Loss, Grief, and the Humanities in the Time of Pandemic

The COVID-19 virus and the social distancing response have led to extraordinary disruptions in shared public life: closed schools, shuttered businesses, mass unemployment, and overwhelmed hospitals. Lost lives and shattered dreams abound. Among the sorrows are losses or changes of ritual: canceled graduations, weddings, and book launches; Passover Seders and Easter services conducted remotely over the internet.

During this time of grief and loss, many are turning to the arts for support. Music, fiction, poetry, photography, and even virtual museum tours show us expressions of fear, loneliness, sorrow, and hope. But the COVID-19 crisis is also a place for the humanities. Where the arts provide individual expression and connection, the humanities help us make meaning and find understanding on a collective level.

Recently, English professor Dan Chiasson described how the coronavirus “ruptured the narrative of campus life” this pandemic spring, noting that in a normal academic year, “if spring means the end of something—as it does for college students, and especially for seniors—the losses are more painful, but somehow the orderly ceremonies of the term can compensate.”1 But there are no orderly ceremonies this year. Students are home, finishing classes online. The rhythms of life at school are broken. Graduation is postponed or canceled. There will be no formal goodbyes. No commencement, no ceremonial end-that-marks-a-beginning.

Anthropologists note that rituals like convocation and commencement give shape and meaning—that is, narrative—to the otherwise ceaseless flow of events in our lives. As Arnold van Genepp and Victor Turner observed, rituals create a liminal space, a threshold between past and future. In the ritual, you are no longer who you were before, and not yet who you will become. All kinds of things can happen in this special time of flux.2 Rituals are usually handled by ritual specialists—priests, pastors, provosts—who can guide you through to the other side. But in the time of COVID-19, we seem to have no guides, no certainty, no known future.

This disarray, this frantic turning in search of rationality, is one of the symptoms of trauma. The sudden upheaval which people across the planet are experiencing feels new and unprecedented. But in fact, we know that other generations before us have had their plagues, their wars, their holocausts. Perhaps it is here, in our history and memory, in the wide embrace of the human experience, that the humanities can help us regain our purchase and perspective.

We can recall and anticipate that there are other ceremonies yet to come: homecomings, reunions, memorial services. These rituals remind us of our connections and make us resilient because of them. We can share our grief. The humanities demonstrate we are never alone in our experience, but are always caught up in recurring and collective cycles of life, death, and suffering.3

The humanities are shared. They connect us outwardly, toward others; backward, through time, to other experiences; and forward, to the future experiences of generations to come. That sense of humility and linkage is the root of empathy. As we collectively grieve, the human experience can be our guide through loss towards understanding and acceptance.

  1. Chiasson, Dan. “Coronavirus and the Ruptured Narrative of Campus Life.” The New Yorker, March 12, 2020.
  2. Turner, Victor. “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage.” In The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual, 1967; and Arnold van Genepp, The Rites of Passage, 1909. Thanks to anthropologist Nora Haenn for inspiring this connection to the Coronavirus spring.
  3. Thanks to historian Ari Kelman for his insight that the humanities are a source of resilience.

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