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.