In early March, if you had told Kathleen Regan — a self-described “Type A person” — that she’d soon be spending her mornings in contemplative silence, reading Seamus Heaney, journaling about gratitude, and truly listening to the breeze in her Medford backyard, she would have called you crazy.
Then the pandemic hit, and the stressors didn’t stop coming. There was the coronavirus news, which she consumed relentlessly. Her daughter was working in a hospital. Her husband fell ill (not with COVID-19). The family’s finances were threatened. It was all just too much.
“I have to change to survive,” the advertising sales manager told herself. “And I am going to survive.”
The new Kathleen Regan, the survivor, then recited a line from Seamus Heaney’s “Song.” She returns to the poem, she said, because it speaks to her about our connection with the natural and supernatural worlds.
“And that moment when the bird sings very close/ To the music of what happens.”
If an entire region can have an existential crisis, we’re having one.
With COVID-19 cases mounting and the fear of death hovering, therapist Sam Nabil captured the question lurking barely beneath the surface:
“If I die now, have I lived the life I wanted to?”
For many, the answer is no. Spouses are being left, retirements pushed up, friends dropped. People are moving to rural spots and strengthening their faith, and those fortunate enough to have a choice are saying “no” to commuting.
The changes can be as easy to see as Alice Beltran’s decision to spend more time around dogs. She recently left a position in human resources at Tufts University to go full time with her dog day care company, North Shore Dog.
Watching friends lose their grandparents, and being unable to visit her 89-year-old father, made her focus on the brevity of life.
“You think you’re going to have forever, but you don’t,” she said. “If in three months I have to go back to human resources, fine. I get calls [offering work] every day.”
The shifts can also be as subtle as a new mindset. That’s what the pandemic has triggered for a 61-year-old Wakefield woman whose husband lives in a nursing home. “Before COVID, I was often sad and lonely and feeling left out of life,” she said, asking her name not be used.
But now — especially since her husband contracted and recovered from COVID-19 — she focuses on what she has: a home, a yard, a dog, phone calls with her children and spouse.
“I’m actually happy for the peacefulness of living simply and without the feeling of missing out on life, as I had before the pandemic,” she said.
Nabil, the therapist, says “death anxiety” has people questioning career choices and the quality of relationships. One client is a man whose wife doesn’t want intimacy, a problem he hoped would resolve in time, but now feels urgent.
“Is this all I can expect?” the man worries. “A sexless marriage for the rest of my life?”
At the age of 55, for the first time in her life, Cathy Kleinbart — the longtime emotional family caretaker since her mother died when she was 5 — wants to get married.
She’s been putting together photo albums, and looking at the families created by her grandparents and aunts and uncles made her long for a companion of her own. “Did I make a mistake?” she’s been asking herself. “Should I have taken the risk?”
Lovern Moseley, a psychologist at Boston Medical Center, is regularly hearing a similar question. “Am I truly happy if this is it?” her clients ask. “If we get back out again, is this what I want to be doing?”
Laura Carstensen, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, sees two phenomena at work.
“When people are reminded of the fragility of life, they see more clearly what’s important and what’s not,” she said.
These shifting priorities are typically seen among older people, but in the six months following 9/11, younger people also felt the nearness of death, she said. That’s happening now, too.
“With COVID-19, the suddenness with which our world changed is allowing us to look at the culture surrounding us, the social norms, and this lets us see things we would normally never notice,” she said.
Or that we do notice — like traffic — but accept as inevitable.
“I think we’re going to see a lot of change post-pandemic,” she said. “It will be an accelerator.”
The pandemic has made Renee Ruggiero of Wakefield aware of time that she’s missed with her family in exchange for a corporate career and a good salary.
“I can’t say that looking back it was worth it,” she said. “How many times did I tell my kids I couldn’t help them with this or that because I had to work, or because I was exhausted?”
She lost her job during the pandemic, and she prefers her new self. “I’m able to take care of my elderly father-in-law and enjoy it rather than think of it as a burden,” she said. “COVID has blessed me with the ability to take stock of my life.”
On the North Shore, a married couple have also taken stock of their lives and drawn a different conclusion. They have been hanging out with the wrong people — friends who were nice to their faces, but, they now realize, are selfish.
The friends refuse to wear masks or support Black Lives Matter, stances that rule out any further relationship, said the couple, who asked to remain anonymous.
“I”m going to have to find new people that I feel safe with,” said one of the spouses. “This has peeled back the layers.”
Beth Teitell can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.