By Kerry L. Malawista, PhD
In March 2020, one year after the devastating COVID pandemic shut down our nation, my practice was overflowing with stressed and grief-stricken patients. Among them were two frontline healthcare workers struggling with all that they had undergone – the deaths they witnessed continued to haunt them.
“All year I saw COVID deaths. Most days I lost count,” one, an ER doctor, told me as he wiped away tears. “I didn’t want to tell my family the horrors I saw, so I tried to hide how wrecked I felt. Now that things are calmer – getting back to normal – I don’t know how to find my way back.”
As he spoke, I thought of the words of Tim O’Brien, the author of The Things That They Carry: “I carry the memories of the ghosts of a place called Vietnam.” In the face of exhaustion, terror, and hopelessness, these front-line workers, like good soldiers, had simply carried on, with no time to think about all they experienced.
How would my patients and other frontline workers process the past year?
I suggested to the ER doctor that he might try writing about what he witnessed. As a writer and co-chair of New Directions in Writing, I knew that like talk therapy, writing can provide a pathway to process traumatic memory.
A few weeks later, my patient told me how the act of writing helped him to transform his pain, anxiety fear, and grief, from inchoate and disjointed images into re-imaged memories that he could bear. He found meaning and solace in the process of writing.
In that moment the Things They Carry Project was conceived. While this doctor and other healthcare workers could change neither the events they had experienced nor the pain and sorrow that had devastated them, writing – creating a narrative memory – might help them make sense of all they had been through.
With that idea in mind, I reached out to the New Directions community of therapists and writers across the country. Within 24 hours, one email elicited over 100 volunteers. I had unwittingly tapped into a powerful desire and spirit to serve the community.
In less than three weeks, we had a website, and 60-plus pairs of therapists and writers eager to donate their time to lead free writing groups for first responders. After participating in a three-hour training in a technique called “Writing for Resilience,” led by Sarah Taber, one of our writing faculty, our volunteers were ready to lead three free 90 minute ZOOM workshops.
Each group offered conversation and writing prompts, allowing six participants to explore their COVID experiences, share their writing, listen, and respond to each other.
Currently over 350 participants from around the country have completed a workshop, with many continuing in recently added alumni groups. These ad hoc formed groups have brought together nurses, firemen, health aides, doctors, clergy, and hospice workers nationally and even internationally. People of different ages, races, and education levels, all writing – all sharing the pain of this pandemic.
Participants and group leaders alike have expressed the remarkable transformative power of writing. As participants rethink and revise their writing, the groups have created an opportunity to re-vision, a new pathway to reflect on the past year and the possibility of imagining a hopeful future.
A shared narrative of trauma helps heal.
While the front line workers have carried the heaviest load, each one of us has born witness and now bears scars. We all need to find the words to tell our stories.
Read or listen to more about The Things They Carry Project: