Over the past few months, as vaccines became more widespread in the U.S. and it became evident that, yes, my mom’s texts about Dr. Fauci saying that all adults would be eligible to be vaccinated by May were actually correct, I’ve been thinking more and more about re-entry. There are practical considerations (what will I wear?) and emotional ones (how will it feel to see the people who disappointed us over the past year?), but I’ve also found myself returning to a bigger, more intangible question: Before crossing the threshold of this very welcome future, is there some way to quietly pause and formally(ish) acknowledge… everything?
This isn’t about getting closure, because I’m not convinced that’s even possible, or worth pursuing. It’s also not about mourning the fact that such a dark and disastrous time is ending, or about checking a box so we can wipe the slate clean and pretend the past year never happened. It’s more that I’ve found that a small but intentional action can be a useful way to process ambiguous grief and loss so you can begin to move forward—not on, exactly, just forward—feeling a bit lighter.
“Rituals help things feel more important,” Ezra Bookman of Ritualist, a company that helps communities create rituals, told VICE. “They help us zoom in and see more clearly where we are, and what is happening, and also zoom out and feel connected to a wider sphere of meaning and purpose and connection.”
“In this particular moment, they're really important and necessary,” he continued. “Rituals can help us simultaneously grieve the past, which we really need to do; ground ourselves in this present moment, which is confusing; and set intentions for the future.” He said rituals also provide us with distinct cues that we’ve processed an event—because even though we won’t do all of our processing or changing during the ritual itself, it’s something concrete we can map future feelings onto, allowing us to easily mentally refer back to The Time I Dealt With This Thing.
“Letting go is never a one time action,” Bookman said. “It's a continual action through the course of your life. But it's also allowing yourself to walk without it for a little while. It's reminding yourself you don't have to hold it all the time.”
If you’ve been feeling compelled to do something (alone, or with some friends or a partner) to “officially” mark your entry into post-vaccinated life or feel a bit more right about everything, but can’t figure out exactly what that could look like, here are some things to keep in mind.
First, know that you have the right to create your own little ritual.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of folks have—reasonably! correctly!—been aware of others’ losses, and made a point to acknowledge their own privilege and luck. But that’s also made it difficult for those who didn’t experience the worst of the pandemic to acknowledge their sadness and loss. So if you’re feeling like, How could I, a person who [was able to work from home/didn’t get sick/didn’t get hospitalized/didn’t lose a loved one/etc.] dare name my pandemic losses or share my excitement about going back into the world?, know that it’s really OK for you to take a moment to formally feel your feelings.
“We're hurting ourselves double by experiencing that loss, and then feeling shame for feeling sad about it,” Bookman said. “We can't process grief if we don't acknowledge it first. It's completely fair and legitimate to both honor the loss and the human toll that this time has brought, and still make space for your own losses. I don’t think it has to be an either/or.”
Know that a ritual doesn’t have to be super serious or sad.
Bookman said that in the same way we don’t always see our grief as legitimate, we don’t always see our joy as important or worthy. “Especially in a moment when there has been so much loss and so much sadness,” he said, “we don't really want to admit that we made it—we did it, we got through it. I think that there's an opportunity for real celebration and joy in whatever way that you like to express that.” With that in mind, don’t feel like you have to plan something that feels very funereal or like going to church if that isn’t your vibe; your ritual could look more like a backyard bonfire, a dance party with friends, or getting a tattoo.
On the other hand, something like church can be a good jumping off point if you want it to be. “I tend to not recommend things based on specific religious or cultural tradition to avoid appropriation,” Bookman said. “But I would very much encourage people to look into their own spiritual and cultural traditions for rituals of re-entry, or re-integration, especially after a rite of passage. There's plenty out there. And connecting to that, even if you remix it in a certain way for this moment, can actually help you feel a part of something bigger than yourself.”
Some things to think about when creating a ritual:
A ritual can take a lot of forms, but Bookman said there are seven core elements you can use to help you create one, and to help make any action feel distinct and more intentional than your day-to-day life:
- Time: when the ritual happens. This might mean choosing morning vs. evening or a particular date, or it could be that you do this every year on the same day.
- Place: the location/environment. Taking the activity somewhere different or specific can make it feel more meaningful.
- Poetry: any elevated language, like songs, readings, quotes, etc.
- Body: how you engage your senses. So that might mean taking a bath, lighting incense, listening to music, or eating special food.
- Symbol: something that doesn’t serve any practical purpose, which helps make the ritual feel different from a routine. That could mean lighting candles, wearing a unique outfit, using fancy dishes, or incorporating some kind of art.
- Story: the framing, traditions, and personal histories for why a ritual is important to you.
- Meaning: the quality of the ritual that feels connected to something bigger and beyond yourself. So that might be community, your own moral system, nature, God, your ancestors, the universe, the future, etc.
That might still feel a bit vague, so here are some more specific ideas from Bookman you could try or use as a jumping off point.
- Create or assemble a tangible representation of this moment. Are there little mementos from the past year you can arrange together, or even collect in a shoebox so you don’t lose them? “If you’re the kind of person who wants to move on but doesn’t want to forget, make a little altar, put it in a corner somewhere, and just know that you've got your 2020 altar somewhere that you can come to when you want to be upset again,” Bookman said. You could also create a collage or paint or draw something that feels symbolic or representative of this moment. “That process alone can be healing,” he said.
- Replace something. Bookman said that visual cues are really helpful for processing a change. This could look like rearranging your space, getting rid of the pandemic-specific things you no longer need, or buying items you’ll need going forward. So maybe you paint your room a new color because you’re so goddamn sick of your own four walls at this point, or buy a set of new (or thrifted/vintage) glasses so you can host friends for drinks. If you’re doing a big deep clean before you have your first post-vax guests over, maybe you simply pause before you begin your chores to think about why you’re doing this and what about your home you felt grateful for during the pandemic.
- Think about clothing and accessories. Bookman said that clothing is often associated with rituals (e.g, graduation robes, wedding attire), and being presented with a new piece of clothing is often integral to rites of passage. To make the experience feel a little more elevated than your everyday pandemic panic-buy, revisit the seven elements and let that influence your approach. So you might buy a new pair of jeans (symbolic), pick them out in person vs. buying online (place), go shopping with your mom and grandma (community), wait until your first reunion with friends to start wearing them (time), and/or put them on for the first time after you take a long bath, shave your beard, or get a manicure (body).
- Tap into nature. “You can bury grief in the earth, you can let it flow in water and watch it run off,” Bookman said. “You can transform grief through fire, and you can let it fly away in the wind.” Depending on what you are drawn to and what you have access to, this can be a way to symbolically let go of some of the sadness of the past year.
- Create a “litany of losses.” Bookman said this can be a really powerful way to mark this transition. It could be as simple as gathering around a table and giving everyone five minutes to talk, uninterrupted, about the losses from the last year, without interruption or judgment. If you’re doing this alone, you could just write everything in a Google Doc or a journal, and, if you’re feeling brave, read through the list out loud to yourself.
- Try to connect with others, if you can. “I really believe in gathering a circle of friends and sharing with them and talking about it,” Bookman said. “Just to be listened to and heard without anyone trying to fix it, or change it, or help you, could be incredibly transformative in this moment because we are so isolated, and because I think a lot of us have suffered these losses in silence. A collective ritual in these moments is like a medicine to that pain of silent suffering.”
Beyond this, organizer Adam Horowitz has a big list of ideas and prompts in “The One-Year Mark,” and Bookman and Jillian Richardson of The Joy List have put together a downloadable worksheet to help people create rituals for this moment.
Also remember that your ritual can be done over the course of a few weeks versus a single day, and doesn’t have to focus on just one emotion. Instead, think about ways to make space for loss, gratitude, letting go, and joy/celebration—because this is a moment that contains all of that.
Beyond this, Bookman suggested asking yourself three questions as you think through what your ritual might look like:
- Why am I doing this? (Do you want to honor loss? Celebrate life? Express gratitude for the people who really showed up for you this year?)
- Why am I doing this? (What specific activities feel meaningful to you?)
- Why am I doing this? (What about you, personally, and your values and history, makes certain things feel more authentic than others?)
Lean into what feels comfortable.
Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, anchor your ritual to something that feels familiar. This is especially important if you feel silly or self-conscious about the idea of, say, reading poetry aloud in the woods. Bookman said if what feels comfortable to you is “having a conversation over a glass of wine about the things that matter to you, then go with that.”
“I think that at this stage, any amount of processing, any amount of acknowledging this grief, is going to do the world and yourself better,” he said.
Tap into gratitude.
Letting yourself feel true, deep gratitude requires a willingness to be vulnerable in a way that can be, frankly, kind of uncomfortable. Like, how do we make sense of the fact that we’re still here when others are not? How do we properly acknowledge—not in a rote way, but in, like, a full-body-and-soul way—the people who risked their own lives to keep us safe, and those who weren’t as lucky as we were? It’s really overwhelming to think about, but setting aside a specific time and making a plan for processing some of this gratitude—so you’re not, IDK, suddenly sobbing in the CVS or in the middle of your work day, just spitballing here!!!—is a good place to start. This might look like making a mega list of all of the people and things you’re grateful for from the past year, and/or gathering with a couple close friends to share your lists. You could also write cards or emails to specific people to thank them, or start organizing and protesting alongside them. You might also make a point to make real space for others grief—right now, and as the world starts to move on.
“Even though we're crossing, there are others that aren't coming with us,” Bookman said. “And we can't fully step into our joy and our celebration for our personal success without acknowledging and being grateful for all the people who got us here—all of the hands and hearts that worked to feed us, clothe us, keep us safe, support us, so that we were able to make it to this moment. There's an immense debt of gratitude that I think is vital to be acknowledged.”
“We've never treated essential workers as essential,” he continued. “And I think gratitude could be one of the many internal things that we can be attentive to as a way of hopefully doing the outer work—which is not only in our personal treatment of these workers, but also in our calls for action for their protection. I think it starts from an awareness of their significance and their importance and the fact that we are alive today because of them. It's not just like, ‘I'm grateful you did your job.’ Like, I'm grateful that you saved my life.”
“Gratitude is transformative,” Bookman said. “And I think if there's one thing that we can put in our pocket and carry with us, it would be that.”
Rachel Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.