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Back at work after a long hibernation

The chairs in the group room at Cathy

The chairs in the group room at Cathy Carballeira's office in Syosset, which remained empty for more than a year because of COVID-19. Credit: Cathy Carballeira

It wasn’t an unexpected email. A couple of weeks ago, I was notified on a Tuesday that our company’s director was advising my group that we finally were to return to work. We were given a week’s notice and discussed it in our weekly Zoom call.

Initially, I was in disbelief. How can this be? Is the pandemic over? Are we safe? Indeed, my satellite unit had been fully vaccinated. My fears were quickly replaced with thoughts of being together again with my colleagues in the social work clinic in our Syosset office building. We’d once more have human contact, doing what we do best -- sharing and comforting ourselves and others. How long had it been? It felt like forever.

I knew that co-workers had lost many loved ones – a brother, a brother-in-law, grandparents and friends – and that my complicated grief over the loss of my mother a year earlier had made my own isolation and alienation more severe.

I learned how colleagues had dealt with their separation – one flew a private plane across the country, and others hunkered down with children and grandchildren, waiting out the storm as if it were a hurricane that would end when the winds stopped and the trees became still once again.

We discussed how we had become experts with the artificial, cold Zoom platform. How it made us gradually feel less connected, less emotionally bonded. We could see and hear our clients, yet they weren’t physically with us; it seemed surreal.

It was good to be sitting with my work friends – to again see their smiles in person, how their facial expressions changed when they laughed or became sad. We were back as a group, recognizing how we all had been together in this once-in-a-century event, an all-in-the-same-boat phenomenon that’s hard to explain. No more forced imprisonment of the heart, mind and body.

We explored details of our different ordeals and private suffering. We talked about what Wharton psychologist Adam Grant called "languishing" – "a sense of stagnation and emptiness." I asked whether anyone had "languished," and they all laughed.

A co-worker from Sea Cliff arrived armed with a box of fresh, steaming, salty pretzels. I noted his immaculately pressed shirt and asked if this is what they were wearing in his neighborhood these days. It’s not what I see in Huntington, another colleague remarked, teasing him -- our usual banter with the only male in the office. He laughed, saying it was the first time he had donned a button-down shirt in a year.

We dove into the pretzel box, sharing the gooey cheddar sauce in a not-so-sanitary attack, knowing in our hearts that it was a healing ritual. We were breaking bread together once more, and everything would be all right. Different, yes, maybe even better. We knew we were all changed as we sat together. It was obvious we were diminished and humbled by our experiences of grief and loss, yet also transformed into more sensitized and grateful beings.

Yes, we were ready to return to work because we had each other for support and shared the same social worker code of ethics and 12-step helper principles. Our learning, training and education had served us well, as had our suffering, and now we were ready to give back in person.

Reader Cathy Carballeira lives in Smithtown.

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