20. COVID-19: Finding Meaning

My dear learning community,

During World War 2, a hungry prisoner in the Auschwitz concentration camp was secretly given a piece of bread by a Nazi guard. This small act of kindness, at great risk to the Nazi guard’s own life, became more than just about the bread. The prisoner noted, “It was far more than the small piece of bread which moved me to tears at the time. It was the human ‘something’ that this man gave to me – the word and the look which accompanied the gift.”


The prisoner was Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and World War 2 concentration camp survivor, who later gave the world his masterpiece, “Man’s Search for Meaning.”


This letter will be about COVID-19: Finding Meaning


Living with COVID-19 is now becoming more normal to us. We have accepted this new reality and started adjusting to a new work / life / school routine. In a previous letter, I talked about the 5 stages of grief, namely denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We may occasionally still find ourselves revisiting some of these earlier stages, but as time passes, we more solidly move into the acceptance phase. 


More recent research suggests that there is actually a sixth stage of grief, called “finding meaning.” Once we have accepted the situation, our human tendency is to then try to make sense of it, to find the kernels of meaning, of learning, of wisdom. We enter a growth phase. Some of us may even experience post-traumatic growth, which can include a new set of priorities, seeing greater possibilities for the future, increased closeness with family and friends, and simply feeling more alive. 


David Kessler, a death and grief expert, published a new book in 2019, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief,” before the world knew about COVID-19. The timing of his book seems meant to be, as it can be used as a playbook for how we come to terms with COVID-19. Kessler helps us understand how we can transform a loss, tragedy, or traumatic event into something we can learn and grow from. Beyond just accepting something and having closure, we can use the experience to become a better person. We may never have answers about “why” COVID-19 happened now; instead, we can focus on what it means for each of us.


It seems to me that COVID-19 has caused all of us to hit a giant “PAUSE” button on our lives. By doing so, we have observed the world return to unpolluted skies, people clapping for healthcare workers on their balconies, artists and musicians creating inspiring songs to uplift us, and reuniting in new ways with our family and friends who are in self-isolation with us. It is a time to reflect, take inventory of our lives, to ask ourselves the hard questions – what does this experience mean for me? Do I still want to continue with the life I had before COVID-19? How has this event transformed me? 


One interesting example of how some people are changing their lives comes from Wuhan, China. Once they lifted the lockdown and stay-at-home directives, there was a spike in couples filing for divorce. Maybe all of that shared time together during lockdown made some couples realize they were not meant for each other any longer? Maybe these couples realized that life is short, it’s now or never, time to get on with things. Some journalists say we may have moved from social distancing to spousal distancing!


Instead of running away from your spouse, you might consider some of these questions, which can help you with your own personal growth and finding meaning during this period:


  1. How can I practice generosity during this crisis?


  1. What talents or skills do I have that can be useful during this crisis?


  1. Who is important in my life, and have I appreciated and acknowledged them enough?


  1. Where do I want to be with my life, my goals, my career, in a few years?


  1. When will be the right time to make changes to my life so I can live my best life?


  1. Why am I here right now, at this particular place on the planet, and how do I structure my life to answer this question?


Viktor Frankl provides more insights for us to help with the questions above, saying:


“We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and right conduct. Life ultimately means taking responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”


We each have a piece of the answer, the solution, to moving forward with COVID-19. Once you recognize what role you are supposed to play, you can embrace the meaning and enter a new phase in your life. It is a wonderful opportunity to stop doing things in your life that are not working, thus creating space for new things to come into your life and begin building your future with those new things. It’s a lot to think about!



Always, with best regards, stay safe, Semper Gumby


Dawn Dekle, PhD

AUN President (Vice-Chancellor)


Teaser: stay tuned for the next letter from the desk of the AUN President, on the topic “COVID-19: Fraud and Scams”