Grieving for the life we had

Learning to let go of a pre-COVID world

Can I share a memory with you? It’s 2019, and I’m twenty-three. The air is bitingly cold as we laugh in a faceless group of strangers, on our way to a dreary bar in the catacombs beneath the train station. There’s someone’s hand on my waist, and a friend kisses me on the cheek as we sing out into the darkness and mutter about a new decade ahead. Human touch. Laughter. It seems so far away, so impossible, like a dream where we could fly.

I think, by now, we all know we’re never going to regain what we have lost. A few short weeks to flatten the curve became a few months to get ourselves comfortably into the summer, before that evolved into a few seasons to get ourselves vaccinated by Easter, before that too merged into a few years to get COVID-19 in hand. This is never going to be over. Scientists, with their impeccable tactlessness, have promised lockdowns, masks, restrictions and international travel bans for at least another decade. I’ll be 35 then. Maybe I’ll be a mother, telling my disbelieving daughters that I once travelled to Africa and America. That people left the country all the time, before this happened. I wonder if it will be easier then: the grief of what we lost.

I’ve thought a lot about what I will miss the most. I miss seeing strangers smiling at me, for no reason other reason at all than I existed in their path to school or work that day. I miss going out to a gallery or book launch and coming back with three new friends, people who didn’t fear how close I stood to them or whether I was disinfected. I miss conversations with strangers at bus stops and tube stations. I miss lying under the scorched birch trees in James’ Park after wandering through the faceless crowds of pushing, shoving Londoners in July. I miss the sound of an orchestra tuning up before a performance. I miss the crashing embrace of an old friend at Euston Station. I miss the sound of the airplane alert coming on as we lower over the slumbering fields of DC. I miss the faces of people I may never see again, thrown far from the threads of my life on the wrong sides of oceans. I miss the taste of birthday candles, the acrid smell of vodka in glasses from the night before, the slow smoke from a bonfire surrounded by excited children in early November. Sometimes, all I can do is lie there and weep in the knowledge I can’t ever have that back.

Some of us are angry at having lost two years of our lives, but many more are now waking up to the grim reality that this is life now. Lockdowns in the winter, masks in public, social distancing, no unnecessary travel or meetings. Holidays are likely to be limited to the national, if not regional. Theatres, cinemas and concerts are out, unless you enjoy being in a room of 15 audience members staring sadly and uncomfortably out between reams of blue tape separating them by rows of ten. I doubt any of the arts will survive another five years of this. Shopping will be extinct, save from the big supermarket stores and online retail. We’ll be wearing masks in public for the rest of our lives. Life, as we have known it for thousands of years, is over.

I’m not a pessimist on this matter: I think talk about health passports to have sex, get a job, marry, or share an apartment are unlikely. I certainly don’t think we will end up living our lives without joy, laughter or hope. We might not have weddings anymore, or parties, but we will still have our families, we will still fall in love. Human nature shows that an underground black market for sneaking out for a student date, or a cuddle with a newborn baby in the family, will happen in such numbers the police will have to turn something of a blind eye. If Orwell has held true in any regard, it is that humans need the outlet of physical touch and sex to function and obey a system of order. SAGE can’t be unaware of this. Whether it’s legal or not, humans will find a way to have interpersonal contact during six month lockdowns or seasonal restrictions. The novelty has long worn off and obedience is fracturing.

But in some ways, we will have to admit defeat. We must now wear masks in public spaces and indoors, and that’s unlikely to change with the new health morality hysteria, even after COVID-19 is a long forgotten affair. We must now socially distance and avoid touching or shaking hands. We must accept that we can’t travel internationally anymore, unless you can afford £500 in testing and a month off on either side of your trip to quarantine. I grieve for my freedoms and I grieve for the fact I didn’t do more when I had the chance: kiss more, hold people more, embrace more, meet up more, travel more, explore more and see more. The world has become a lot smaller, and a lot darker.

But there is hope in our grief: however dark and lonely this world has yet to become, we still have eachother. Whether that’s a voice down a wire, a splattering of pixels through an app or a smile at the end of a zoom call, we are loved. We are human. And through this, whether through riot, revolution, elections or adaption: we will persevere. After all, I’ve got 75 more years to wait through.

Anthropologist with an awful lot to say about everything. Opinions entirely my own. Usually.

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