Lynne Halamish, an expert on dealing with death and loss, on how the constant exposure to sickness and death affects us throughout the epidemic. “There are also benefits, not just a price” | Interview
By Gil Plotkin Last updated: April 10, 2020, 01:25 PM
Thanatologist Lynne Halamish: “The vast difference between wars and coronavirus in that during a war we are all together, and in the battle against coronavirus we are all alone” (Photo: George Hodan, Public Domain Pictures.net)
Lynne Halamish is an expert on dealing with death, loss, and grief. I asked her what it does to us when we wake up every morning and look at the graphs and tables detailing the numbers of those who have died, who are on life support, and who have contracted coronavirus. How will this affect us as individuals, and as a society?
“We will only have the answer to this question in the aftermath,” says Halamish. “It depends on how long this situation lasts. If it ends today, I’m not sure to what extent the fear of others will become an integral part of who we are. However, if it lasts for much longer, I presume it will change the way we relate to each other entirely.”
Lynne Halamish. “We are all going to die, so I think it’s important to talk about it.” (Photo: Courtesy of the subject)
Halamish studied thanatology (Thanatos was the Greek god of Death) in the first year thanatology studies were an option in the United States, 44 years ago. Five years later, she moved to Israel and has since counseled hundreds of patients who had experienced a loss. “Not all grief and loss are the result of death,” she explains, “they can also result from a loss of a limb or a disease, a loss of a job or a divorce. Loss comes in many forms.”
In what way will Coronavirus change us?
“Everything in life has a price, as well as a benefit. What is happening now is no different. I can’t say what they will be, but there is one benefit I can already think of: The understanding that we cannot control everything in our lives. We think we can, and it takes a tiny virus to teach us that we have no control. I think that lesson is a benefit because the belief that we control the world is an illusion. We don’t control the world. We can see that on a national level when a tidal wave hits, and now we are learning it on an international level. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We are not God, that’s exactly the point.
Why aren’t we taught about death? We study things we will never face; facing death is a certainty, yet we do not learn about it.
But it is likely that once this is all over, we will go back to our old ways.
“We can act like an ostrich and bury our heads in the sand, or we can be more realistic. One of the most significant benefits of my profession, as I work with death, against death, with people who are dying, who have been in terrorist attacks, who are wounded – I am very well aware that we are not in control, and I think that is for the best.”
“If we take death and divide it into two types: The first is sudden death with no advance notice, and the other is prolonged death with a slow deterioration process – what do you think is the benefit of sudden death?”
It spares us the sadness and anticipation for it.
“And what’s the price?”
That we don’t have the chance to say goodbye.
“And the price of slow death is the suffering, perhaps financial issues, the family. And the benefit is time. However, this time only becomes a benefit if you use it.”
“For communicating, for saying goodbye, for saying the things that need to be said, for tying up loose ends. We have no control, but within each situation, there are things we can do. Prepare for the death, for instance.”
Do you recommend saying goodbye?
“Yes, for the sake of those who are left behind, yes. For the most part, yes.”
And for those who pass on?
“I haven’t spoken to them, so I can’t tell you.”
“It’s smart to learn about it.”
Halamish says that death is not this beautiful thing, as sometimes depicted in books or romantic films. “The dying person does not become prettier or nicer, the family does not become more special. They usually unravel under the burden. Part of the problem is that we don’t talk about it, and then we don’t know what it is to be normal in these situations, so we feel guilty about everything. There is another way to do it.”
“We are all going to die, so I think it’s important to talk about it. I have a book about the study of death for kindergarteners through high school seniors. Why aren’t we taught about death? We study things we will never face; facing death is a certainty, yet we do not learn about it. I think it’s smart to learn about it. As it says in Ecclesiastes: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”
“Now, with Coronavirus, we are constantly exposed to it. I very strongly recommend switching off the news for a bit, because it’s ridiculous. We keep fixating on what is going to happen. I don’t know if you know anyone who has died from Coronavirus, but soon you will, and then you will know many people who have died from Coronavirus. So, the fear will grow and grow. The anxiety level is rising, and that’s a problem. We also saw it during the wars here. The vast difference between wars and coronavirus in that during a war we are all together, and in the battle against coronavirus we are all alone.”
I am concerned that there will be an increase in suicide and murder rates. I don’t know if it will happen, I hope and pray that it will not, but the conditions are becoming optimal for it.
How does isolation make it harder for us to cope?
“It makes it very hard; the lack of human contact, the lack of fellowship. We know we are not together, though we try to deny it. There’s that slogan ‘We’re in this together’. We’re not together. Everyone is hiding away alone, to keep safe. If we walk down the street and see someone else walk by, we cross the street to avoid coming in contact with them. It’s a new state of mind, the influence of which, if it continues – and it seems that it will last at least, let’s say, until September – our interpersonal relationships will be completely transformed.”
“Do you remember the movies based on Jane Austin novels? The suitor does not touch. There is a great social distance. I don’t think this is a bad thing, I just think it’s different. And we’re going to need a lot of ways to deal with it.”
Ask the children: What is this Coronavirus?
Who are the most likely groups to be affected right now?
“The most vulnerable groups are, first and foremost, the elderly, especially widows and widowers, those who are utterly isolated. As well as those who are part of a family or social system that includes violent individuals. Taking a violent person and locking them up in one house with others is extremely dangerous. The children in such homes are victims of this situation. Battered women. I’m immensely worried about this issue. The social workers, who would have intervened, cannot come anymore. That was my first concern from the moment this all began. I am concerned that there will be an increase in suicide and murder rates. I don’t know if it will happen, I hope and pray that it will not, but the conditions are becoming optimal for it.”
We need to find a place in life that is a good place. We can no longer go to the beach or the forest, we can no longer go running when we need to vent, so we need to find something else
How does this affect the children? What should we be telling them?
“I think watching the news doesn’t benefit anyone. You can stay up to date, you don’t have to see the images. When it comes to the kids, you should ask them. The best language to be used with children is to always keep asking questions because if we don’t ask, we are shooting in the dark.
“So ask: What’s going on? What is this Coronavirus? What is this thing? Where did it come from? Why did it come? When dealing with children between the ages of 5-8, they are the center of their own universe. This isn’t a bad thing; it is a fact. They believe that whatever they think or do affects the entire world. This means that if something bad happened, they might very well think they made it happen.
“To find out, you should ask these questions and try to see if they feel guilty. If they do, you need to discuss it. There are children I’ve met with and asked ‘why is this happening to mom? Why is mom sick?’ And they replied: ‘because I wasn’t good.’ Then I say ‘it would be great if people were to live or die based solely on the good things we do or don’t do, but it doesn’t work that way. It has nothing to do with it. I’m not saying you were a good boy/girl, because I don’t know you; I’m saying it has nothing to do with it’.”
Are children the only ones who blame themselves?
“No, no. We’re not that different from children, despite all the wisdom we think we have. I have met with widows and widowers who have said ‘if I were a better spouse, s/he’d still be alive’.”
Where does this come from?
“When we suffer tragedy, something terrible, we have two options to choose from: We can either choose helplessness – ‘it happened and there was nothing I could have done to stop it’ – which is very frightening to us, because we have more loved ones and we cannot keep them safe; or we can choose the other option – ‘It’s my fault, I could have done something I didn’t do’. We tend to choose guilt, and this is not a good choice.”
Be more on the side of life than on the side of death. Keep the news watching to a minimum. Keep up to date with the current instructions, but don’t sit around watching it all over and over again.
“Talk to God, blame Him.“
I wonder where we can find the strength to cope with fear and pain.
Are you a religious person?
“I believe very much in God. “
And in the afterlife?
“Yes, but that’s me. Each person needs to find their own source of power. It’s a problem if your power comes from yourself, and it’s a problem if your power comes from any other person, because everybody dies.”
What other sources of power are there, that are neither God nor human?
“I am not aware of any, but perhaps there are. I would be interested in hearing where others draw their strength. We search. We search everywhere until we find it. It’s a trial and error process.”
And now, under quarantine, while anxiety levels are rising, what do you recommend we do?
“Be more on the side of life than on the side of death. Keep the news watching to a minimum. Keep up to date with the current instructions, but don’t sit around watching it all over and over again. We need to find a place in life that is a good place. We can no longer go to the beach or the forest, we can no longer go running when we need to vent, so we need to find something else.
“If you love to read and watch TV, I highly recommend refraining from watching horror movies about viruses that wipe out mankind, go watch more positive things. Some people read Psalms, some people sing, some people play instruments.
“Do what helps you breathe. I believe this is very, very important. Always, but especially today, during the Coronavirus outbreak, when the main problem is quarantine. Breathing is crucial. You have to find out what allows you to breathe. And if you can’t do the things that normally allow you to breathe, find new things. Prayer helps, turn to God, blame Him, talk to Him about it. Paint. Whatever gives you oxygen.
“We have forgotten that we are a tribe, we belong to one another.”
Another effect of the Coronavirus, according to Halamish, could be a reminder of how connected we are to each other.
I understand that you’re an optimist.
“I think I’m a realist. I can’t say whether or not I’m going to survive this, but that’s not the point. The point is our meaning here. What we do while we are here. My son, when he was young, came back from school one day and said, ‘Mom, I know you just want me to be happy.’ And I said to him, ‘Is that what you think? I don’t care if you’re happy or not. I care that you find meaning, that you create meaning.’ That’s the deeper purpose.
“One of the things that bothered me even before Coronavirus is that we have forgotten that we are a tribe. We have forgotten that we belong to one another. And this thing that we are made of, like a spider web, where each thread belongs to another thread – in contrast to the individualistic approach – Coronavirus reminds us of it. We are all interconnected.
“We are not separate. We’re separated in our houses right now, but we are very deeply dependent upon each other. For example, the secular sector, is profoundly connected to the religious sector, even if they don’t want to be. The religious are profoundly connected to us, even if they desperately want to be separate, and have been separating themselves from the secular public for many years.
“This tribe mentality has been lost, and it’s a real shame. This is a bit of a wake-up call for the tribe. That, too, is a benefit of Coronavirus. How many of us will survive this and reap the benefits? That I do not know.”