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Rituals and What They Mean

The pandemic’s effect on us.

The rituals we use to mark life milestones are often said to be secondary to the substance of what we are marking: The marriage itself is more important than the wedding; the life that was lived more significant than the funeral itself, for example.

While there is great truth to that, one of the important lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic is that rituals matter quite a lot, and they can have a significant material effect on the way we process major life events, emotionally and psychologically.

Almost every ritual we celebrate has been seriously impacted by the social restrictions necessitated by COVID-19: births, deaths, weddings, parties, the Superbowl get-together, the Fourth of July, or the Kentucky Derby, even the first day of school or summer vacation.

Every milestone celebrated (or not celebrated) has been altered over the past year. As humans are social creatures, this has prevented us from fully engaging in the very moments that make up our most potent memories and help shape our relationships with the people in our lives.

The new father may be prevented from physically witnessing the birth of his child, or even being at the hospital in the days afterward, to the disappointment of his wife, who must be content with seeing him on Zoom or not at all.

The child’s grandparents may not meet their own grandchild in person for a year or more, the time they cannot get back, and a crucial bonding period. There may be no photos of the grandparents actually holding their grandchild until the grandchild is almost two years of age.

Other important life milestones may go by undocumented by photos or video because they didn’t happen in the traditional way. Such artifacts help shape how we feel about the important events in our lives and help connect us to our loved ones for years afterward.

Zoom photos of the grandparents in one box, and the parents holding their child in another box, is not the same. In fact, this tends to emphasize isolation, rather than togetherness, and could negatively affect the memories that are formed.

During the pandemic, we no longer have the experience of selecting the wedding venue, choosing the flowers, taking part in the guests’ conversations, the family reunion weekend that takes place at the rehearsal dinner, the ceremony and reception, the thrill and warmth of seeing those who traveled from afar.

Imagine showing the wedding photos years later, “Look at our wedding, there we are in this two-inch box, above another two-inch box of our parents, beside another with a sibling or niece, all against a black computer screen.” Rather than reflecting on the joy experienced with loved ones, which can strengthen and improve memories, and therefore one’s feelings about the milestone itself, these pandemic images will only serve to make us feel more alone.

Even worse, many are dying without the physical touch of their loved ones holding their hand. An iPad image is a poor substitute for the warmth of a spouse or son or daughter’s hand comforting a dying relative.

By contrast, a group gathered together, dressed in somber, dark clothing, provide a collective comfort to each other at a funeral, creating a sort of esprit de corps, in a way that individuals who appear in boxes on a computer screen, most of them dressed in pajamas from the waist down with bed-head hair as if it were a poorly filmed television presentation, can never match.

For those wanting to reminisce years later about important events that happened during the pandemic, there will likely be nostalgia mixed with more than a tinge of trauma.

The trauma is because it will remind us of the loneliness and isolation, our fear of catching the virus, fear of dying, fear of losing loved ones, and loss of any we knew who may have died from COVID-19. The recollections will be of what we didn’t have, and of the experiences, we couldn’t share together.

Zoom and other online video platforms have forever changed the ways we communicate and socialize with others, and these have helped us adapt and cope with the current isolation. In some ways, we don’t know how we could have coped without them.

In other ways, we long for the traditional fraternization of our milestones—chatting with friends at a wedding, or sharing stories after a friend’s funeral. This isn’t well replaced by a Zoom chat.

For those who are challenged by technology or finances, access, or geography, there may be no Zoom or FaceTime, and this is perhaps the most tragic.

Has the pandemic forever altered the way we celebrate important events and milestones? Probably. It seems likely that life will never return to the way it was before.

But will our rituals return to the way they were? Given our social natures, it is likely they will.

I, for one, hope so.

More from Wilfred Van Gorp Ph.D.
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