Grieving Our Plans

During the first few days of the COVID-19 crisis, I shook my head a lot: This isn’t so bad, people are overreacting. They can’t just start canceling things. I have plans. Obviously I was in denial, the first stage of grief, and it was my plans that I was mourning.

My plans for the next several months most certainly included my children being at school – one in middle school and two safely tucked away at college. I was going to do big things with the free time their absence brought, and then we were all going to be together for Easter. In April, I was supposed to receive an award in Los Angeles. This was a big deal because, according to my trophy shelf, I receive an award approximately every 50 years. Now I’ll have to wait until I’m 100, and I’m sure the dress I bought won’t still fit. On Mother’s Day, I planned to watch my son graduate from college. Then Confirmation and middle school graduation. In July, I was going to watch my great-niece eat birthday cake.

The more I commiserate with friends and search my own heart, I think we are all grieving our plans. Those of us who are healthy are gratefully staying at home to keep it that way, but we are still grappling with this chunk of time ripped from our calendars. Someone’s son trained an entire year for a baseball season that’s never going to happen. Someone’s dad is turning 80. Zillions of kids studied for a cancelled SAT. We were about to win the basketball state finals. Weddings, engagement parties and reunions have been postponed. March Madness, gone. These things are small losses in the face of a global pandemic, but I find that it’s been hard to let them go. But what about prom?

The threat of my children coming home from college spurred me from denial to the second stage of grief, anger. When I saw that Princeton had closed down it’s campus, I felt a rage build in me, which is odd since I don’t have children at that particular school. Stupid Princeton. They were obviously overacting and spreading fear across the country. Now, I was sure my kids’ school would feel pressure to close. New Jersey’s the worst.

When the news came that indeed my kids’ college was going to online classes, I went into full on bargaining mode. The email expressly stated that all students were to vacate campus. Not on my watch. I started texting other parents, “but they can take online classes from their dorm rooms, right? I mean they don’t have to leave, right?” I sold my kids to that school for big bucks, they can’t just return them. Bargaining, it turns out, carries with it a whiff of denial.

Then I blinked and everyone was home, all of us holed up in my house eating a dozen eggs a day. It didn’t matter that these are my favorite people in the world, it felt wrong having them home. I felt profoundly disappointed about all they were missing, because they’d had plans too. A huge luau party, a computer science project, a screenplay class. They are both in such an exciting time of life, a freshman and a senior, literally both about to take off. These bright lights sitting on my couch asking where the NBA went sent me into phase four: depression.

I guess there’s a reason acceptance is the last stage. It really takes a lot out of you. It requires you to break every habit your mind has. They can’t cancel graduation. I have dinner reservations and a plane ticket. It takes extraordinary effort to release your illusion of control and admit that the answer is yes they can, and yes we must.

Acceptance is different than resignation, and real acceptance can shift your vision. I find that acceptance has helped me move into the new normal with a bit of peace. The grim reality that all of my plans are cancelled and my kids are home has been replaced with the pure bliss of having all my plans cancelled and my kids home. We are forced to be present, because things are changing so quickly that we cannot make plans more than 24 hours out. So we do puzzles, we negotiate the next meal. These are our new plans.