Getting Through the Pandemic Stronger

Suicide prevention advocate Dennis Gillan on post-traumatic growth and the value of relationships
March 10, 2021 Updated: March 10, 2021

In late 2019, Dennis Gillan gave a TEDx talk about the loneliness epidemic, and right before February 2020, it was published online.

“It was so bizarre,” said Gillan, a public speaker, suicide prevention advocate, and executive director of the Half A Sorrow Foundation, as in the Swedish proverb he likes to share: “A shared joy is a double joy, shared sorrow is half a sorrow.”

In January 2020, Gillan was looking at a busy year with speaking engagements around the country in places he’d always wanted to go. The talk he gives is a difficult one: He is one of three brothers, and two of them died by suicide. Since then, he’s done what he can to try to prevent anyone else from ever having to experience what Gillan felt himself.

“It’s a brutal talk, talking about my brothers, but I love it because, afterward, people come up and I feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose in life and turning my misery into a mission,” Gillan said.

And then the pandemic hit. All his work stopped and people started putting plans on hold, wondering what to do next. Suddenly, many faced loneliness.

dennis gillan
Dennis Gillan is a public speaker, suicide prevention advocate, and the executive director of the Half A Sorrow Foundation. (Courtesy of Half A Sorrow Foundation)

The Work Is Worth It

Gillan gave several tips in his talk on preventing loneliness, and after pandemic-related shutdowns were ordered, he took a look at his list and realized people couldn’t put most of them into action anymore because of social distancing.

“I’m trying to find COVID-friendly activities myself,” Gillan said. Previously, he had set up a good system of regular get-togethers with friends, including weekly breakfasts with a group of men from his apartment building. They’ve tried to keep it up, sitting several feet apart and all wearing masks as they nurse coffee cups that keep their hands warm.

There were a few weeks when the local numbers were bad that they stopped meeting, but they could feel the toll it took on their mental and emotional well-being. So they get socially distanced coffee, outdoors when possible.

“It takes a little extra work, but you’ve got to find those COVID-friendly activities,” Gillan said, recommending something outdoors. “The benefit of being outside in the sunlight is you get vitamin D.”

“One of the activities that came up is tennis; I can play tennis because the person is on the other side of the net, far away, but we still talk, and we’re exercising, which is really good for your mental health,” he said. Their local tennis center is now fully booked, and the local bike repair shop has his hands full with work. “I see tons of guys on bicycles near my house.”

“It takes a little extra work, and you may have to take up an activity that you’re not really good at. You may have to ride a bike even though you haven’t ridden one in years,” he said. But the trade-off is worth it because the difference for some people’s mental health can be like night and day.

His wife works from home, but she makes up a commute. “She goes out the side door of the house, ‘I’ll be right back,’ she goes around the house and comes in the front door and goes, ‘Honey, I’m home,” he said. She also takes the dog out for a walk at the end of every day.

Many parents have seen their children wither away during quarantine with distance learning, and there have been districts pushing to open schools primarily because of it. Gillan says you’ll have to pull the parent card and get the kids outside. (“Listen, I’m dropping you off at the tennis center whether you like it or not.”) 

“If you don’t, as a parent, they will sit there on the iPad all day. It’s the path of least resistance,” he said.

The other day, as he was standing in his backyard, Gillan saw his neighbors’ children jumping on their trampoline. They had soccer jerseys on and said they’d signed up.

“You liking it?” Gillan asked them.

“Not really,” they answered. He found it funnier than the kids did, but the kids need parents to take the reins here, he said.

Gillan and his wife have had to find creative ways to stave off isolation during the pandemic, too.

“We have backyard meetings with our neighbors, we have a fence, a chain-link fence, we stay on our side, they stay on their side, and we just chat. We just make time to talk across the fence,” he said. It’s a hassle, but once you do it and feel the benefits, it’s worth it, he explained. For many people, it’s become more obvious than ever that sustaining relationships take work, but it’s also shown how valuable relationships are.

“My wife marvels at the fact that I still stay in touch with kids from grade school. There’s five or six guys that I went to Catholic school with in New York,” he said. “It’s work, but it’s absolutely worth it, in the end.”

That includes those friends who never call you. Everyone has them, Gillan said, where if you don’t call them, you don’t talk. He was complaining about it recently, and another friend of his said, “Well, Dennis, that’s your role.”

“You have to be the catalyst, you have to be the change you want to see. If you enjoy talking to people, you have to dial the phone. There’s four or five guys that if I don’t call, we don’t talk, but if I get over my little ego and I call them, we have a great conversation. And that’s my role, it’s my job, and I don’t mind because I value those relationships,” he said.

“I had Zoom meetings with college friends of mine, we weren’t seeing each other even before COVID,” he said. It was more than a dozen people, whom he’d met in 1981. “At the end of the Zoom meeting, someone says, ‘Why weren’t we doing this before?'”

Social media has been an absolute lifeline for some people during this pandemic, Gillan said, even his 85-year-old mother has started using it. But social media is also something we all know needs to be used with moderation, he added.

“Like everything in life, there’s a limit, and I don’t want us to come out of this pandemic and that becomes our way of being connected. I still think we need belly to belly, eye to eye,” he said. If the pandemic abates and people still don’t come out of their houses, he said, then that’s a different story.

Post-Traumatic Growth

The pandemic might have brought trauma, but Gillan is trying to respond to it by writing a positive narrative for himself, not a negative one.

“There’s this thing called post-traumatic growth,” Gillan said, that’s experienced by people who’ve gone through ordeals most of us can’t imagine, and who aren’t only still standing in the aftermath but still helping others, leaving the rest of us wondering: “How do you do it?”

There are several positive responses to trauma that are indicators of post-traumatic growth, including a renewed or increased appreciation for life, finding new opportunities, personal strength, relationships with others, and spiritual change. Gillan says he’s felt many of these himself, such as how the extra work in keeping up with his relationships made him appreciate them even more, and how picking up a new activity is looked at as an opportunity. There are lasting benefits to such growth.

“If I lived through this, I can live through anything,” he said. “In 2025, if the stock market tanks or whatever, people will say, you know what, I survived 2020, I can survive this.”

These events also prompt spiritual questioning, causing an opportunity for spiritual growth. “There’s got to be a purpose in my life. Some healthy questions, too: Why am I here? Why am I on this third rock from the sun?”

As a suicide prevention advocate, Gillan has a couple of numbers he keeps track of. From 2018 to 2019, the annual number of suicides actually went down. The 2020 numbers aren’t compiled yet, and locally there was some chatter that didn’t sound good by the end of the year, but Gillan is holding out hope.

“Maybe people will see that post-traumatic growth, maybe that will happen,” he said. If anything, 2020 has also become a year in which everyone’s become better versed in talking about mental health, he noticed.

“The whole pandemic has got us into a really good position to talk about mental health as a whole,” he said. “2020 got us to this mental health tipping point, where it’s OK to talk about it now.”

“I just want people to know, we will get through this. And what we look like on the other side, I don’t know. I don’t have that crystal ball, but I do think we will be stronger because of it. I don’t want people to punch out because of this pandemic. We need you here. It will make us stronger. Let it do its work on us; our society will come out, give it time.”