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.