The anniversary of the “lasts” will start to roll by during the second week of March. The last time I taught in person. The last time I sat in a room with teachers. The last meal at a restaurant with loved ones. I picture lights in the windows of a tall building, turning off one by one until the whole thing is dark. Mid-March will mark one year since COVID-19’s impacts cascaded in the United States, isolating most of us at home as the world seemed to shut down.
Trauma anniversaries mark the return of a date or season in which we endured trauma in the past. According to the National Center for PTSD, trauma anniversaries impact us because of the way that our memories store our traumatic stress. We can feel trauma anniversaries in our bodies even if we aren’t conscious of them in our minds. You may notice that you or your students have an increase in anxiety, or are flooded with memories of last spring. We can support ourselves and our students by acknowledging this anniversary and navigating it together.
Although the pandemic has been a collective trauma, we experience it individually. Some are navigating acute grief following the death of a loved one, or many loved ones. Some are struggling with isolation, depression, or anxiety. We may reflect on growth, opportunities, or new possibilities brought on by all the shifts of the past year. And all of these may be present at the same time, bringing internal friction as we hold contradictory thoughts and feelings.
We need to hold space for each individual to make their own meaning of the past year. The only wrong way to approach the anniversary of collective trauma is to ignore it.
Reflecting on the year
One way to honor a trauma anniversary is to slow down and step out of the everyday school rush to notice and reflect. In the classroom, this might look like journaling, creating a group timeline of the past year, or a discussion prompt in a community circle.
This reflection can be hard as we sit with uncomfortable feelings including grief, sadness, loss, and uncertainty. Resist slipping into toxic positivity or requiring students to come up with something they appreciated about the past year. There are some seasons of our lives with no silver linings. Rather than seeing your role as a fixer or even a helper, see yourself as a witness to your students’ experiences.
Slowing down may feel scary, because sometimes we cope with difficult emotions by staying busy. Be mindful that pausing to reflect may not be a welcome experience, and provide options for students so they can opt into reflection or not as they see fit. Don’t require students to publicly share their reflections, and make sure that all of your students know about resources available in your school or community for additional support.
Rituals and memorials
Rituals are one way to mark anniversaries and help students process and find meaning. Many cultures have specific rituals for recognizing loss, marking anniversaries, and transforming trauma. These might look like formal memorials, symbolic gestures like candle lighting, or creative expression like creating a community mural or other piece of art. Storytelling is also a powerful way to process trauma. Students might write, record, collect, or share stories from the past year – moments large and small, of pain or resistance or ordinary moments in a changed world.
Ask your students how they want to mark the passage of this past year. Continue to hold space for the many experiences of students and community members. Some students may want to not want to partake in public activities at school, and we must honor students’ agency in choosing to participate or not.
It’s also important to balance any special events or activities with maintaining routines. As students remember the upheaval and disruption of last March, it’s natural for them to worry about the same thing happening again – and indeed, many schools are currently undergoing cycles of disruption as they open and close for in-person learning. Continue with routines that help students feel safe and connected.
Recognizing is humanizing
When we intentionally acknowledge trauma anniversaries, we push back against a system that would prefer we just forget. Judith Herman wrote in the introduction to her classic text Trauma and Recovery: “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable. Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. … Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites for both ther restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.” With over two million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, untold millions are grieving the atrocity of the pandemic. Recognizing the collective trauma anniversary with our students is a way to stand in solidarity as we work together for a better future.