There Is No One Pandemic Anniversary

A woman curled into a ball
Leonid Keller

It can begin almost imperceptibly, with the turning of the leaves or the first heat of summer, an ambient anxiety with no clear cause. Other times the feeling comes on suddenly, when a news story about the disaster’s anniversary stirs memories of trauma. Some people have nightmares or flashbacks. After 9/11, PTSD rates crested at the one-year mark. Psychologists call this phenomenon the “anniversary reaction.”

Disaster anniversaries are powerful in part because they’re communal. The bomb went off in an instant. The tornado tore through town in an afternoon. The earthquake rocked the whole region at once. The pandemic, though, did not come to everyone on the same day, or even in the same month, and nor will its anniversary. In this way, as in so many others, this is not an ordinary disaster.

For each of the country’s more than 526,000 dead, nine loved ones grieve. Hundreds of thousands have spent time in the ICU, an experience that can bring its own unique trauma. And then there are the smaller losses, the ones that did not threaten lives but still changed them. Today is the day I missed my mother’s funeral. The day I would have gone to prom. Met my grandson. Gotten married.

Some of us will mark no anniversary at all: the middle-school student who, having spent the past year in Zoom school, cannot name what exactly was lost or when but still feels its absence. Or the health-care worker for whom no day stands out in particular, because how can you pick a single one from the months of unremitting cataclysm? Their grief, for better and for worse, will be more amorphous.

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The pandemic will not have one anniversary; it will have millions of them, each commemorating its own private tragedy. They will come to us as the virus did, in waves, surging and subsiding, always erratic, first here, then there, then here again, and, in the end, everywhere. If over the next year we were somehow able to graph the country’s grief in the same way that, over the past year, we have graphed its deaths, the curves might share a common contour, like an object and its shadow.

Steven Taylor, a psychiatrist at the University of British Columbia and the author of The Psychology of Pandemics, says the fragmented nature of this anniversary may disrupt the communal grieving that generally happens around the one-year mark. A moment that, after another disaster in another time, might have prompted feelings of solidarity could instead prompt feelings of isolation. It would be a fitting final cruelty for what has been at once the most universal of disasters and the loneliest.

Without a shared anniversary, we will have to invent new occasions to grieve together. We have already begun to try. On October 4, in what was, if not quite the first attempt at collective grieving, then certainly close, the group COVID Survivors for Change marked a day of remembrance on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The afternoon was bright and quiet. Fifty or so people huddled around a stage in a wide field beneath an infallible blue sky, and beyond the stage, 20,000 empty black folding chairs stretched to the field’s edge, signifying what was then 200,000 human absences. The metallic jingle of an ice-cream truck drifted in from the street.

One by one, survivors and victims’ family members took the stage to eulogize the dead. An emergency-room nurse remembered how her brother, an expert handyman, would scrunch up his face when she asked him to help her fix something but would always say yes in the end. A New York City subway worker remembered how, on their drive to the hospital, he and his father had not spoken. An occupational therapist remembered how her mother’s carotid artery had pulsed as she died. It was impossible not to be moved. It was also impossible not to think, There are so few people, and so many chairs.

Since October, more milestones have brought more mourning. In January, when the body count passed 400,000, 400 lanterns illuminated the Lincoln Memorial’s reflecting pool, and the bells of the National Cathedral tolled 400 times. In February, when it crossed 500,000, the White House lit candles on the South Portico. The year to come will bring more vigils, more commemorations, more occasions for grief, both public and private.

Exactly one year ago, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. But today is not really the anniversary of the pandemic or even the anniversary of its beginning. It is only the beginning of its anniversary, and we have a long way to go.