This feels bad. Really, really bad. And it is bad. But a big reason why this pandemic feels so bad is that it has no end in sight. Of course, it will end, but without an expectation of when, it feels like it might never end. Moreover, we’ve been denied most of the mechanisms of grieving and celebrating the endings and beginnings, of events both big and small. The violation of these expectations—of control, of grief, of schedules—is a big reason why it feels so, so bad. And for many of us, it feels like we might never get through.
When 9/11 happened, I had been traveling constantly. I flew out of Boston’s Logan Airport that morning, two gates away from and 20 minutes before one of the planes that left Logan and eventually flew into the Twin Towers. I remember thinking at the time that part of why it felt so disorienting was that the illusion of control we had was shattered in a moment. Until that point, I had felt like Hey, I have a platinum card, a cell phone, and a passport. There isn’t any problem I can’t solve. Boy, was I wrong. I was in Detroit, hundreds of miles from home, in a rental car with no heat or air conditioning, but nevertheless I felt incredibly grateful for access to a vehicle. Despite that good fortune, the phone lines were so jammed I couldn’t call to check in with friends and family.
Within hours and days, however, the attack had stopped. We carried its immediate and long-term impacts with us forever, but we were able to stop counting bodies and mourn as families and as a country, both publicly and privately. And slowly but surely, our sense of control and resolve, and our ability to move forward returned.
Yet with this ongoing and unpredictable trauma facing the world, we have no way to know when the attack will stop. It just feels relentless and heartbreaking, day after day. And it’s happening in every city and state and country all at once. Nowhere feels safe.
We are also being denied the act of ritual to both celebrate and grieve. Humans are social creatures, and throughout the world and throughout history, birth, death, and the move to some sense of reaching adulthood have been among the most important milestones for us to come together and witness. Today, the joy of pregnancy and childbirth is tinged with fear for mothers and babies, for their health and wellbeing. And we can do nothing but cry sweet and sad tears for grandparents and siblings forced to meet new family members through windows, instead of being able to snuggle and kiss them. Because of the fear of infection, we see healthcare workers needing to stop their own children from hugging them when they return home from their grueling shifts.
We hear stories of thousands of deaths, of people alone in strange rooms, saying their good-byes via Facetime and Zoom. Over the years, like many people, I’ve lost family members and experienced the sweet and awful moment of having them pass in a room full of loving friends and family. Their nurses and doctors grieved along with us, and were likely also comforted by the rituals and gatherings around those deaths. And at funerals that truly became celebrations of the ones we had lost, I’ve felt uplifted by friends and family. But now, Zoom and Facetime cannot begin to duplicate this level of comfort for both the dying and the living.
I know several high-school seniors who left school for home one day and now their high school experience is over unceremoniously. No proms, no graduation ceremonies, no parties and no celebrations with friends and family. Although these are much lesser losses than deaths, they remain important rituals that mark the end of one phase of life and celebrate the beginning of a new one, both for these new adults and their families. A friend was Tweeting recently about how to hold a virtual family Seder, and although I’m not Jewish, I asked if I could attend. Somehow, the story of struggle and perseverance, celebrated by family, felt needed right now, even over the internet.
This pandemic feels bad because it is horrific, and it has poked holes in the fabric of our society, disrupted our rituals, and damaged our illusive sense of control. All I know now is that we do have the power to get through this. I don’t know exactly how the human spirit manages it, but we will. Because we always have. We will end this. We will find ways to grieve and celebrate. Until then, it’s more than okay to feel bad. It’s okay not to feel normal, because nothing about this is normal. But someday it will end, and we will plan again, and feel the joy of expectations met.