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Trauma in times of COVID-19 tackled in Newport Beach church’s Zoom series

Carol Wallace reflects over a photo of her son.
Carol Wallace reflects over a photo of her son, who at 37 years old, committed suicide the day before Thanksgiving 2020. St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach will hold an educational seminar over Zoom next month to address the topic of “collective trauma” exacerbated by the pandemic.
(Photo by Susan Hoffman)

For the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees of St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, the pandemic has been especially challenging in addressing escalating emotional turmoil experienced by parishioners.

Since the initial lockdown last spring, Voorhees along with the church Care Team began witnessing intense and unusual behavioral changes from normal stable people as the pandemic rocked their world.

“There was heightened anxiety with everybody,” said Voorhees. “Mothers going bonkers about taking on a new role of home- schooling children, divorce among elderly couples, unreasonable anger, people with cancer so scared of COVID they avoided surgery and the most vulnerable seniors feeling expendable.”

St. James parishioner Carol Wallace endured two suicides of people close to her; first her son on the day before Thanksgiving, then her former daughter-in-law just before Christmas.

The emotions raw, pain erupts every time Wallace is asked about the number of children she has. She now replies that she has two instead of three.

“Just sometimes a memory hits me out of nowhere, and it’s all I can do not to drop to my knees. Then it passed as quickly as it hit me, almost,” said Wallace. “It’s a journey I wouldn’t want for my worst enemy.”

Wallace said that the pandemic has skewed everything, including making grief harder.

“I didn’t realize how important hugs were,” she said.

Along with her daughters and grandchildren, another strong source of support came in the form of her pastor.

“Rev. Cindy was instrumental by making herself available in any way I needed her,” explained Wallace. ”Cindy has a way, you always know she’s there, she has your back, no matter what.”

Fellow parishioner Patricia Hopkins, alone for the first time after losing her husband of 54 years to cancer, was also grieving a death during the COVID-19 environment.

“It changes your expectations of life,” said Hopkins. “Church wasn’t open, I didn’t see friends, there were places I didn’t go, even functioning as a volunteer and finding purpose…in fact, there was nothing out there.”

But then “Blue” came along. As a surprise, Voorhees delivered a cat to Hopkins. “Blue was a lifesaver,” Hopkins said. “I had to love her, had to care and [Voorhees] gave me someone to talk to and she always answers back.”

Patricia Hopkins talks to Blue, her gifted cat from Rev. Cindy Voorhees.
Patricia Hopkins talks to Blue, her gifted cat from the Rev. Canon Cindy Voorhees of St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach that helped her cope with loneliness during pandemic.
(Photo by Susan Hoffman)

Voorhees experienced her own frustration because of availability constraints during the pandemic.

“It’s giving me anxiety not being able to minister in person,” said Voorhees. “How do I care for the flock? We as clergy are not considered essential workers, yet my husband who is in wealth management is considered an essential worker.”

During the lockdown she has had to stay home, communicating by phone, Zoom, text, email and live-streaming services on YouTube.

She explained that having the church shut down was not good for people’s psyche because they need to know that the church is available to them 24/7.

Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees
The Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees works via podcast, email and phone during the pandemic. St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach will hold an educational seminar over Zoom next month to address the topic of “collective trauma” exacerbated by the pandemic.
(Photo by Susan Hoffman)

The overall rise in unusual pastoral care led Voorhees to delve deeper into the situation. She researched the out-of- character behavior, trying to make sense out of it. She eventually discovered an article in Frontiers in Psychology written by Gilad Hirschberger, PhD, that described everything she was witnessing.

Hirschberger, a Tel Aviv resident, met with Voorhees via Zoom to discuss collective trauma.

“The meeting proved transformational for me, said Voorhees. “The more he described the symptoms of collective trauma, the more it felt like exactly what I was seeing.”

Hirschberger describes collective trauma as “psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affects an entire society,” and says “we are all in the midst of a global collective trauma and we are all trying to make sense of it.”

Next month, St. James Episcopal Church will host an educational summit titled “Our Collective Trauma,” covering the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the world. It is open to the community via Zoom. For information visit stjamesnewport.org/collective trauma.

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