The Anniversary We’d Like to Forget, and Why It’s Important to Remember
In Jewish tradition we acknowledge anniversaries with ritual. We mark the anniversary of death with a yahrzheit. We recognize the anniversaries of events that happened thousands of years ago so we can gather to retell (and in some cases, relive!) the story of our survival. Then we rejoice together with a meal. As we come to the anniversary of the Covid-19 pandemic, how do we acknowledge it while we are still living in it? And do we really need to?
Anniversaries can be fraught with complicated emotions, and the anniversary of the Covid shut-down is no different. Think about the day you realized that the world as you knew it was coming to a standstill, along with all the chaos and adjustment that would follow. Hunting down toilet paper and hand sanitizer, stocking up on masks. Schools were shuttered as learning went online. Parents became de facto teachers, literally overseeing their children’s education, often while holding down their own jobs. Working from home led to emptied buildings and lightened traffic; the roads, parks and public spaces looked and felt post-apocalyptic. We stopped visiting our vulnerable loved ones, we recalibrated birthday parties and other life cycle events into zoom celebrations and drive-bys; sports leagues and seasons, which for so many mark the rhythms of life, came to a halt. We lost so much, but we also found new ways of living. New games to play and shows to watch together at home, new home offices, new alliances between siblings, lots of new pets and many newly created routines.
As we approach the one year anniversary of the shut-down of life as we knew it, our emotions may be triggered by the realization that a year has passed, and we are still in it. Many of us will categorize life as “BC” — Before Covid – and life after, with mid-March signaling that turning point. At any anniversary, we tend to look at the trajectory of our own lives and assess where we are now compared to where we were then. Memories may be stirred up in both adults and children as the anniversary looms, and for some those memories will be difficult. Reactions will vary widely; some will recall panic, fear, disappointment and grief, but also moments of gratitude, relief and even joy. Some will experience anxiety, irritability, sadness and so much fatigue coupled with excitement, hopefulness and moments of tranquility. Stressors of any size can trigger our fight/flight/flee response and lead to physical symptoms. We have been working collectively to contain the spread of a dangerous virus, meanwhile the ongoing stressors of the pandemic can lead to long term physical and mental health problems. We are living through collective trauma, and therefore it is important to slow down at the anniversary, take a moment and acknowledge all these feelings, big and small, pleasant and unpleasant. Giving yourself permission to experience those emotions, especially after a year, and normalizing them for your children is an important component of recovery and moving forward.
A year feels much longer to a child than to an adult, so this past year may feel like a really large part of their lives. Since they have less experience to reference they will likely have some significant thoughts and feelings about it. They, too, need to talk about and express their feelings about the losses, changes and new routines. These are some questions you might use to think about and prompt a family discussion at the dinner table, at bedtime or in the car:
- What were the best parts of the past year? The worst parts? How did they make you feel?
- Do you remember when you found out that school would be closed and you would learn from home? What did that feel like? How does it feel now?
- What is something good that happened in the past year that you did not expect? How did that make you feel?
- What has really helped you get through this year?
- What is something you’ve learned or accomplished in the past year?
At Wise school the anniversary of the Covid shut-down coincides with many of the students returning to in-person learning. As students return to campus, they may be expecting it to feel “normal” again and parents may be hoping for an immediate sense of normalcy to return to their home lives. It will certainly feel familiar in many ways, but may also feel very different in ways unexpected. While the school takes extra measures to make the return physically safe for our students, how do we help them feel emotionally safe?
If your child is about to return or has recently returned to campus, here are some tips to guide and support them. First, have an honest conversation about when and how it will happen. Let them know ahead of time what they might expect and how things will look different. For example, they may understand that they will be wearing masks all day and the desks will be spread out, but they may not realize that they have to stay with their classmates during recess, or how many times they will be asked to use the new hand washing stations. Next, talk about the many feelings that may come up around returning to school including excitement to be with friends, disappointment about not being in the same class or pod as their best buddy, and anxiety about keeping safe from the virus. It is also important to acknowledge that some children may experience sadness at no longer spending most of their day with siblings and parents or missing time with their new puppy. There may even be anxiety about getting up, dressed and ready on time since they haven’t had to practice this skill for a year.
Naming the feelings helps to normalize them. Saying it out loud, writing it down or just observing the feeling as you or your child share a thought or a memory brings mindful awareness to it. We can help normalize our body’s response to a crisis without always having a concrete solution. We know and convey to our children that this is temporary even though it has lasted longer than any of us expected. It will pass and we will persevere. And eventually, one day, we will mark the anniversary among family and friends by retelling the story of our survival and rejoicing together with a meal.