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Our Collective Trauma

“You live through that little piece of time that is yours, but that piece of time is not only your own life, it is the summing up of all the others lives that are simultaneous with yours . . . . What you are is an expression of history.”  — Robert Penn Warren, “World Enough and Time”

I read that quote recently as I was reading the remarkable book “The Body Keeps the Score,” written by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.  Dr. Van Der Kolk has devoted his career to working with survivors of trauma, those who have been through experiences that run the whole gamut, from war to abuse to loss and beyond.  All of us live through trauma, to greater or lesser extents, and all of us carry the imprint of that trauma with us throughout our lives in all respects—mind, body and spirit.

Robert Penn Warren’s quote struck me, specifically, because of the shared experience we have all lived through, and continue to live through, an experience that has indeed marked our history, that period of time I often refer to as the “COVID era.”  I have come to realize, and believe, that all of us have been touched by trauma in the wake of a global pandemic, all of us continue to hold those emotions and reactions in all facets of our being.

Trauma survivors are often afraid and hyper vigilant in certain areas. They may relive the experience, waking or sleeping. They see the world in a way they did not see it before, as a place that they once knew to be safe that is safe no longer. I think all of those descriptions apply to the impact that COVID has had on our lives and, specifically, on the lives of older adults.

Our elders have experienced COVID as a time of isolation and uncertainty.  They’ve not had the same access to information that those of us who are “internet-enabled” do, those who live in the community have found access to transportation limited, have delayed health care out of fear or lack of access.  Those who live in residential settings, while having their care and basic needs met, were cut off from their families, from socialization, from necessary stimulation.

The wounds of the last two plus years run deep. They are wounds we all carry.  The losses we have experienced of family and friends, the people we care about who are still struggling with long COVID, the knowledge that, for the first time in memory, we all faced a crisis without answers and a medical challenge that could not be controlled, and now cannot be fully halted.

There are moments in life that we all remember, 9/11 and the Challenger explosion.  We can tell you where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news.  We are, as Robert Penn Warren writes “a piece of time” that is “the summing up of all others lives that are simultaneous with yours.”  In the case of COVID, this “expression of history” is deep, profound and enduring.  It is a part of who we are today and has shaped, and will continue to shape, who we are as we move forward.

About the Author
Carol Silver Elliott is President and CEO of The Jewish Home Family, which runs NJ's Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, Jewish Home Foundation and Jewish Home at Home. She joined The Jewish Home Family in 2014. Previously, she served as President and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is past chair of LeadingAge and the Association of Jewish Aging Services.
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