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Expert Advice: Maintaining Traditions and Spirituality During Social Distancing

Holidays, traditions, and spirituality help with mental well-being and provide pathways for people to connect. Many are finding ways to maintain these aspects of their lives in meaningful and innovative ways while continuing to practice social distancing and adhere to stay-at-home orders.

Importance of Spirituality

Mental health professionals recognize the significance of holidays and spiritual practice in personal and philosophical ways.

“I believe that faith allows us to process and accept the unknown. This can be a strength during times of adversity,” says Dr. Tonya Hansel, program director of doctorate of social work program at Tulane University School of Social Work. 

“Group faith also allows a collective processing, which is very helpful in times of disaster. Einstein’s philosophies on religion were that our human minds need the ritual and traditions of religion and that the type of individual religion is less important,” adds Dr. Hansel.

Dr. Nubian OmiSayade Sun, LCSW, a clinical assistant professor with the Tulane School of Social Work, agrees with the importance of connectedness in spirituality. She practices an African traditional religion which is a communal practice based upon interdependent relationships, including the Spiritual Family and Greater Spiritual Community and relying upon Olodumare (God), spiritual guides, ancestral knowledge, and divine wisdom.

“I devote myself daily to honoring the ongoing call of priesthood, my destiny, the divine guidance that I am governed by, and ‘iwe pele’ which means ‘good character’ in Yoruba,” says Dr. Sun. “Our spiritual family works, grows, and heals together. Healing is a community task.”

Impact of Social Distancing on Spirituality and Traditions

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders are affecting the ability to connect to healing, spirituality, celebrations, and mourning. 

Dr. Hansel practices the Greek Orthodox faith, and Holy Week is approaching for her. “This year’s Orthodox Pascha (Passover or Easter) will be very different due to social distancing, although the symbolism and ritual, which are very important to Orthodox Christians, can still be observed,” she says. “Importantly the holiday is when we celebrate not only the resurrection but also the sacrifices made. Surely, we can endure the sacrifices required of social distancing.”

Spiritual traditions not only celebrate but provide a way to process emotions, including grief. Holidays, however, can exacerbate negative feelings.

"Even without a global pandemic, the holidays are often a time in which those with depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance use disorders, and grief may struggle more with their sense of wellbeing,” says Dr. Leia Saltzman, an assistant professor with the Tulane School of Social Work, who studies the long-term impact of trauma on mental health. 

Thousands of families are now approaching a holiday after the recent loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. This reality creates a host of new challenges that families will face above and beyond the disruptions in routine and tradition that might arise as a result of social distancing practices. “This likely will include the acuity of grief and realizing that family traditions are forever changed because an integral member of the family is suddenly absent,” says Dr. Saltzman.

Developing Ways to Continue Practicing Traditions and Spirituality

Given the importance of traditions and spirituality to grieving and connecting, people should focus on developing new ways to keep their practices as they continue to follow social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders.

Technology, of course, is supportive of this effort. Dr. Sun’s spiritual family is connecting via Facebook Live and WhatsApp. “We are having specific gatherings centering on healing, protection, and spiritual guidance during the crisis and offering mutual aid,” she says.

For Dr. Sun, her at-home spiritual practice has increased, and she and her spiritual family are checking in more via phone to keep each other grounded and spiritually informed. They are also sharing, creating materials/purchasing spiritual supply from local individuals and botanicas important to their traditions through delivery or drive-by pick-up.

“Consider connecting with your elders by phone and ancestors by setting up an altar space to honor and communicate with them, for they have lived lifetimes through times as these and can offer great wisdom,” she recommends. “Consider obtaining a spiritual ‘reading’ online or by phone from a referred Priest/ess/ Spiritual Professional and taking baths of spiritually charged ingredients and intentions for cleansing and release.” 

Members of the Jewish faith celebrating Passover will also have a different feel as large Seders are highly discouraged in favor of smaller intimate gatherings or virtual Seders that allow for wider participation among family and friends.

Dr. Hansel says we should continue with traditions, even if they are smaller in scale or different. “Consider a Zoom or FaceTime egg hunt, meal, or social hour,” she recommends. “As spring is a symbol of new beginnings, you could also plant an herb garden or flowers, learn a new skill, take on the dreaded Spring cleaning, enjoy nature, open windows.”

This year as part of her own new tradition, Dr. Hansel is attempting to make Tsoureki, a traditional Greek Easter bread. Her family will also go outside at midnight on April 19 with a candle and yell “Christo Anesti,” which is an Easter custom among Coptic and Greek Christians to greet another person with "Christ is Risen!"

This creativity and resilience ensures traditions and spirituality can continue to support well-being amid social distancing practices. While gatherings and celebrations may not happen, staying home isn’t a complete disconnect. As Dr. Sun says “we may be physically alone but never spiritually alone.”