Spring 2020 is likely one of those spots in your personal history that radiates a sharply disturbing if not loopy undertone. At least it was in my case. In a journal entry on March 12, I described the last day of in-person classes in high school. That semester, I took two English classes, so I remember my teachers handing out all the books we’d be reading for the rest of the year in case things turned south. It was mildly amusing to cram “I Was Told There’d Be Cake” and a collection of stories by David Sedaris into my backpack with Ben Hecht and Phillip Lopate.
“The ubiquity of the coronavirus is growing exponentially,” I said, stuffing away, “alongside the hysteria.”
Some hours later, I showed up to a class called “Senior Seminar,” a relatively new offering from the counseling department. It was a mash-up of a health class and a set of practical lessons on what the college transition was supposed to be. It was also a laid-back class, a nice buffer in my Thursday. But instead of proceeding with the lesson as usual, we ended up in a lengthy conversation about this novel virus that was all over the news. We cracked nervous jokes about rising cases in Italy and crowded other students, pretending to be infectious. During the lunch break, I chatted with some classmates about the “disaster” of our calculus exam two days earlier. That was our last exam for the rest of high school. I’m embarrassed to report that we never finished learning how to integrate by parts.
Either then or the day before at around the same time, when I must have been distracted, a friend of mine stole my lunch and brought it to my English teacher’s classroom. That was our usual spot for weekly poetry meetings. So, I ended up joining her that week after finally locating my Cuban sandwich. In honor of the welling specter of COVID-19, the writing prompt was on universal fears. I sat down and penned this piece called “3 a.m.”:
Falling into slumber, sinking into a deep sleep, like dipping my foot into a bathtub, toe by toe, I descend. I descend. In that bed, my body lies untouched by the world around it, so where am I if not perceiving? If not living? When do I go, how do I go, where do I go when I float between life and death for hours on end? My chest puffs and then sinks as my diaphragm contracts. The fade hypnotically fades. I must be in there somewhere! I must! Somehow the sun cracks through my blackout shades again I awake from a close encounter with death. Who was that who breathed for me? Who tossed and turned for me?
“Nice,” the sandwich thief said, after I had read it aloud to her. “Dank, but nice.”
In the evening, I was again at a table in the hallway, this time beginning some homework. My history teacher emerged from his classroom with a corduroy jacket and a laptop bag slung over his shoulder. “Congratulations on your graduation, and enjoy college, and have a nice life,” he fired out in rapid succession, strutting to the door just as fast.
I never saw him again.
As it goes, I received an administrative email less than an hour later, confirming that the school would be transitioning to an online format (Sound familiar?). While dressing in the locker room for baseball practice, one of my teammates first noticed the announcement on his phone. “It’s corona-time!” he shrieked victoriously. We’d have a two-week period of no school, allowing teachers to adjust their materials, and then we’d learn from our laptops until May 1, the day we were slated to return. I remember the levity of that room as we jumped around with glee. Baseball practice was full of beaming smiles. What’s there not to love?
One tiny concession after another came until our way of life was no longer recognizable. In the manner that the virus itself eventually would, reality transmuted from a hilariously minor disruption for the absurdity of senior year to an apocalyptic nightmare that spared no one.
Two weeks later, my “Senior Seminar” classmates and I were on Google Meet, and our teacher decided to contextualize the worldwide reactions to the pandemic in the framework of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. “Which stage of grief are you experiencing right now?” he said. “You can put it in the chat.”
“Anger,” I typed. Send.
Perhaps if my teacher had gone through the original writings of the Swiss American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who first put forth this theory of the stages, he would have understood that those stages initially applied to the process by which someone dies, not grieves. As a matter of fact, Kübler-Ross herself spent the last years of her life trying to convince the public that her ideas had been grossly misinterpreted.
In her 2005 collaboration “On Grief and Grieving” with thanatologist David Kessler, she acknowledged the effects that her first seminal work, “On Death and Dying,” had on the concept of loss and allowed it to be applied to grief (perhaps begrudgingly): “The five stages are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost.” Then she also said, “They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling. But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief.”
The allure of a framework of grief that shoves away messy feelings and tidies up the pain of loss to a definite ending is an alluring idea, for it taps into one of America’s most cherished myths: that everything can be fixed with a cardinal set of rules or more hard work. Another tendency is to frame grief or loss strictly in the context of human relationships and death, but worse yet, the psychological grips of loss can ascend to far more abstract realms as well. Consider a fresh obituary for any of the following:
- Time with hospitalized or dying loved ones
- Ways of life that once offered fulfillment and satisfaction
- Certainty about the safety and health of oneself and loved ones
- Freedom for parents to go to the office or partake in leisure while their children are under the supervision of teachers or other adults
- Traditional events to celebrate births, graduations and marriages
- Traditional events to mourn deaths
- Daily routines
- In-person learning
- Saying goodbye to friends from school
- Meeting potential lifelong friends by chance interaction
- “Unmasked” facial expressions
- Concerts, lectures, sporting events and other large gatherings
- Control over the amount of time spent with one’s family
- Trust in the world as a fair and just place
- Trust in leaders and authorities
- Trust in friends and family
- Freedom to travel
These are known as ambiguous losses. Better-documented examples across history may include cases of service members missing in action, the potentially unknown identity of an adopted child’s birth parents and intergenerational trauma. Such losses are immensely important at the minimum to acknowledge, and I presently believe that they need more airtime.
The term “ambiguous loss” was first coined decades ago by psychologist Pauline Boss, also a Swiss American. Just recently, the topic resurfaced in a New York Times Magazine article, partially in an effort to reframe the narrative of this pandemic as something more helpful. At one point, Times author Meg Bernhard mentions 2016, the year when Boss was featured in Peabody Award-winning broadcaster Krista Tippett’s podcast “On Being.”
Tippett has what my friends call a “good NPR voice.” It’s gentle, melodic and stimulating. It’s the kind of voice whose great ease we could all use nowadays — the one that says, “Keep on breathing.” In that episode’s interview, Boss responds to one of her ostensibly soothing, deceptively worrisome questions about the theory of ambiguous loss by saying, “We’re not comfortable with unanswered questions. These are losses that are minus facts.”
She can say that again. Ambiguous losses are unanswered questions, and we’ve all experienced many different ones at an intensity and scale that we will not soon forget. There is no vaccine for the emotional damage we’ve sustained or inflicted. There is no antidote to lost trust — institutional or interpersonal — other than, perchance, time and a willingness to forgive.
I’m now stung by a memory halfway through the composition of this piece. On Jan. 9, 2021, the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol was fresh on our minds, and then Stanford canceled winter reopening plans two days before the quarter would begin. But it didn’t happen like that. It was a slow burn. That morning, my mother had been touting the prospect of arriving on campus at last. I told her that 43 cases of COVID-19 had been reported before the main move-in had begun. “It’ll still be fine,” she said. Then I walked to LensCrafters and asked to have my lenses restocked before I was to head out of town. It’s absurd, in retrospect, because I don’t even wear glasses. Nevertheless, I said, “I’ll need ’em for the big lecture halls.” With online learning, no one was going to be in a lecture hall anytime soon, but I needed to say something.
On the way back home, my mom started texting me photos of different suitcases that she was going to buy for me. As a matter of fact, the plane tickets had already been purchased, so maybe this really was the final countdown.
Then it wasn’t. I remember pulling up the email from the University titled “Change in our winter undergraduate plan” and smiling. Way to bury the lede. But I didn’t even need to read the bloody message to know. I sat at the dining room table for an hour or so, motionless, until my father found me there. “Your countenance is more reassuring than last time,” he said. I wasn’t smiling because I was pleased, however. I was smiling because disappointment is what a raging fantasist like me gets for misplacing so much hope. Of course, hope and expectation are not equal, and neither are disappointment and dissatisfaction, but who’s keeping score?
Besides, I also had a comforting thought. I was hoping to squeeze in some time to go ice skating with two dear friends from high school. Now, I supposed, I could go with them anytime, as we were all stuck now.
My “Senior Seminar” teacher often brought up Albert Camus — the famed journalist and philosopher who took home the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957. Widely known for his nihilism-infused essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” (1942) and absurdist novella “The Stranger” (1942), Camus would possibly liken moments of this pandemic to moments of “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). As Atlantic writer Megan Garber put it last month, this film is a tale of “wayward grief” that explores another cherished American myth: that individual sacrifices will be rewarded, appreciated or even just noticed.
George Bailey, the protagonist of the film, is faced with a wind tunnel of challenging circumstances that effectively causes him to give up his dreams over and over again in service of those who count on him. Growing up, he becomes deaf in one ear after saving his younger brother Harry from drowning in a freezing pond. Minutes before leaving for college — his taxi literally awaits outside — he learns that his father has had a stroke and someone needs to look after the family business, a bank in which he has no interest. George does what’s expected of him. Then, when he attempts to go on a honeymoon with his beautiful wife Mary, a crowd of clients appears outside the office, demanding to withdraw their money immediately. Again, his plans to escape his hometown are thwarted.
So, George settles on a compromise. His brother will attend college, and when he comes back, they’ll swap places, businessman for student. Later on, though, George inevitably learns that Harry has taken another job out of town and will not stay true to the agreement. While processing the news, he forces himself to smile.
But he can’t contain his ballooning frustrated desire forever. Something has to give, and in a later scene, George suddenly has his hands on Mary, fiercely clutching her arms. He’s shaking her and shaking her until she’s in tears.
“I want to do what I want to do!” George exclaims. He then kisses Mary anyway.
As much as I’m sure George would like to approach each next step in life with a blank slate, he has learned helplessness. It’s impossible to neatly square away the ways in which the world has let him down and worn him down to his knees. He knows that he is King Sisyphus; of course the goalposts get moved every time he reaches them.
His grief goes from being anticipatory to wayward. It goes from frozen to cumulative. By the end, some would say that his grief is also disenfranchised; in a post-Depression, postwar America, this country “was earnestly animated by notions of sacrifice and the common good,” according to Garber. Personal sacrifice, she suggests, was almost considered normal then, not necessarily heroic (or tragic) as it may be presented now. Yet therein lies the striking resemblance of that film to the present day: George’s fury becomes as seething as it is impotent.