Grace and Gratitude

James Apers, our Director of Student Services, shares how a six-stage model of crisis response can help us understand our experiences of the past several weeks, and can remind us that we are all works in progress, loved by our Heavenly Father.

It’s hard to believe that we are already in week six of emergency remote learning. What started out as a “maybe,” became a “for now,” and has pretty much become an “it is” for schools and workplaces across Ontario. I hesitate to say we have entered into a new normal, because this probably still doesn’t feel at all normal, nor do most of us hope that this is how things will be from now on. In this midst of this, many of us have been feeling more tired, less motivated, and, frankly, a little less resilient. A lot of people I have spoken to have noted how close to the surface their emotions are, and how they feel “just done.” More recently, some folks I’ve spoken to have expressed a renewed sense of capacity and energy.

These feelings are totally understandable. For lots of us, this reality of COVID has meant a prolonged and heightened state of alarm as fears about employment, about the scarcity of resources, and about the predictability and stability of the future have increasingly occupied our thoughts. So many of us have expressed a sense of helplessness in the face of things that seem so far out of our control. The shift to “at-home” work has meant a loss of some of our established support networks, and social distancing has meant the loss of so many of those things we love to do (those things we often characterize as “protective factors” and “self care”). It’s been hard.

The ups and downs connected to crises are also completely understandable. For folks who study crisis response, these are patterns that have been observed and well documented. The American Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration suggests that disaster responses generally follow a six step process (these responses are largely based on “natural” disasters, but the model seems to hold) . Like any “stage model,” this six step process is a generalization; admittedly, individual responses will vary widely. We may not experience all the steps, or we may individually experience stages in different sequences. However, the overall model may still give us some helpful understanding and may help to normalize how we are feeling. This six-phase model is fairly linear, though it does allow for some setbacks and recalibrations.

Phase 1, the pre-disaster phase, is characterized by fear and uncertainty. I think many of us may have felt this in the weeks leading up to our time of closures and social distancing. We didn’t know what was going to happen; things felt unpredictable and uncertain.

Phase 2, the impact phase, is often marked by intense emotional reactions (including shock, disbelief or panic) and by a focus on self/family protection. Anyone who went shopping for toilet paper around March 10th would have seen this first hand.

Stages 3 and 4, the heroic and “honeymoon” phases, are the times when we generally see huge “buy in” and hard work. There is a remarkable willingness to help and an almost adrenaline-fueled sense of “get it done” that transitions into a “we’re in this together” feeling. As a school, we certainly saw this during March Break and in the weeks following.

Stage 5, the disillusionment phase, is the period marked by a recognition of limits, by grief for what is lost, and by a general sense of discouragement. As the COVID crisis dragged on, and the new routines took hold, I think that many of us experienced this reality (side note – for a really interesting reflection on grief, faith and COVID please check out ). This phase is hard work, especially when the end point feels distant and cloudy.

Stage 6, finally, is the reconstruction phase, often characterized by an overall feeling of relief, recovery, and renewal. Some of us may be here, and some may be looking forward eagerly to this phase.

The danger of the phase model is that we fall into an “it’ll get better” trap which may feel dismissive of both the hardships and the celebrations of the present and which could distract us from the work that needs to be done in every phase. Yet, despite its limitations, this way of contextualizing how I am feeling gives me hope. It helps me to understand why I may have been more snappy, more weepy, more preoccupied, less energized, less forgiving. It reminds me that we do move through different times and responses, and that, despite ups and downs, progress and set-backs, we do share in a progressive venture that looks toward a future that is different from the present and that is ultimately under the sovereignty of a Creator who knows all about phases. It helps me to have grace towards myself (that my feelings are normal) and maybe even more grace towards others (because they, too, are in the ups and downs).

Grace and gratitude is ultimately where this lands: a recognition that I am a “work in progress” and that God works with me despite my ups and downs; a recognition that emergency remote learning is an unfolding and evolving process that we are all figuring out, even as we work hard to make it better than good; a recognition that my students, my family members, my colleagues, my church community, and my friends are all working at their capacity wherever they feel they are in any given moment. I’m grateful for the grace others have shown me; I’m grateful for colleagues who are incredibly encouraging; I’m grateful for a community that believes in what we are doing, even when it’s not perfect; I’m grateful for students who struggle and who shine; and I’m grateful, most of all, for a loving and sustaining Father who knows mountains and who knows valleys, and who knows us.

Discover More

If you’d’ like to learn more about the stages, you can read the article below.

Click to access CERC_Psychology_of_a_Crisis.pdf

James, R, and Gilliland, B., (2012). Crisis intervention strategies (7th edition). Cengage Learning.

Gilliand and James, two researchers who literally “wrote the book” on crisis intervention, characterize individual crisis as the “experiencing of an event or situation as an intolerable difficulty that exceeds the person’s current resources and coping mechanisms” (8). They describe a systemic crisis as “when a traumatic event occurs such that people, institutions, communities and ecologies are overwhelmed and response systems are unable to effectively control and contain the event” (9). They note that for both individual and systemic crises, the “disequilibrium” caused by the event can have profound affective, behavioural, cognitive and institutional and cultural impacts.

However, these authors note that while this disequilibrium is complicated and difficult, it is not necessarily exclusively negative. They suggest that, while crisis is complex and experienced differently by each person and while there are no “quick fixes”, it does, like any disruption, reflect both challenges and opportunities. James and Gilliland argue that crisis by definition contains the “seeds of growth and change.” In this, they recognize that individual protective factors, personal and community resilience, and individual and institutional perception play a role; however, they do argue that “choosing to do something at least contains that seeds of growth and allows a person to set goals and formulate a plan to begin to overcome the dilemma” (9).

James, R, and Gilliland, B., (2012). Crisis intervention strategies (7th edition). Cengage Learning.

James Apers, Director of Student Services
Hamilton District Christian High