurricane Katrina and the temporary loss of my home taught me a great deal about the human spirit and recovery. I went on to complete my master's thesis on the concept of home as experienced through the home loss of Gulf Coast residents. Since then, additional research projects on various natural disasters showed me how a life event of this magnitude could also help people cope with any disrupting life event. For the past year, I have used what I learned to help manage my COVID-19 journey.
With something so fundamental in my life (my home) severely damaged and uninhabitable for 18 months, life as I knew it ceased to exist. I am not alone in measuring my life BK and AK (Before and After Katrina). You may now measure your life pre-pandemic and post-pandemic (hopefully soon). Pictures and television shows prior to 2020 may strike you as odd seeing people socializing together without masks. Our way of life has changed.
Although you may not have physically lost your home (as many have in this pandemic), you may have lost the sense of home as a refuge as it has now become a place of work, a daycare, a school, a gym, a place of worship, etc., too.
This is a type of loss—the loss of place. Many memories are made in buildings, such as schools, churches, and community centers, and when those do not remain, all that you are left with is your memories until you can return and create new memories there.
JA: What are some ways we can cope with our loss of place during COVID?
TE: We have lost places in this pandemic. Whether it is a school, a workplace, a place of worship, a favorite restaurant or business that closed throughout this crisis, or somewhere that you cannot physically be at this time, this is still a loss.
It is important to acknowledge that this is a loss, grieve it, and then figure out how to meet the challenge of this new normal.
With COVID-19, we all had the same global pandemic that wreaked havoc on our lives. And some of us are fighting battles more extreme than others, but we all have issues with which to deal as our sense of normalcy completely changed last March.
Regardless of the cause or series of events, we all experience loss. Some of these are the tremendous loss of life, and others seem more insignificant and more like an inconvenience, but it is still a loss.
You will experience loss, whether it be home or something else. In 2020, you probably lost a lot.
Some important things to remember to do are:
Write — capture those stories of places and people that are now lost to you.
Reflect — what did you learn from this place you call home or people you lost or cannot see right now?
Share those stories — this helps those stories live on, even if just in family lore.
Hold on to the memories — in the end, once someone or someplace is lost, we can still keep our memories with us as we journey into the next chapter of our lives.
JA: How have you been able to cultivate resilience—both during your experience with Katrina and now during the pandemic? And what words can you share as we navigate the journey of finding resilience during COVID?
TE: Through the experience of Hurricane Katrina, and with the process of the exercises mentioned above, I realized Katrina gave me at least one thing—resilience.
My measure for bad experiences changed. I ask myself—Do I have electricity, water, food, and shelter? Then things are not that bad. Despite all that was lost or put on hold during COVID-19, we still have some good that remains.
I learned that I could experience great loss and become stronger. And you can too.
Great loss does not have to define me, and although it changes how I think about the fragility of life and the impermanence of place, it is not the end of the story but the beginning of a new life. The image of a phoenix rising from the ashes always comes to mind. We are all like phoenixes that will rise from the ashes of this global tragedy stronger and ready to face the next challenge, and probably more appreciative for things and people lost that will eventually be returned to us.
By different means, COVID-19 has brought great loss for many people. Many have lost loved ones. Some have lost jobs. Others have lost homes. Many children and college students (along with their instructors) lost the opportunity for in-person classes. We have lost our sense of normalcy and routine. These are all losses, and you may find yourself grieving something—whether it be in-person concerts, going to a movie, eating in a restaurant, hugging people, handshaking, or just being maskless in the grocery store.
One thing I reminded myself about the ordeal of Katrina was, “Just because it feels this way now, does not mean it will always feel this way.” Each day, the loss hurt a little less, until one day, it just felt like a distant, bad dream.
There is still beauty in the dissolution of your former life. Just because some things are terrible does not mean that everything is horrible. Flowers still can smell nice and add a splash of color to your dining room table. A good television show or book can still comfort. When other distractions are removed, there is more space to connect to those around us (even if those around us are few these days). A similar thing happens after hurricanes; without electricity, internet, or cable, people are able to slow down and actually talk to the people around them and build stronger connections.
And just because our relationships look different now in how we can interact with people and who we can interact with in-person, they did not disappear. They are still there, and in time, things will not always be the way they are now.
JA: What is some advice you'd like to share to help others who might be struggling with loss during COVID?
TE: You are stronger than you know. You can experience all of these changes and still carry on with hope.
You will come out better on the other side of this experience. You will be able to evaluate situations more clearly by seeing the threshold of how intense things got in the pandemic.
Maybe you will value relationships or quality time more. Maybe you will appreciate those in certain jobs more (i.e., health care workers, truckers, postal workers, store workers, teachers). Maybe you will try to be more present because you remember a time where you could not be.
The pain of hard lessons learned this past year resulted in growth. You will be changed, but for the better.
You endured. You succeeded. You survived. You are resilient.