Birthdays. Weddings. Graduations. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit last year, we watched as old milestones — and the rituals we depended on to mark them — seemed to vanish into the ether.
If you’re like many people, the early days of the pandemic, and the grief contained in them, likely left you feeling adrift. When I say “grief,” I don’t only mean the devastating loss of life. It’s natural to mourn lost opportunities and celebrations, too.
Almost as soon as we watched some beloved rituals disappear, humans began to do what we do best. We improvised. We got creative. We grew. And soon, whole new rituals were born, from those that rely on technology — Zoom cocktail hour, anyone? — to others, like peaceful walks in the woods, that depend on nature.
“Rituals paint indelible pictures in our minds and in our hearts,” wrote family therapist Evan Imber-Black in her fantastic recent paper on the subject. “And when these rituals go missing, there is something resourceful and insistent in the human spirit requiring us to create rituals anew.”
Now as we emerge into a world that hopefully starts to feel a little more “normal,” I’m left wondering: Will we return to our old rituals as if nothing has changed? Or are there new ways in which we’ll experience community, connection, structure and cohesion?
“Rituals help us mark time and organize meaning around change,” says psychoanalyst Juliane Maxwald. “The process of change involves both grieving loss and embracing growth, keeping an eye on the past while looking forward to the future.”
That’s especially true these days, as some of us prepare to re-enter society with an amalgam of thrill and trepidation. Case in point: One of my patients has been loving cooking dinner at home with his fiancé and training him as a sous chef, and worries about returning to dinners out.
The key to working through these concerns is communication with your partner or family. Be honest with yourself and them about what pandemic habits you want to keep or drop.
“You might be grateful for the slowing down of life during the pandemic, while your partner might be excited to resume activities that have been restricted,” Maxwald explained. “Approaching these differences with curiosity, not criticism, will help us stay connected with each other as we redesign what our daily routines and weekly rituals look like.”
Here are some ways to take what we’ve learned during the past year so that we’re honoring that time while embracing what’s to come.
New ways to celebrate
The pandemic’s effect on rituals was perhaps most apparent when it came to holidays, birthdays and other celebrations. When we lost the opportunity to gather together, we began marking such milestones through video calls or with socially distanced “drive-by” parties.
Imber-Black describes one couple who were determined to keep their wedding date — and did so, with a small but joyful ceremony on their Brooklyn stoop. “Previously, a place to dance, talk, or just think alone and together, this stoop was filled with significant memories from before COVID-19,” she wrote.
While we generally prefer virtual celebrations over in-person parties, there’s something to be gained by infusing some of technology into life as we go forward. We now know that even our least tech-savvy friends and relatives can figure out how to video chat. Perhaps future Thanksgivings and other holidays will include a hybrid of in-person and virtual attendees.
Virtual celebrations can offer another perk for those of us with social anxiety or uncomfortable family situations. “I think Covid gave people permission to think about what works, and what doesn’t, about traditional rituals,” said marriage and family therapist Jean Pappalardo. “For those who may need to remove themselves from a toxic family environment, technology provides a safe barrier.”
Creativity and comfort
During the pandemic, many rituals provided us with a sense of comfort by creating structure out of chaos, said couples therapist Deborah Fox.
Some parents instituted family dinners or game nights, while couples planned regular at-home date nights — some complete with formal attire. This sense of creativity stems in part from the fact that we had few other options: Going ballroom dancing wasn’t an option, but swaying to the music with your partner in your living room — even clad in a gown or tuxedo — was possible.
While some of us can’t wait to get back to the dance floor (or the club, the bar, the office, the amusement park) as soon as possible, others hope to keep their new rituals alive.
“I hear many people placing great value on what they discovered and want to keep, such as the nightly family dinner with both parents home or breaking out the dusty board games,” said Fox.
“Some parents are contemplating a hybrid workweek so they can remain intricately involved in aspects of their children’s lives that they have come to know.”
While some rituals can offer predictability, others can be quirky and spontaneous. When their country shut down early in the pandemic, Italians threw open their windows and sang, played musical instruments, clapped, and even banged on pots and pans as way to support frontline workers.
Near my own home in New York, stuffed teddy bears began appearing in windows as the world shut down — a whimsical way of replacing fear with joy for kids and adults alike.
“Rituals make us vulnerable, because they can lead us into the unknown,” said family and couples therapist Rebecca Sokoll, who takes daily walks that are anything but predictable. “They happen spontaneously, at different times of the day, and take me somewhere new every time.”
Room for growth
Whatever you decide to take from the pandemic or leave behind, some rituals never go out of style. Practicing deep breathing, burning a candle, writing in a journal and enjoying nature were grounding rituals before and during Covid-19, and I expect they will continue well beyond this time.
It’s OK to spend time thinking about choosing what worked for you and what didn’t. Even though most of us would like to relegate Covid-19 to the dustbin of history, there are valuable lessons worth hanging on to as well.
“It’s okay if it doesn’t look exactly the same as during Covid-19 — there is room for growth and newness, too,” said sex therapist Tara Galeano. “What’s more important is to adhere to the values we’ve gained.”
“Rituals bent but did not break during COVID-19,” wrote Imber-Black.
“When the shutdown finally becomes a memory and some of the newly invented rituals slip away, I predict that many will maintain as discoveries of our creativities, our capacities, and our requirement for the human connections rituals provide.”