featuredStoriesIndo Sjoekje Sas(a)bone dressed in COVID protective gear

Indo Sjoekje F. Sas(a)bone, LCSW, EMHA, encourages resiliency in her mother and aunt during the COVID-19 pandemic with strategies that can help Indo families and loved ones.

The Calm Before the Rona Storm

Pre-pandemic, my family titles were “technology repair person,” “phone call mediator,” “forms completer,” “‘can you get something on your way here’ retriever,” or “garage-emptier.” As a first-generation American Indo, I have held these titles since I was young. Appointed the family ambassador, they delegated me to ask salespersons questions, and I was considered a “computer expert” after my first computer class in 7th grade. I was later assigned to review and complete important documents, troubleshoot with utility companies, and install WIFI-required equipment. My qualifications were, “You grew up in American schools. You know this better.

Indo Sjoekje Sas(a)bone with her mother and tante in 1979 and 2019
Indo Sjoekje Sas(a)bone with her mother and tante in 1979 and 2019

My family is capable of independently achieving all the tasks I described above. They are “knap”, “heel flink”, and courageous. They acquired multilingual/bicultural skillsets to acclimate, integrate, and immerse themselves in America successfully.

Indo Sjoekje Sas(a)bone with her mother and aunt before COVID pandemic
Indo Sjoekje Sas(a)bone with her mother and aunt before COVID pandemic (December 2020) at Ponte Winery, Temecula, California

So maybe I’m assigned these tasks because they trust that I’ll do it the “right way.” OR, maybe the tasks are their way of ensuring a visit from me. ORRRR, maybe they don’t want to do them. Hmmm… perhaps a combination of the three? Regardless of the reason, if I don’t comply with proper respect, I will face consequences. And I have faithfully done so, consistently and overly-obediently … until last year.

Pandemic Panic Ensues

In March 2020, I witnessed the pandemic’s quickly accelerating pace with trepidation. I was in Sacramento’s capitol building for the annual “Association of California State Supervisors Lobby Days.” On day 1, we greeted each senator and assemblyperson with the “elbow bump” gesture. On day 2, I observed signs protecting the giant bronze bear’s perimeter in front of the Governor’s office public entrance. The pandemic was getting progressively more severe. The flight home was the last time I traveled.

California Governor Gavin Newsom during COVID emergency session
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, second from left, passes the sculpture of a bear outside his Capitol office, in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, March 12, 2020. Mounting concerns about the coronarvirus spread to state capitols across the country on Thursday, as some lawmakers shut down their sessions, shut out the public and scrambled to finish work on essential spending bills to keep government going. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

My focus immediately shifted to the safety of my mom and her sister, both in their 80s. Hearing a friend’s appalling story of how her senior father was aggressively shoved by someone frantically snatching a loaf of bread spiked my concerns. My protective nature motivated my stockpiling supplies for us. I witnessed society become ill-mannered, ill-considered and inhumane as panic survival mode took hold.  My fear of exposing my family to COVID-19 drove my angst. You see, I am an admissions frontline worker at Patton State Hospital. This hospital ultimately held the highest number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities among  California’s five state hospitals (Nelson, 2021).

Overall, my mom and tante understood my work in admissions. They also supported public health precautions. Understanding support was quickly deserted, however, when their cable or cell phones weren’t “working” or important-looking letters arrived. Urgent demands that I take immediate care of the issue ensued. We live, however, in three different Southern California counties, an hour’s drive apart. My father and uncle passed away in 2016 and 2018, respectively, and I have no siblings or blood relatives in America. My mom and tante don’t drive the freeways therefore, I traditionally drive one to see the other. The pandemic’s restrictions complicated things. And by complicated, I mean remotely managing dramatic catastrophic reactions.

Professionally, I knew these frantic reactions had nothing to do with me and were misappropriated projections from their past experiences. They were not yet ten years old, migrating between Holland and Germany during WWII. The residual trauma deeply affected their reactions to 2020’s pandemic. When Governor Newsom initiated the “stay-at-home” orders, my mom concerningly said, “It’s just like the war when we had forced curfews.” Triggered fear of being forgotten and abandoned nullified my loyalty and reliability in their eyes. As I established unwavering boundaries to mitigate potential exposure from working on quarantine units, their aggressive agitation and guilt trips intensified. “Other people’s children help their families.” “You never help! Why can’t you come over here!?” “I have no one!” “No one helps me!

Indo Sjoekje Sas(a)bone taking her mother to get her second dose of vaccination in February 2021; they had not seen each other since August 2020.
Indo Sjoekje Sas(a)bone taking her mother to get her second dose of vaccination in February 2021; they had not seen each other since August 2020.

Guilt tactics weren’t unique to the pandemic. My pre-COVID-19 typical rebuttals involved angrily defending my integrity. My credentials were a litany of examples collected over the years, examples that were forgotten or minimized in the moment of perceived crisis. Conversely, my COVID-19 counterarguments sourced CDC guidelines from our Public Health Department. Furthermore, I found myself having to  emotionally match their frenzied energy level to make them accept  my logic and reasoning. I explained insufferable symptoms, afflicted people dying alone due to prohibited visitor policies, and reiterating how I couldn’t forgive myself should I infect them.  “No, no..Don’t come over. Be careful, lieve! I love you!” This roller coaster of emotions frequently repeated throughout the pandemic, becoming increasingly more laborious with birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries.

As we reach almost a year of social distancing and safe practices, the three of us are emotionally exhausted. The psychological toll COVID-19 has on our spirits segues into experiencing what Falkner (2020) identifies as “caution (aka crisis) fatigue.” The main symptom of caution fatigue is losing sensitivity or a sense of urgency for ongoing safe practices. There is an impending feeling of wanting the pandemic to be over. I felt this several times. I missed visiting them and having a cup of coffee with gebak regardless of any assigned tasks.

In time, my mom and I got creative to battle caution fatigue. We video chatted, wore face shields/double masks, and would meet for a “socially distant” birthday picnic. My tante was more particular, inventing inflexible barriers which were unnecessary challenging. Respectfully, I refused to accommodate contraindicated protective public health practices. My tante critically responded to my boundaries through tantrums, riddled with insults. Ultimately, she accepted the circumstances while I maintained loving integrity.

“In vivo” connections involved ordering dinners and flowers from delivery apps, buying necessities online, mailing grocery gift cards, and surprising them with nostalgic gifts and photos to brighten their spirits. My mom would order from the Dutch store to cheer on her younger sister and me. We’d maintain regular phone contact to promote family cohesion as best we could. Approximations are incomparable to in-person contact; however, COVID-19 doesn’t care about our caution fatigue; it just continues its lethal path.

How Do We Manage?

Hoare (2015) stated seniors demonstrate high resilience levels with some strategies in place, contrary to our loved ones’ catastrophizing reactions.

Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation can help with positive coping strategies. This strategy is effective interference to prevent a spiraled panic. Mindfulness meditation, which entails “being present”, helps to regulate emotions. Some examples are: 

  • “Tell me something you discovered today.” 
  • “Tell me something funny about your (pets).” 
  • “So what’s that show about?” 
  • “Did you listen to any music that put you in a good mood?” 
  • “What did you make for dinner?” 
  • “What did you work on today?” 
  • “How are the flowers doing?”

This intervention briefly distracts your loved one from the pandemic’s undetermined end date. It helps break up any rumination that contributes to feeling the hopelessness we all experienced.

Cognitive Reframing

Hoare (2015) also introduced cognitive reframing, a useful technique that considers positive and hopeful alternatives. Reinterpreting and reframing the meaning of the current situation helped my mom and tante live in the space of gratitude. The antonym of “catastrophic” is “blessed.” Eventually, the sisters expressed gratitude for our family triad and our health. When they’d hear my stories of coworkers or their families getting infected, coupled with their knowledge of acquaintances infected with COVID-19, my mom and tante would become reasonable again.

Sense of Mastery

Finally, Hoare (2015) mentions the importance of a sense of mastery. Generally speaking, multi-generation Americans find the cultural obligations experienced by first-generation Americans of various countries unrelatable. Out of good intentions, guilt, and conflict avoidance, I enabled dependency under the veil of Indo-cultural family obligation. I robbed my mom and tante of the practice of persistence. The pandemic forced healthier boundaries and offered them a sense of mastery, self-empowerment, and courage to face typically overwhelming challenges. Low frustration tolerance exists due to anxiety surfacing from ambiguity, possibly rooted in WWII traumatic events. Named after their mother, I’d offer them praise as my Oma would when they’d accomplish something once thought as an impossible achievement. I’d lovingly express my pride and offer them my genuine admiration and excitement. They learned to trust themselves, acknowledge their abilities, and reflected when family and friends were impressed by their independence and skill sets during their youth.

Indo Sjoekje Sas(a)bone taking her aunt to get her vaccination
Indo Sjoekje Sas(a)bone taking her aunt to get her vaccination in March 2021; they had not seen each other since May 2020.

Final Thoughts

The pandemic challenges us on various levels. State-issued regulations and unfamiliar established boundaries may trigger exaggerated responses from loved ones. Frustration and hopelessness could lead to caution fatigue for all involved. Love, patience, and creativity is our best asset to approximate connections with our loved ones as we reassure resilience and empower mastery. Soon enough, we’ll resume visits with coffee, gebak, and plenty of assignments. Meanwhile, my message to all Indos is, please know you are all doing your best….. Sterkte Iedereen!

Read more about about author Indo Sjoekje F. Sas(a)bone by visiting her LinkedIn page and check out how she is volunteering for TIP!

TIP wants to know….. What did you think of the author’s coping techniques? Did your family try any of these useful techniques during COVID? What other techniques worked for you? Leave your comments below!

14 Comments

  1. Wonderful essay. It is pleasing to learn of Sjoekje and her Indo upbringing which has instilled so much love and care for her mom and tante. This is a responsibility that was acquired through her Indo developing years and I am in awe of how she brings it to the present days. I am now the recipient of such questions she has so mindfully stated herein and YES, it does bring some relieved moments of sanity back to the forefront. This Covid pandemic is sure to stay on for awhile, but reading of her uplifting story reassures me that Indos are very resilient and have the strength to face any obstacle. Thank you Sjoekje.

    • Greetings Cor,

      You are most welcome! Thank you for taking the time to read this! I am very grateful for your thoughtful words. I feel very validated in my goal for this article: to create a space of respectful honesty with some ideas to help remind us if our gift of resilience during unprecedented times. Our cultural influence drives our spirit to protect our loved ones. Your words will positively resonate with me as well. Thank you for providing me with your insight and connectivity. I couldn’t be more appreciative of your feedback. Cheers to us!

      • Ms. Sas(a)bone has written so movingly about how love compels us to care for our family through good times and pandemics. Thank you for publishing this beautiful essay!

        • Haig,

          Thank you so very much for taking the tine to read what I wrote. I value your eloquent summary. I’m deeply humbled by your words.

          In gratitude,

    • Nyree,

      I appreciate the time you invested to read what I wrote. I’m humbled that my experience offers you some useful takeaways to aid in your wellness journey.

      In gratitude,

  2. Very lovely. Thank you for sharing your family’s triumph in these tough times. Wonderful reminders for the rest of us to embrace and practice.

  3. Thank you so much for writing so eloquently to share your experiences. It’s been very helpful as I have several friends and acquaintances with BPD-like behaviors. I also wonder sometimes if I too received ” een tik van de molen”. I’m of the same generation as your mother and often wonder what the traumas of WWII and the Bersiap have wrought even to those who outwardly look so resilient. So, thanks again and my best wishes to you and your mother and tante.

    • Peter,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read my article and for your thoughtful reflections. I value your words and appreciate you wondering about those who do appear so resilient. So many people need support and sometimes feel too vulnerable or embarrassed to ask. Even the most resilient need our compassion & comfort, especially if they don’t know it themselves.

      I humbly thank you for your best wishes to us.

      Respectfully,

      Sjoekje

  4. Very informative your perspective being a front line hospital worker, and personal family experiences. Yes the older generation’s war experiences has benefited them and others during the pandemic to guide some of us through this difficult time. I appreciate your story and your efforts, to stay positive at this time was no easy task. My step daughter works at Cedar Sinai hospital in the pharmacy department and my wife and I can relate to your statements ” “No, no..Don’t come over. Be careful, lieve! I love you!” This roller coaster of emotions frequently repeated throughout the pandemic, becoming increasingly more laborious with birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries. My step daughter would tell her Mom repeating every month “No Mom, don’t come over, I’m okay. ” As my wife too, has health problems making herself a high risk. So from February to August 2020, no visits were made, missing the 7 grandchildren. As I still made monthly drive by’s when I shopped at a nearby supermarket to just see if my wife’s daughter was okay, stopping just twice over those months to give the delayed Christmas gifts and some snacks to the kids, and relay short messages to my step daughter from her Mom. Just once did my wife visit her daughter, as they stayed outside with masks and had a very long tearful hug in 2020. I wonder how you now deal with anyone in a family, friends who are against the vaccine, because the pandemic is far from over, regardless of the lax guidelines and California opening this June 2021. Thank you again.

    • Leroy,

      I’m grateful for your thoughtful comments. I’m in deep appreciation for the work and experiences your stepdaughter had during this unique & trying time with the pandemic.

      I truly enjoyed hearing about the creative ways you stayed in contact & I relate to the tearful moments in reunification.

      I share your thoughts on caution, and all we can do is remain safe & compassionate as this unprecedented time works its way out of our lives.

      Thank you, too, for all you’ve shared. I wish you and your family strength, health & love.

      In gratitude & humility,

      Sjoekje

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