Coronavirus is causing people to miss once-in-a-lifetime moments

These moments are impossible to replace.
These moments are impossible to replace.
Image: REUTERS/China Daily
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The first thing to know about Tanvi Misra’s wedding celebration is that she didn’t think she wanted one in the first place.

Misra, a reporter at Congressional Quarterly in Washington, DC, legally married her husband Daniel two years ago, at the bar where they first met. Self-confessed critics of what Misra calls “the wedding-industrial complex,” the couple nevertheless wanted to give their families a chance to celebrate with them, so they planned a celebration on March 21 and 22 with about 100 guests in Bikaner, a town in the Indian state of Rajasthan. True to form, this wasn’t a traditional wedding. Friends would officiate, and perform at the sangeet, a dance ceremony, to the tune of Korean boy band BTS. As Misra describes it, “it was not so much a wedding as it was a celebration of all the people who have made us us.”

But then, Covid-19, as the disease caused by coronavirus is known, began to spread. Misra told elderly relatives not to travel, but most of the younger guests still wanted to come. Then, the outbreak turned into a pandemic, and India stopped issuing visas to foreigners. The wedding was canceled. “The thing that bothered me about it the most,” she said, “was that my mom was crestfallen.”

This public health crisis is disrupting millions of once-in-a-lifetime events like Misra’s wedding around the world. From college graduations to bar mitzvahs and even funerals, the loss of human experience is unfathomable, and raises deep psychological questions. How will the loss of these milestone moments impact us? And how can we mourn them?

These questions don’t really have an answer—not yet, anyways. This situation is unprecedented and there is no social science research looking at the effects of millions of canceled birthdays or weddings on a population level. And as with most things, the impact will depend on an individual’s circumstances and personal resilience. But just because science can’t measure it doesn’t mean the loss isn’t there. And while this pandemic will lead to serious consequences, from death to a potential economic recession, it would be a mistake to ignore the pain caused by the loss of more mundane, but nonetheless meaningful, events.

For Natasha Frost, Quartz’s travel and lifestyle reporter, 2020 was going to be a momentous year. She is moving to Australia and is getting married over the summer. While coronavirus hasn’t affected those plans yet, it has led her to cancel a trip to the UK in April to attend her 10-year college reunion and to surprise her grandmother on her 89th birthday.  These are events (and people) that she won’t get to see much of after she moves. “I feel sad,” she said in a recent interview. “I am acutely aware that these moments are very limited. It wouldn’t surprise me if I was never able to be there for her birthday ever again.”

These moments are poignant because they can’t be repeated. Most couples who have already put down deposits for a wedding probably can’t afford to plan a second ceremony when the pandemic abates. Girls with planned quinceañeras won’t turn 15 again next year. Frost’s grandmother won’t turn 89 again either.

Missing out on these types of once-in-a-lifetime experiences can have a negative psychological impact, according to Jeffrey Arnett, research professor of psychology at Clark University, but it’s hard to evaluate how much or whether that effect will last over time. Right now, many people are anxious or scared, and being sad about missing out on an important event can exacerbate those feelings. But when life returns to normal, those feelings will most likely disappear, especially for those who have resources to cope with the disappointment, such as the support of family and friends.

Arnett knows a thing or two about being with family in times of crisis. His son studies biomedical engineering at Tufts University and his daughter studies liberal arts at Wesleyan University. Their schools have closed, and they are on their way home to spend the rest of their semester with Arnett and his wife. That’s both a loss for them and a blessing for their family, Arnett says. Before this pandemic, his son was “just thriving at college life,” working with an eminent biomedical researcher on original work. His daughter, who had struggled to adjust to college at first, had only recently “started to make friends and go out with people more,” he said. “And now, just as this is happening, you could say at a pivotal point in her social development, it’s cut off. She’s home. There’s a real cost there, and it is painful to her.”

This is a common problem in the time of coronavirus. As schools across the world shift their classes online, or close altogether, students will miss out on the joys of seeing their friends every day, taking part in clubs, and graduating. As one Cornell University senior told The New York Times, “I feel like a lot of experiences have been stolen from me.”

It may be a long time before researchers quantify the loss of human experience that this crisis has wrought—and even then, it will be an imperfect measure. But in the meantime, there may be ways to turn this pandemic into an opportunity to make meaningful memories that can soften the blow of those missed milestones. “This is going to bring us closer to the people who mean most to us, and for a lot of us, I think any crisis has a clarifying effect about what really matters and what does not,” Arnett said. “And I think this crisis is likely to provide that clarity.”