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Catharsis in Storytelling & Nature: Lessons from the Pandemic – Part 4

This is Part 4 of a series – click here to read other Parts!

In Part 1, we identified some of the big-picture ideas that can help us navigate our Roadmap to Recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic:

  1. From Pandemic Era to Recovery Era

  2. From Greater Resignation to Greater Reengagement and Reimagination

  3. Moving On with Business-as-Usual to Moving Through with Transitional Ceremonies

In Parts 2 and 3, we examined what history and a personal story of mine can teach us about recovery from worldwide communal traumatic experiences:

  1. The 1918-1920 Pandemic and Post-WW1 Crisis: how to fail at recovery

  2. The Post-WW2 Crisis: how to succeed at recovery

  3. Loss in the Time of COVID: the lingering pain of obstructed grief, and how to redeem it

With all this as a foundation, let’s return to the questions we want to answer in this series:

  • What lessons have you personally learned from the COVID-19 Pandemic Era?

  • What have we learned as a global human family, and what do we need to learn?

  • Why is it important?

  • What do we do about it?

For the rest of this series, we turn especially to this last question. What concrete, tangible action steps can we take, as individuals and communities, to aid Recovery, Reengagement, and Reimagination? What can help us move through the grief?

Drawing on many observations, conversations, research, and my community pandemic recovery work, I’ve identified ten basic practices we can all engage, to help move through emotions that come with the grief process. I call these the Ten Touchstones of Grief.[1] These are grouped into two larger categories, based on two basic human needs:

The Ten Touchstones of Grief:

We’ll unpack all of the above in the remaining articles of this series. Let’s start with the first category…

The Need for Catharsis:

Spiritual & Emotional Resolution

Every single one of us has been through a lot these past few years.

The virus struck suddenly. Our daily rhythms disappeared or shifted dramatically. We lived in limbo, waiting for vaccines and clear guidance, the next barrage of bad news and the glimmer of good, waiting for the chance to see and touch those we loved. Then, ever since the world first closed down, reopening has been slow and messy, a sense of normalcy elusive.

Throughout this Pandemic Era, humanity has – we and our loved ones have – suffered greatly. Millions have died. The rest of us have had to watch, struggling to figure out how to cope, how to mourn. Our bereaved, our frontline workers, our kids and elders – all of us – have been deprived of essential experiences, asked to make sacrifices we weren’t ready to make. We’ve all had to stifle painful emotions. We’ve all become familiar with fight-flight-or-freeze modes of existence, cycling in and out of them, feeling them in varying intensities. In other words, we’ve endured trauma.

And the chaos of it all has left us at a loss for understanding. We’ve been contending with forces of Nature and society and mortality, forces we don’t fully comprehend. How do we make sense of it all? If we want to believe love and justice and a Higher Power give order to our world, how then do we explain the tragedy of the pandemic? Is a hopeful narrative possible? Thus, in addition to trauma, we’ve endured a crisis of meaning.

In the aftermath of hardships like this, we human beings need catharsis.

This term comes from the Greek word for “cleansing.” As with a bodily cleansing, the first step of an emotional and spiritual cleansing is to release what has become stuck and stagnated. When you scrape your knee, you have to clean out the gravel before it can heal. Likewise, we now need to express what we have repressed or denied or left un-felt, say the things and ask the questions we’ve held onto all this time.

Only then can we experience the second step of catharsis: a sense of resolution and closure, and from there, a sense of forward momentum and the renewal of passion we seek.

So what have we repressed or denied or left un-felt? And what is the best way to release it? How do we take the first step?

Touchstone 1

Moving through Numbness & Silence


First we must clear the obstacle that’s blocking everything else we need to express: our silence and numbness regarding what we’ve been through.

We all want to move on from the Pandemic Era, put the pain behind us. But as we covered in Parts 1, 2, and 3, it’s not that simple, nor even possible – we can only move through. It begins with melting the ice of numbness and silence that has us frozen. If we can just start talking about the Pandemic Era, soon our emotions about it will thaw, and the Recovery Era can flow from there.

Just talking about the pandemic… where do we begin?

  • We need to tell each other our stories of the Pandemic Era.

In my life and work, I can testify that simply speaking about our unspoken experiences to others is a powerful act of healing. It frees what was once imprisoned in us, and invites others to free themselves too. And it doesn’t need to be an exhaustive or overwhelming chronicle of the past few years – a little storytelling goes a long way.

  • And we need to tell a variety of stories.

To repeat a previous understatement – we’ve been through a lot these past few years. Pain and goodness, confusion and clarity. As we start to recover and make sense of this era, we want to foster openness, embracing the fullest extent of what we have to learn. If we fixate too much on either negative or positive narratives, we risk losing a larger perspective on what has been a multi-dimensional experience. We risk crowding out wisdom we hadn’t considered from other people’s stories. It’s vital to create hospitality in our storytelling. When we do, we create hospitality for the gamut of emotions we need to express. For an example of what storytelling can do, I’ve personally found profound catharsis in getting to tell some of my own pandemic stories, including in the previous article about my friend Marny. You don’t need to start a blog or video channel to share your own stories – though please let me know if you do! You’ll find some recommended story prompts in the free ebooks on the Lessons from the Pandemic Hub, and here's my video on how to run a sharing circle.

Touchstone 2

Moving through Doubt & Despair


Once we’re created some room for difficult emotions to come up, one that might surface is doubt, particularly doubt that the future is hopeful and that the Divine is helping us get there. And when doubt lingers in our consciousness for long enough without enough reasons for hope, it turns into despair.

These are hallmarks of a crisis of meaning. With the devastation caused by the coronavirus and our social reaction to it, how can we trust that the world is headed in a good direction? And how can we trust that Someone is steering the ship?

I believe that, despite the reality of suffering, there is always a compelling rationale for faith in the future and the Divine.[2] But I also believe mere rationality – whether based on religion, secular philosophy, or even clear-eyed spirituality – usually provides cold comfort. For our faith to take root and reassure us, we need experiences that nurture it.[3]

In our age of such dissolution and disillusionment, where do we turn for such experiences?

  • I always advocate relationships, community, and art as reliable places to find encouragement. But even more so, I recommend time in Nature.

Our planet, down to each person’s local environment, is vibrantly alive with the incarnate presence of the Divine. Every sound is a note in the symphony of Creation. Every smell is a flavor in the Earth’s great banquet. Every naturally textured-and-colored surface is a mirror of Spirit, our individual Souls, and the Sacredness of the biosphere. The wild world is undeniably and irrepressibly beautiful. And a living testament to a loving Creator.

  • Especially in our times of doubt and despair, when no work or word of human origin can give us solace, the best thing we can do is go wandering-and-wondering in Nature.[4]

  • Here are my tips on how to do this wa/ondering well.

  • In addition, I recommend that, when in search of something true to believe in, you seek out (either or both) Nature’s intimacy and grandeur.

Look for beauty in the small and understated – there you will find the intricate, self-regenerating artistry of the living world. Look for beauty in the big and breathtaking – there you will find the epic, humbling sweep of time and the elements. In both cases, it will be hard not to feel delight and awe at your own bigness and smallness in the cosmic tapestry. And maybe even at the One who wove it, made it all – including you – with such fierce, tender love and care.

  • Remain there as long as you can. If you watch, listen, feel for long enough, you may just notice Someone watching, listening, feeling you right back.

  • Bring your questions. From how to find meaning in the pandemic, to how to find meaning in life – the Guide will have guidance for you when you are ready to receive it.

  • And share your story about the experience. I’d love to hear it. Others would too. Even if it’s something you keep between yourself and the living world, I hope you find ways to let the story live through you. This is how we create a future worth believing in.

Here’s one of my own stories of a Pandemic Era wa/ondering. In June 2020, in the wake of my friend Marny passing on from COVID, the murder of George Floyd, and the protests in my hometown of Minneapolis, I spent a day and night in solitude at Sun Lakes Dry Falls State Park in central Washington. The park rests in an ancient canyon – a desert oasis surrounded by rocky, lichen-encrusted cliffs. I wa/ondered around for hours, at first taking in the magnificent beauty, then eventually crying and praying: “Where are you? Are you with us?”

I found myself walking under a cliff. All along the canyon walls, there were piles of jagged stones, eroded and fallen from their perches above. One fell near me as I cried out. I looked up.

I saw a face. The natural features of the rock looked like a huge, carved face, gazing down at me. It looked deeply sad, like it had been crying too.

I realized it was. The fallen stone had been a tear, the pile of stones on which I stood, a great hill of tears. All along the canyon, miles of mountains of tears. And above them, thousands of faces. All weeping.

Weeping for the suffering of humankind. Crying for the destruction wrought by the virus. Crying for the destruction wrought by racism. Crying for George and for Marny and their loved ones. Crying for us. Crying with us. I could now almost hear the silent sobs of the Earth, of the Spirit, echoing around the canyon, vowing to help us heal. I added my tears to the canyon’s, and made the same vow.

Where will your wa/ondering take you?

Stay tuned for Part 5: The Need for Catharsis – Creativity, Eulogies, and Intentions!

If you’re looking for more practical insights before then, check out the Lessons from the Pandemic Hub on my website. And if you’re looking for ways to help the Recovery, Reengagement, and Reimagination effort ASAP, share that Hub page and share this blog with people you know, especially if they’re struggling with these things or are a leader who can make a difference in your community.

Works Cited, Further Reading
  1. Bard, B. (2023, March 21). Guide for the Grief Journey: Ten Touchstones. InVocation.

  2. Bard, B. (2022, January 2). Moving through existential despair to resilient hope. InVocation.

  3. Bard, B. (2022, January 21). What is spirituality? why do we need it? - part 1. InVocation.

  4. Bard, B. (2022, January 5). Simple settings for spiritual growth – part 1: Nature & ritual. InVocation.

Image Credits



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