By Mary T. O’Sullivan, MSOL

“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” – Joan Didion

In her award-winning book, “The Year of Magical Thinking” author Joan Didion analyzes and replays the heart wrenching scenes following the death of her husband, author, John Gregory Dunne in 2003. She retells in vivid detail each ignored signal prior to his death and relives each raw emotion through a reporter’s analytical lens. Despite her observatory style,  she recreates her grappling with visceral pain and loss over and over again during  the year that followed.

Like Didion, we are now experiencing a great and inexplicable loss. Our lives have changed in an instant. We are searching for the stability that “normal” brings. Normal is gone and we want it back. As did Joan Didion, denial is our first response.

And for most of us, the harsh reality of our loss has set in. We stay at home, work at home, school our kids at home, separated from the rest of the world. As much as we’ve accepted the “new normal”, feelings of loss still creep in.  In Kubler-Ross’s landmark book Five Stages of Grief, she describesthe emotions grieving people experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These, we learn are not linear, we can go in and out of any of these stages at any time after a loss. Who among us, at this time,  is not?

But we also like to avoid the hurt that grief can bring. The danger in not dealing head on with our pain,  is that we could slide into what’s known as “Magical Thinking”;  because things are so out of our control, we begin to believe that our own thoughts, wishes, or desires can influence our external world, (according to Good Just as athletes might wear the same pair of socks  for good luck or request the same lucky number throughout their careers, superstitious behavior, lends some semblance of  control to unmanageable events.

On the more ominous side, grifters, hoaxsters, ,and con artists may prey upon people looking for hope. Throughout history, charlatans have taken advantage of people’s fears in a crisis and created scapegoats, phony cures, or “other worldly” explanations. So, how do we survive these troubled times sensibly? Through over analyzing, denying, or blaming someone or something else? Yes, we will think about every possible cause or outcome of this pandemic, believe the “experts” went crazy or that the Chinese engineered  COVID-19  as “germ warfare”. But the truth is, we just don’t know. This “new normal” doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon. Grasping at non-scientific beliefs, like ignoring physical separation, can only lead us to sickness and harm. We can’t wish away the science. That brings us back to denial, and “Magical Thinking”.

On the road to acceptance and hope, we’ll be like Alice in Through the Looking Glass. LikeAlice, we’ve  crossed into a bizarre universe, a world of unpredictability and strange happenings. Alice’s world is that of “Jabberwocky” – repeated, nonsensical words, which only one entity, Humpty Dumpty can interpret. With media immersion, the TV talking heads, podcasters, Tweeters, Facebook posts and YouTubers hurl information our way. Our bizarre media world  chatters on about COVID-19, and not everyone is using words that people understand. With all the conflicting language ,  we’ve created our own version of  “Jabberwocky”. While our universe is careening into incomprehensible times, baffling language of the COVID-19 crisis is causing much bewilderment. “Social Distancing”, “Self-Isolation”, “ Self-Quarantine”, “Flatten the Curve.” What makes some of us hear these words and race to beaches and parks and others plunder the supermarket aisles for toilet paper? Are we still in shock, or have we moved on to bargaining?

As time progresses, we’ll blunder through which direction our lives will take. Some of us will get sick, some will die, some will persevere the social isolation, buckle down and learn to be successful working from home, and finally come to realize that delivery services of all kinds save us a lot of time.

In time, as Joan Didion says, “The craziness is receding, but no clarity is taking its place. I look for resolution and find none.” We will feel relief, but still can’t make sense of the pandemic of 2020. Our psyches won’t get better with trite platitudes, clichés and  circumventions, because the edge of the cliffs are too scary to confront.

The radical changes we’ve made in the last few months will stick for a long time. There will be a bad taste in our mouths, an unease we just can’t shake, maybe less personal touch, less hugging, hand shaking, close contact, less travel. While we hope this pandemic passes quickly, for now, we must heed the wisdom of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and prevent history from repeating itself. Time to settle into the reality of living with a deadly virus; and cast off the illusion of “Magical Thinking” .

“Approaches and plans should be based on scientific data whenever possible and include input from ethicists. Unlike in 1918, a pandemic influenza vaccine will likely be available today, albeit four to six months after the pandemic starts. But similar to 1918, the challenge will be designing an orderly and ethical distribution of a scarce commodity. Further, experts in risk communication should assist in developing messages that are scientifically accurate, understandable, clear, and useful. Finally, we need to take careful note of local and national lessons from the past, so we do not repeat them.” (Public Health Reports, Nov-Dec 2007)

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” – Joan Didion

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Mary T. O’Sullivan

Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years of experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to higher levels of performance, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. 

Mary has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership from Quinnipiac University. In addition, she is also an International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, a Society of Human Resource Management Senior Certified Professional and has a Graduate Certificate in Executive and Professional Coaching, from the University of Texas at Dallas. 

In her leadership and executive coaching, she focuses on improving the executive behaviors that slow down performance and lead to growth, such as soft skills, communication, micro-bias awareness, etc. She has successfully helped other professionals, such as attorneys, surgeons, pharmacists, and university professors, make career decisions to lead to success in their chosen careers.  In addition, small business owners have sought Mary’s services to bring their companies into greater alignment, working on their culture, vision, mission, values and goals as well as organizational structure. Mary’s executive coaching has been mainly with  large organizations among them: Toray Plastics America, Hasbro, Raytheon Company, Lockheed Martin, CVS Healthcare, Sensata Technologies, Citizen’s Bank, Ameriprise, BD Medical Devices, Naval Undersea Warfare Center, (Newport, R.I.), General Dynamics, University of Rhode Island, Community College of Rhode Island, etc.

Mary has facilitated numerous workshops on various topics in leadership such as, emotional intelligence, appreciative inquiry, effective communication, leading in adversity, etc. She has also written extensively on similar topics.

Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from the Society of Human Resources Development. Mary is also an ICF certified Appreciative Inquiry Practitioner, and a Certified Emotional Intelligence assessor and practitioner.

In addition, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education with Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, State University of New York at Oswego and Syracuse University.  She is also a member Beta Gamma Sigma and the International Honor Society.

Mary dedicates herself to coaching good leaders to get even better through positive approaches to behavior change for performance improvement.