How should we process the first anniversary of the pandemic?

Nearly one year on from the first Covid-19 lockdown, our ability to grieve has been stunted. Now we are about to be confronted with the reality. 

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Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve had a running joke with my friends that my phone has become a ticking time bomb. Every morning, I open my camera roll and my social media archives to look at my “On This Day” memories, in some cases going back as far as 2012. I escape our current reality by revisiting my past one, looking at how I lived in different years, in what now feels like a different lifetime.

Of course, you know the punchline: in a matter of days, the time bomb will detonate when my 2020 “On This Day” starts to include memories of when the old reality stopped, and a new normal set in.

For some people, anniversaries of the pandemic have already happened – a year since their last day in the office, since their last time seeing certain friends, since their last trip to a pub or restaurant. This all leads, of course, to the major looming date of 23 March, when we’ll collectively experience our first national pandemic anniversary, marking one year since the Prime Minister’s televised announcement informing us we would go into lockdown.

When people talk about grief, regardless of what kind it is, a few constants stand out as part of the experience. That the grief comes in waves; it takes time to recover; talking is better than being silent. Another also rings true for most – that anniversaries can be the hardest. They’re unavoidable and cyclical, and their immovability makes them one of the only times you’re forced to confront tragedy, whether you’re prepared to do so or not. You have no choice but to process the trauma. 

Sometimes this confrontation can be helpful. But it can also prove an overwhelming intrusion. In the midst of a pandemic, the lockdown anniversary may be especially jarring. With no hard end date to rely on and uncertainty clipping our ability to feel hope, one of the few strategies we have had to cope with reality is to minimise what the reality actually is – to make our lives as small as possible, focusing on what we are doing today or maybe what we are doing this minute. The game we are playing is not a normal way to deal with grief, but a constant negotiation with our emotions, seeing how much grief we can handle in any given moment. The cause of the trauma isn’t over – we must grieve while the source of our grief lives on, if we even grieve at all. Ignoring this reality is, for many, the only way to make daily life bearable. 

[see also: Notes on a crisis: Why we have not yet found a way to mourn loss on this scale]

Because of this negotiation, the upcoming anniversaries may be the first time many of us are forced to look at the global reality we are in – it may, in fact, be the first time we feel the pain that we have been trying to push away. 

What makes these first pandemic anniversaries harder is that the demise of our old lives was so heavily documented: we can look back at those days leading up to lockdown through messages, videos and photographs. Not only are those intimate reminders so readily available, but they may also reveal a dramatic irony – the fact that most of us thought this would only be a matter of months, and that some even relished the opportunity for lockdown to create a break from normality.

The knowledge we have now makes this harder to bear: how different things could have been had the situation been handled better by our government, both in the days preceding 23 March 2020 and since the first lockdown was lifted. 

With this date now soon approaching, it’s hard to fathom how we can begin to deal with the weight of an entire year. What do we do when the thought of processing it all is too overwhelming? Speaking to the Harvard Business Review (ironically, on 23 March in 2020), the grief expert David Kessler explained that the only way out of our trauma is through it. “There is something powerful about naming this as grief.... When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through,” he said.

“Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.”

A meme has been circulating online, saying “March 2021 has arrived while we’re still processing March 2020”. But hidden in this joke is a generous reading of our current emotional state. Have we even begun – or been given the distance – to process? 

For some, 23 March will come and go with little acknowledgement or personal pain. For others, it may be an unwelcome reminder of the reality many of us would like to continue to ignore. But within the trauma any anniversary (and particularly a first one) can bring, there lies an opportunity to start unravelling what we have been put through, and to begin to work through the grief we have sustained this past year and process it all together.

[see also: It’s not just you: Why the current lockdown is having an extreme effect on mental health]

Sarah Manavis is a senior writer at the New StatesmanSign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.

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