OPINION: COVID-19′s other unnamed victim — ceremony

Emory graduate candidates for the class of 2020 (from left) Katie Matuska, Liz Olinde and Izzy Saridakis spray Champagne as they celebrate at Emory's Haygood-Hopkins Gate in Decatur on Saturday, April 25, 2020. They were all roommates and wanted to celebrate their graduation together since they may only have a virtual graduation ceremony this year. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Emory graduate candidates for the class of 2020 (from left) Katie Matuska, Liz Olinde and Izzy Saridakis spray Champagne as they celebrate at Emory's Haygood-Hopkins Gate in Decatur on Saturday, April 25, 2020. They were all roommates and wanted to celebrate their graduation together since they may only have a virtual graduation ceremony this year. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

It’s probably safe to say that of all the losses suffered in the months since the coronavirus pandemic hit, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, has been the loss of ceremony.

I know you’ve felt it, too.

Social distancing has meant that traditional celebrations like proms, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, and funerals have all had to be done in isolation — if at all.

It’s been worse than heartbreaking.

I felt it months ago when the Rev. Herman Cain passed. I felt it when my niece Yanna had to forgo her senior prom. And I felt it more recently when Texas friends Percy and Melanie Rogers died within days of each other.

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Death upon death followed by heartbreak upon heartbreak.

Until now, I hadn’t given much thought to how important such rituals are to the circle of life. They were just things we did. To mark time. Because we enjoyed them. Because we could.

Deborah J. Cohan, an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, put it this way.

“Rituals and ceremonies are grounding, reassuring, and they are something to count on,” she said. “They invite us to slow down and relish in the moment. They anchor us, and they often feel trustworthy when everything around us feels chaotic.”

Deborah J. Cohan is an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort and author of “Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption.”  (Courtesy of Deborah J. Cohan)
Deborah J. Cohan is an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort and author of “Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving, and Redemption.” (Courtesy of Deborah J. Cohan)

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

I realize now how much we need them to comfort us, to be able to express our shared values, show our love and support, to build and nurture community.

And maybe that’s the whole point or rather the lesson of COVID-19. Tomorrow isn’t promised to any of us, so nothing should be taken for granted. Not life, not limb and certainly not our loved ones.

For me, I think the most difficult part of all this is realizing that much of the loss we’ve felt the past eight or so months is the result of our own selfishness.

If we just could’ve put aside our need to exercise our freedoms, how different might things have turned out, how many loved ones might have been saved, how many jobs might have been rescued, how much pain might have been avoided?

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Back in March, when we shut down, I looked forward to returning to my routine. When we first left the office, it was to be for only a few months. Same with worship services at my beloved Antioch Baptist Church North.

That didn’t happen. Too many of us refused to wear masks, to practice social distancing. Any progress we made to slow the spread of the virus was quickly reversed. Georgia became a red zone once more.

Believing God was still in control, I looked for hope wherever I could find it — in the virtual team meetings with colleagues, in Zoom birthday parties and virtual church. Jimmy and I, our daughters and extended family had managed to remain healthy.

In just a few short weeks, 2020 will turn into 2021 and now all I can think of is what that might look like. How will it feel? Will it bring with it the same excitement a new start always brings? Or will I just feel dread, the kind you feel when you know something, someone is suddenly missing from your life?

I know already church will be both exhilarating and grief-stricken. It will be thrilling because I will be reunited with so many I love. Eva Manning and her daughter LaWanda. Fellow sopranos Vivian Edwards and Bennie McDonald and Bettye Jo Cooke. And many others. It’ll also be hard because Herman Cain won’t be there. Ms. Rosa Jean Tomlinson won’t, nor will dozens of others.

COVID didn’t claim all of them, but it sure feels like it.

As I said, death upon death. Heartbreak upon heartbreak.

You’ve felt it, too.

The only thing worse than the heartbreak has been the partisan bickering.

Even as COVID-19 continues to claim more of us, there are those who still refuse not only to believe the virus is real, they refuse to wear a mask to protect themselves.

Here’s the sad part. Until they do, until we are able to at least agree that we’re in this together, life as we knew it will likely remain a thing of the past.

So too will the rituals and ceremonies that make it worthwhile.

Cohan told me ceremonies help us mark time and the passage of time.

“One reason that time has felt elusive to people during this pandemic is likely because of the lack of these events that celebrate and honor life and give it meaning and memory,” she said. “We often have pictures and memories created from ceremonies and these further serve to commemorate experiences.”

I don’t have nearly as many pictures from 2020 as I’ve had from past years.

It is my hope that next year will be different.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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