From a prolonged pandemic, a rethinking of life’s milestones?

The wedding anniversaries of Elizabeth O’Connor Cole and her husband, Michael, typically involve a dinner reservation for two at a posh restaurant. Not this time.

As the pandemic raged last May, the Chicago mother of four unearthed her boxed wedding dress from 19 years ago, fastened it with the help of one of her daughters, and surprised her spouse.

Cole recreated his reception menu, a shrimp and beef tenderloin appetizer, and brought out his wedding china and silver after hiring another of his sons to play his first dance song, “At Last,” for a romantic twist in the living room. And the priest who married them offered a special blessing at Zoom with friends and family who joined.

“Spontaneous and a little chaotic,” O’Connor Cole delivered the celebration. “Still, it was probably the most meaningful and fun anniversary we’ve ever had.”

As the pandemic enters its second year, there is a pent-up longing for the recent past, especially when it comes to life’s milestones. When the crisis is finally resolved, will our new ways of marking births and deaths, weddings and anniversaries have any lasting impact? Or will the newly felt feelings born of the pandemic invention be fleeting?

Some predict that their celebrations for the pandemic have set a new course. Others still lament the way their traditions used to be.

Milestones, rituals, and traditions help set the pace of our lives, from annuals like birthdays and anniversaries to one-time events like births and deaths, stretching beyond those boundaries to more informal events like the opening day (choose your sport) working with colleagues and that first summer bath.

Jennifer Talarico, a professor of psychology at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania who studies memory and personal experience, says that certain events shape lives differently, and have been reshaped equally differently during the pandemic. Perhaps the most devastating impacted, he says, are death and dying, sitting by beds to comfort and attending funerals to mourn because the coronavirus has killed more than 2.3 million people around the world.

“That is what feels the most because it is more difficult to replace,” says Talarico. “That will probably have the most lasting impact.”

Renee Fry knows the feeling well. Her grandmother, Regina Connelly, died on December 6 of COVID-19 at her nursing home in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. She had just turned 98 years old. I couldn’t drop everything to be by his bedside. There wasn’t a big church celebration of his life followed by a dinner for everyone.

“We had to rely on video conferencing,” says Fry.

But they also did something else. She and her sister, Julie Fry, put together a “memory book” that they shared with distant family and friends. They included Regina’s favorite prayer, the Hail Mary, and asked her loved ones to recite it on her behalf. They filled pages with photos over the years, from a portrait of young Regina in an elegant red dress (matching lipstick, gold pendant around her neck) to more casual photos with her grandchildren.

The sisters, Renee in Quincy, Massachusetts, and Julie in Port Matilda, Pennsylvania, wrote the story of how Regina met her husband on a blind date and then lost him when he died in 2010 after 64 years of marriage. They wrote about how he spent most of his adolescence caring for his two siblings after their mother died suddenly when she was 13 years old. They included rosaries in each of the 32 brochures they mailed.

Judging from the response, a second cousin called to thank him and Regina’s caregiver also wrote a two-page letter thanking him, it made an impact. “It was incredibly significant,” says Renee.

This brochure will be created when the family faces death once again. The pandemic, Fry says, has shown that distance no longer negates lasting meaning.

Daryl Van Tongeren, associate professor of psychology at Hope College in Michigan, studies the meaning of life, religion, and virtues. Rituals, symbols and landmarks help provide structure to our worlds, he says, outlining the passage of time or a significant achievement, but more importantly, giving meaning to life itself.

“One of the things that these milestones and these rituals do is that they connect us to other people and things that are bigger than us,” he says.

Sometimes in a whirlwind of celebration, the central meaning of something so important remains: the events themselves. Students who missed the walk across the stage at their graduations are still graduates. Couples forced to elope or give up their wedding dreams by 200 people for smaller matters still have their marriages to experience.

While some predict a roaring 1920s revival once the crisis is over, “there will be a number of people who will change,” says Van Tongeren. “They’re going to say, ‘I’m going to come out of this pandemic with a new set of values ​​and I’m going to live my life according to new priorities.’

Last year, Shivaune Field celebrated his 40th birthday on January 11 with a group of friends at a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, where he lives. It was only a few weeks before the coronavirus hit the US This year, when she turned 41, the associate professor of business at Pepperdine University simply went to the beach with her friends.

“It felt so much more authentic, a more enjoyable way to connect without all the bells and whistles,” she says. “I think it’s very nice to go back to that. It reminds me of childhood. “

Fields grew up in Melbourne, Australia, where she says her parents kept birthdays ingrained with family outings to the beach or bike rides followed by ice cream.

“Weekend get-togethers are now held in slippers with dogs sitting on the lawns and picnic rugs rather than on stools at fancy restaurants,” he says. And Field is fine with that.

Dialing time has changed during the pandemic. There’s the ticking of the months based on trips to the salon and the length of pandemic beards. There’s Zoom creativity and socially distanced outdoor trips. Recreating celebrations of the past for important time-marking events has been difficult as time blurs and security restrictions take over.

“We have all this cultural baggage, in a good way, around those events,” says Talarico. “It is a reinforcing cycle of events that we hope will be memorable.”

Memorable has been difficult to achieve. But the rethinking has been important to many, and its effects can multiply long after the virus has subsided.

“For those who want to reminisce years later about important events that occurred during the pandemic, there will likely be nostalgia mixed with something more than a tinge of trauma,” says Wilfred van Gorp, former president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology.

“It can remind us of the loneliness and isolation brought on by the pandemic, our fear of contracting the virus, the fear of dying, the fear of losing loved ones, and the loss of anyone we know who has died of COVID-19,” he says . . “And,” he adds, “memories of what we did not have, what we missed, and the experiences we could not share together.”


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