Our Bodies Remember: Reflecting on a Year of Covid and Other Difficult Anniversaries

Photo by Debby Hudson via Unsplash

In the Maine suburb where I live, the hours of sunlight are stretching. The light crust of snow from winter is melting. Each day, when I check the local online newspaper, the percentage of people who’ve received Covid-19 vaccinations nudges up. If I squint my eyes, I can see a hazy, lingering future that looks more like our collective, pre-Covid normal. I can envision mask-less trips to the grocery store, driving my kids to sports practice and coffee with friends. A future, with any luck, in which my kids attend in-person school five days a week.

This lurch towards spring, towards a post-Covid existence, offers reasons to be optimistic. And yet all week, I’ve felt off — unsteady, listless, unable to focus.

Then, I remembered that last year at this time, the reality of Covid-19 was descending. My family had just returned from a February vacation in California; we’d taken our kids to Disneyland, ridden Pirates of the Caribbean and Splash Mountain with hordes of strangers, then flown across the country — I remember spotting a single family who donned masks amidst the multiple airports we wandered — returning home.

From there, it was a stuttering slide into the world we now occupy — the email that my kids’ school would be closed for two weeks, then four, then for the remainder of the school year. The awareness that the exhales of strangers or friends could be deadly. The integration of phrases like “respiratory droplets” and “endemic” into our collective vocabulary.

I’m no stranger to the topic of difficult anniversaries. When I was 24, my younger brother and only sibling died from drugs and alcohol. The days leading up to the first anniversary of his death were torturous. I felt as if I’d stumbled through a portal, hurtled back in time a year, but armed with the knowledge that each day, we marched closer to my brother’s death, unable to stop it from happening. My mind was haunted with upsetting images, my body tense, as if bracing itself for what was to come.

Anniversaries, whether of happy or sad occasions, are times of reflection and remembrance. So when the anniversary is a difficult one — like the death of a loved one or the approximate week in which we became aware that a global pandemic was altering our lives in ways we couldn’t have imagined at the time — it makes sense that difficult emotions would arise. That we might feel unsteady, drifting somewhere in the space between what our lives used to be like and what they may be like in the future.

Even when our minds don’t consciously remember that we’re approaching a difficult anniversary, it’s been my experience that our bodies remember acutely. That whatever synapses absorb the particular tilt of the sun at a given time of year, or the subtle smell of thawing soil, also recall the traumas we’ve experienced.

My brother died on March 20th, the spring equinox, just a few days after St. Patrick’s Day. When he died, we were both trying to launch our young adult lives, him in Seattle, me in Maine. It was only when I read his autopsy report that I discovered he’d dyed his hair green for the holiday. Now, decades later, these markers — St. Patrick’s Day, spring, green hair — all are etched on me, terms that tug me back to my brother’s death, if only for a few moments, a jolt that’s softened with time.

This is how our minds work — knitting together associations and connections, whether we’re aware of the web of it, or whether it’s happening in a deeper, more subterranean manner.

Some scientists hypothesize that there’s a purpose for re-experiencing trauma during difficult anniversaries. Traumatic memories, they pose, are actually encoded with important information related to danger, and by vividly remembering them, those memories could help protect us. Of course, in the case of an anniversary of death or a global pandemic, hyper-vigilance isn’t useful, just uncomfortable.

It feels impossible that my family squeezed in a trip to Disney last February, in the same way it’s hard to believe that we’ve been living with a pandemic for almost a year. It’s equally hard to believe that my brother has now been gone for longer than he was alive. Trauma and grief distort time: they stretch some portions of our memories, elongating them and making them sticky, while in other ways time seems compressed, a breathless whirlwind.

There are no special hacks I’ve discovered to make difficult anniversaries less painful or to avoid being triggered by them. But acknowledging them, marking them in some way, seems to help. So in the stretch of days ahead, as I remember both the slow uncoiling of the pandemic, and the sudden, jagged loss of my brother, I’ll expect less of myself than usual. I’ll accept that I’ll likely be more introspective, more prone to wade into the past, contemplating fragments of images ranging from Disneyland to shamrocks. And I’ll affirm what the cells of my body, humming with the past, already know: Yes, this was a hard time. Yes, I remember.

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