As we move through the anniversary of the pandemic lock-down, I know many families are dealing with trauma, grief and lingering feelings of disappointment. It continues to be a fraught time, and much will be said and written about processing this anniversary and finding the grit to move forward. By now, I hope we’ve all stopped using the phrase, “when things get back to normal.” “Normal” is a relative term, and it’s unclear to me when or if we will ever fully return to the way things were prior to the pandemic. If we are being honest with ourselves, perhaps there are things about our pre-pandemic lives that we’d prefer to leave in the past: the over-programmed kids, the hectic family schedules, the competitive enrichment and manic busy-ness of our lives. The optimistic viewpoint (the one I try to take) suggests that some good has emerged from this deeply bizarre time: deeper connection and conversation, family dinners re-discovered, a renewed appreciation for our blessings. These things feel too important to discard once we return to life as it used to be. For me, one of the most important “silver linings” (another overused phrase) is the realization that kindness, compassion, empathy and concern for our neighbor are fundamental values, ones that perhaps we had lost sight of, but have been reawakened during this time. We have a responsibility to look out for each other and to help those who are most vulnerable. We should express appreciation to those who put themselves in harm’s way to help us. We need and belong to each other. As we reflect on this year, I hope we can agree that living with purpose and kindness has given us the strength to persevere.
To that end, as we begin to take stock of all that we’ve lost this year (and yes, we’ve lost so much), I’d like to propose a list of what we’ve gained. If it helps to ease even a bit of suffering, here are some of the realizations that we’ve made, and the things I believe we must take with us as we move forward together.
Our isolated, home-bound, ill and elderly neighbors deserve to be seen, and they need us. Loneliness was already a major mental health issue prior to the pandemic. As we quickly learned how the virus impacted the elderly and those with underlying health conditions, those individuals stayed at home, totally isolated from family and friends. Many also struggled to safely obtain groceries and other needed items, as fear of the contagious virus took hold. Over and over again, in communities across the country, generous neighbors, friends and strangers stepped up to offer a helping hand to these people. Even after the fear and risk of transmission has subsided, we should all remember that there are people in our communities who need help to successfully navigate some of the basic activities of daily living. Extending ourselves to our neighbors, offering to do a grocery run, shovel snow, bring in garbage cans, pick up mail - all of the small things that are so easy for some of us and so hard for others - should continue. These are easy ways to engage children in service and acts of kindness toward their neighbors.
Front-line workers and first-responders use their skills and talents to serve and care for strangers, often putting themselves in harm’s way to protect others, and they deserve our respect and gratitude. Not just during a crisis, but always. Families placed rainbows and signs of gratitude on front lawns and in apartment windows. People baked cookies and ordered pizzas, delivering food and comfort to exhausted Emergency Department staff members. Baskets filled with snacks and water bottles were left by the front door to thank delivery drivers who were working overtime to bring needed supplies and groceries. In New York City, every night for many months at exactly 7 pm, people stood on the street, opened their windows, stopped their cars and clapped, honked and shouted in a show of solidarity and appreciation for the sacrifices being made by our healthcare workers. Let’s hold onto this sense of wonder, gratitude and respect. Let’s remember that the pandemic didn’t create these heroes - they were here all along - and once this chapter is behind us, they’ll keep doing the important work of caring for us and keeping us safe.
We don’t need to be physically in the same space to stay connected. As the pandemic barreled toward us, we were told to quarantine with only immediate family. Suddenly, from one day to the next, we were forced to cut off physical contact with friends and relations, and we needed to find new ways to stay connected. Enter the family Zoom call, the prevalence of Facetime, the surge of TikTok creation. Technology provided a lifeline - a way to see the faces of our loved ones, to look into their eyes, to laugh and cry together. Grandparents could see the grandchildren they missed, watch first steps and first smiles. While these screen-based reunions were not nearly as good as touching, hugging and sitting together, they were certainly better than nothing at all. Ironically, many families connected more frequently during this time than they might have under “normal” circumstances. This time provided a good reminder that a phone call or zoom session is easy to do, and can always brighten someone’s day. Similarly, many direct volunteer opportunities (like visiting with the elderly, for example) successfully transitioned to a phone or zoom environment. Many friendships flourished because these conversations were so organic, with volunteers simply reaching out to check in, to listen and to talk. In our previously hectic, fast-paced lives, we rarely took the time to sit and call, to FaceTime, to really listen. We have a renewed understanding of the power of our voices and a few kind words. I hope we don’t get so busy again that we forget that.
Even if we can’t volunteer in our community, there are still SO many things we can do to support our local nonprofits, to help people in need and to spread love and joy to others. While most direct volunteering opportunities (especially for families with young children) were canceled and continue to remain on hold in many places, families with a desire to give back found countless ways to do so through “kitchen table kindness” activities. Families used their creativity to make cards for first responders and isolated seniors, they created colorful rainbows for display in front windows, they used sidewalk chalk to write hopeful phrases on driveways and street corners, they painted “kindness rocks” with cheerful messages and scattered them around neighborhoods for others to find. When masks were in short supply, hundreds of people began sewing cloth masks and donating them. Even in the midst of their own financial hardship, people shared what they could with those who were struggling. Fundraisers abounded, providing critical funds for people who suddenly found themselves out of work and in despair. Mutual Aid organizations, like Pandemic of Love, emerged as lifelines, matching people with immediate needs to volunteers with the ability to provide funds and much-needed assistance. Many followed the advice of the late Arthur Ashe: use what you have, do what you can.
And so it has been throughout history, that simple grassroots efforts like these have proven to be the most meaningful. This simple concept - neighbor helping neighbor, one person at a time - has made a huge difference in our ability to make it through this brutal, heartbreaking year. Let’s hope that these lessons, the “silver linings” of kindness and service, will remain in our hearts and continue to impact our communities even after the pandemic recedes (mercifully) into the past.