Acknowledging the Pandemic Effect

The pandemic effect began for me as I observed what it was doing to schools, school staff, students and families. Working in this field of crisis response, I had lots of opportunity to hear the bitter stories of children orphaned by the virus and the success stories of creating remarkable ways people made distance learning available to families who needed internet. But so many needed the basics — like food. Each loss during the pandemic has hit someone personally.

The effect unfolded further as it came home to roost. I moved to Portland expressly to live nine doors down from my grandson. He and his parents became my bubble when we realized we had to make those kinds of decisions, and the four of us created an iron clad practice of adherence. And then my son became ill very early on.  Before tests. Symptoms were COVID-like but we couldn’t know for sure what he had, so we went through the isolation process with him in their bedroom and his wife and son staying at the other end of the house and with me not even entering their home until we were well past the danger and he was well.  

How I Stayed Connected to Family During Quarantine

During this time, in order to stay connected to my grandson, I created “the ribbon tree” in their front yard.  Every day I tied a long ribbon onto one low branch with a trinket hanging at the bottom.  A shell from a long-ago foreign beach visit, my father’s 80-year-old tie clasp, or on several days, little home-made worry dolls, each with fun and unique cultural dress.  No purchased items; all came from whatever I could unearth from boxes on high shelves in my garage and closets.  

As I dealt with this loss during the pandemic, I looked forward to our return to our evening tuck-ins. One book we read together is the one about the story of the invisible thread that connects our hearts, no matter how far apart we may be.  He showed me where the worry dolls lived during the day before he put them under his pillow to do the worrying for him at night, and we talked in quiet voices about the grandfather whose picture is beside his bed, but who he never met.  Our rituals were all waiting for us.

How I Stayed Connected with Friends During Quarantine

The pandemic effect continued to unfurl and ripple through all aspects of all our lives.  My weekly writing group did prompts on the pandemic sometimes.  More school counselors called to ask how to best meet the needs of families when a parent was diagnosed with COVID.  Or a staff member.  And then what when a staff member dies?  Then it crept closer as my dearest friends either contracted COVID or had friends who died of it. Ever closer. And now I experienced loss during the pandemic in my own extended family.

This is my story, but it reflects everyone’s, and of course, many have much greater tragedy.  These are the obvious pandemic effects.  We can measure them.  Thirty-five ribbons still hanging from the tree, nine months later.  Remarks on social media of missing loved ones who have died.

Noticing and Defining Loss During the Pandemic

We’ve heard the language. Pandemic-related depression. Overwhelm. Exhaustion. Malaise. But unless the conversation relates to the loss of a loved one, we rarely hear references to the micro loss during the pandemic we’re all experiencing daily; those that are difficult to name or notice or define. Daily losses. The loss of routine, of the collective laughter of children on a playground, of the ease of dropping by the grocery store on a moment’s notice to pick up just one item, of after-work happy hours on Friday, of being at work at all, of throwing a birthday party at a favorite restaurant. There is much conversation about the loss of physical closeness with loved ones, and that is almost beyond quantifying. But what about the interesting conversations that used to happen in the staff lounge or the contests that evolved from conversation there?  And we’re missing the inspiration or a flash of insight we could have because our minds were not cluttered with remembering masks and sanitizing hands.

We’re hearing and seeing the words “self care” all over the place, and it is critical that we take the need for that seriously.  We can’t be there for others if we aren’t taking good care of ourselves.  But perhaps the other side of self-care is having some recognition and maybe some rituals for letting go–for grieving the micro losses we’re all sustaining daily. Losses like normalcy.  Predictability.  Hope for a certain future job or advanced education. Certainty about how we’ll provide for our families 

Critical Steps Forward

It is critical that we continue to live with hope and gratitude.  I mentioned the intimate circle of friends who write to prompts on a Zoom call each week. The topics are varied, but the discussion brings tears and compassion and long, quiet pauses. One woman is about to become a grandmother in the midst of the pandemic while another is married to an East Indian who is a British citizen who isn’t allowed back in the US, so she and  her children are separated from her American family by The Invisible Wall of Prejudice. The grief we process in the writing group is sometimes named and often not, but always recognized. Another circle of us in an intentional community have started a “write one thing you love every day” Google doc process.  Between those two activities, I engage every week on both sides of the coin – gratitude and grief.  Love and loss.   Joy and sorrow.

Journaling helps ease loss during the pandemic

Why Daily Intentions are Important

So perhaps one small intention that could provide large returns would be to find a ritual that helps you identify the micro-losses you are experiencing every day. A part of the ritual needs to allow you a way to reconcile these losses, at least for now. Many will fade when we journey into herd immunity, and then we’ll look at the horizon and see what is never coming back and what has been irrevocably changed. That will be a more final grief. We’ll be taking stock in what we’ve lost and what’s left, and we’ll move forward. Good has come of this already. People recognize how important social and familial relationships are. Generous hearts give to food pantries and long lines of hungry families receive boxes and bags and sacks. Good will come of this in ways that we won’t recognize for some time, perhaps only in reflection. 

In the interim, though, while we journey through the long slog this seems to be, we might serve ourselves well to find some small ritual to do regularly to allow ourselves to recognize the myriad of little losses and, instead of just trying to cope with them, to grieve them with intention in that moment, to breathe deeply and let go just a little. A little like housekeeping, it is easier to keep up with it than to have it all pile up on you.  

Three Ideas to Build Healthy Ritual During Covid

  1. Every evening, write a gratitude for the day, a grief or loss you recognize, and then one thing you love.  Sandwich the loss between what sustains you, but give it its due.
  2. Put three post-it notes up in different rooms.  You can write on one, “What’s missing?” and on another “What do I love?” and on the third, “Breathe and relax.”  Let yourself ponder each one at least once each day for a couple of moments, just at random times.  Maybe you want to put up many that are relaxing and a couple that provide the juxtaposition; you decide.  “One thing I look forward to (when COVID is over) is…”Someone who inspires me is…”  “One thing I’ll do differently when this is over is…”
  3. Take time each week to look at photos of past trips or social events you enjoyed and remind yourself what you enjoyed and loved, and write – hand write —  a card to someone with thoughts that come out of that time.  Mail it!

Maybe it is not so important exactly how we do it, but that we do it. That we take time to acknowledge our more invisible loss during the pandemic every day. It is only in that recognition that we also can come to know how much more strength we have than we realized. That we are up to the job, even though we would far rather not know that we can manage this. That we have found remarkable ways to let others know of our love and to feel our connection. That rather than being a reminder of a month of isolation, ribbons still catching the breeze on the ribbon tree are a reminder that separation takes nothing for granted, that the thread may be invisible, but it is tangible, and that there are a hundred ways to say “I love you.”