Lighting a candle while stuck at home in London. Admiring the fall foliage on walks in Nürtingen, Germany. Witnessing the perseverance of health care workers in a critical care unit in Durham, North Carolina.
In a year filled with unimaginable tragedy, these were the moments that gave people around the world hope — which trauma experts say is key to staying grounded when life has been upended.
“Maintaining hope is so essential during times like this,” said Dr. Joan Anzia, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “To take an active approach to dealing with a disaster, which is what we hope for — that people are going to find their way through it — they have to have a vision for the future.”
As 2020 draws to a close, NBC News spoke with 13 people in five countries about where they found glimmers of hope during the coronavirus pandemic. Their responses varied from simple actions, such as mindfulness exercises while in lockdown, to acts of kindness that improved the lives of others.
Retaining a shred of optimism about the future was critical not only as the virus proliferated, but also as other horrors unfolded this year.
The Rev. Jemonde Taylor, rector of St. Ambrose Episcopal Church, a historically Black church in Raleigh, North Carolina, has seen his parishioners’ anguish over the disproportionate rates at which Covid-19 has hit minorities and the police-involved deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people.
But what has encouraged him is how church members have channeled their feelings. As unemployment rates increased, adding another layer of frustration, they took it upon themselves to reach out to their community.
“I’ve had parishioners who have become door-to-door evangelists, not knocking on people’s doors asking, ‘Have you been saved?’ but knocking on people’s doors saying, ‘Do you want food?'” he said, adding that the church gives anyone a 30-pound box of food if they say yes.
Meanwhile, inside hospitals worldwide, stepping in as cheerleaders has become a second job for the doctors and nurses treating coronavirus patients.
“It has never been more difficult to be a patient in the hospital than it is right now, because no one can come visit you,” said Dr. Paul Wischmeyer, a critical care and nutrition physician at Duke University Hospital and a professor of anesthesiology and surgery at the Duke University School of Medicine.
Wischmeyer said nurses spend time at patients’ bedsides “cheerfully and willingly” to lift their spirits, despite wearing hot layers of personal protective equipment for hours and working in a scary, stressful environment.
“You have to try to give your patients hope, because there’s no one else to do it,” he said. “If we’re not going to let their families in, then that has to come to us.”
While the rollout of the first Covid-19 vaccines has been a bright spot, the pandemic is far from over, with public health officials in the U.S. warning that the coming weeks will be among the deadliest. Already, some hospital intensive care units are hitting capacity, and the U.S. is breaking daily records for numbers of coronavirus cases and deaths. Meanwhile, a new mutation of the coronavirus detected in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, which is believed to be up to 70 percent more transmissible, has prompted new fears of a worsening pandemic.
Experts say that in this final stretch before vaccines become widely available, it is more important than ever to continue to practice social distancing and wear masks.
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In addition to physical ways to take care of yourself, Anzia recommended writing down three things you are grateful for at the end of each day to improve your mental health, too.
“Human beings can default to negative emotions, and if you explicitly work on focusing on the good things that happened, no matter what they were, you will feel better,” she said. “You will feel a greater sense of mastery over the situation, and you will feel more hopeful.”
Balancing hope with space for grief
Rose Jahn, 86, a retired doctor in Nürtingen, Germany, said grief consumed her after her husband of 60 years died of natural causes in January 2019. Activities like volunteering in a nursing home and singing in a choir kept her busy, but when lockdowns were imposed in the spring, they were suddenly gone.
“I noticed that my husband is no longer here more, although I am not sure whether it was simply the grief that got a little louder when everything else got quiet or if it was reinforced by the isolation in lockdown,” she said.
Ultimately, Jahn said, she found some solace in the forced time at home.
“I gained time to think. I might not have given myself that time otherwise,” she said. “And I found that to be very positive.”
Allowing time to process difficult emotions is important — and making an effort to look for the positives does not mean brushing over the negatives, said Josh Scott, lead pastor at GracePointe Church, a Progressive Christian church in Nashville, Tennessee.
"There's a human tendency to want to try to minimize how bad things are, and I think ultimately, that doesn't help people in the process."
“There’s a human tendency to want to try to minimize how bad things are, and I think ultimately that doesn’t help people in the process, because people need to grieve,” he said.
“The last thing people need is for those they trust in their lives to push them to move on really quickly,” Scott said. “Whatever hope looks like, it has to take into account the deep human need to process grief and pain in a healthy way.”
But while time home alone may help some people gain perspective, for others, it is an opportunity to find creative ways to stay in contact with friends.
Lisa Woods, 40, of Danvers, Massachusetts, is a kidney and pancreas transplant survivor who is at high risk for complications if she becomes infected with the coronavirus. Because she cannot see friends in person, she stays in touch through other avenues, including social media, where she has been inspired to see how people are helping others through the pandemic and has even made some new friends.
“Don’t just isolate and be alone,” she said. “Even Twitter — it sounds silly, but it has given me a sense of community when I’m isolated. When I can’t socialize, I can do it there.”
For Terhi Bunders, 40, a Finnish diplomat living in London with her husband and their two children, reminding herself that life will not be like this forever has helped. In the meantime, she said, she has relied on mindfulness and gratitude to get through tough moments.
“It’s the small things, like a very nice cup of coffee or lighting a candle or finding time to speak with your loved ones, even if on the phone,” she said.
Finding hope in helping someone else
Sometimes, the best way to find a silver lining is by helping someone else.
Alia Kawar, 22, initially felt discouraged when she had to hastily leave Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in March for her home country, Jordan, because of the coronavirus. She had been applying for jobs in advertising in New York, and she was disappointed not to be at school for the final months of her senior year.
So she distracted herself with an Instagram project that she created several years ago to celebrate digital artists in the Middle East. As galleries worldwide started shutting down, she interviewed artists over Zoom, giving them a platform to showcase their work.
The artists were enthusiastic — and Kawar started to realize that what started out as her hobby could make a difference in their lives.
Her passion for digital art has led to full-time employment with an online art gallery that champions Middle Eastern artists, something she never envisioned as a career before the pandemic hit.
“We’re not the only ones giving hope to artists, but the artists’ own perseverance to get through these times and continue working on their craft gives us hope,” she said.
At St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in North Carolina, Taylor is waiting for the day when it will be safe to switch back from virtual services and religious workshops to in-person sessions. He finds strength in conversations with other spiritual leaders. He sees promise in the future because of his parishioners’ fortitude even in the face of racism, illness and financial struggles.
“What’s been encouraging to me is how our congregation has responded,” he said.
“Yes, people are frustrated,” he said. “But we aren’t hopeless.”