I live catty-corner to two schools – a public middle school and a private boy’s high school. Each school has a different process for getting students onto their campus each morning. The middle school transports students in its traditional yellow buses, while the high school requires kids and their families to provide their own transportation.
As a result, every Monday to Friday morning, there’s a mini traffic jam outside my house. The buses roll up one street; the parents and students line up in their cars on a perpendicular road. Throw in a few walkers, street parkers, and a crossing guard for good measure, and you have quite the commotion.
I used to find this routine annoying. It made my dog bark, woke up my baby, and made it difficult for us to go anywhere until the rush died down. That was until one day, about a year ago, everything came to a halt. The busses stopped rolling, and the parents stopped carpooling. COVID-19 shut the world down, and I truthfully found the silence a little disquieting.
At first, we thought the kids would be back by April, then May, June, July, and August. At one point over the summer, we thought for sure they’d return in September, but that month passed too, along with October, November, December, January, February, and into March. A year passed and we adjusted to the silence.
But then, this morning, I looked out my window, and the school buses and the cars, the crossing guard, and the walkers were all back. As quickly as the commotion stopped, it started up again. It was like someone paused the scene almost a year ago exactly. This morning they finally found the remote under a couch cushion and hit unpause.
At that moment, I felt an overwhelming wave of emotion and uncertainty. On the one hand, the familiarity of this school-day ritual brought me an immense sense of relief. I didn’t realize how much I missed the sound of business-as-usual. On the other hand, I cautioned myself not to assume anything is normal. The motions may look similar, but so much has changed.
Grieving people know this feeling all too well. They know what it’s like to long for the comfort of familiar things, only to find those things feel changed and unsettling. And they understand the paradox of longing to feel “better” again but fearing the day it will happen and its implications. Will they be expected to be the same, even though they will never be the same again? Will their grief be forgotten and, just as importantly, will their loved ones be remembered?
As disengaged as we each may feel from one another, we are all a part of a greater whole that has been deeply affected by loss. Over the last year, 2.72 million people have died from COVID worldwide. 542 thousand died in the U.S. alone (as of today). And that says nothing of the countless non-death losses incurred. As John Donne wrote, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind”. Those 2.72 million lives matter to humankind, and so should the grief of those who mourn them.
I don’t begrudge anyone feeling ready to put this year behind them. I’m right there with you most of the time, like a racehorse waiting to bolt out of the start gate. But sometimes I’m not. Like this morning, while staring out my window, a part of me wished for my silent street back and everything it represented. The silence signified, to me, that something world-changing was happening and that it was time to stop what we were doing, care for ourselves, care for each other, and bear witness.
How will we continue to bear witness and care for each other when we’re back to punching time clocks and rushing to make homeroom? I’m not saying it can’t or won’t happen. However, I worry that we’re so eager to move forward that we may hesitate to look back. And if we don’t look back, we won’t see the people who are struggling to move forward because of everything they’ve lost on the COVID battlefield.
We need to remember that though things may look closer to fine in general, many people are not fine at all. We’ve amassed so much grief, and grief takes time. It doesn’t disappear with the change of a season or circumstance. And it’s okay not to be fine, even if it seems like the world is moving on at times. Grieving people get thrust back into day-to-day life far before they are ready, which will be true once again. But it’s okay if psychologically, you’re someone who needs to take your time with the whole “moving forward,” “future,” and “new normal” thing.
There’s room to celebrate the hope and promise many of us feel. The rebirth of spring is peeking through the frozen ground. The vaccines will save lives. And many of the barriers to connecting, coping, working, and living will be gone in time. These are all good things. But two things can be true at once. We can move forward with hope and still be mindful of where we’ve been.
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