It’s been over seven months since the pandemic sent me home to work at my kitchen table until further notice. In addition to packing up my cubicle, I had to clear my schedule. The ballroom dance competition where I was going to debut in a new style, the wine-tasting trip that a close friend and I were taking to celebrate our birthdays, the cruise to Alaska with my mom — it was all wiped away by our unwelcome guest, SARS-CoV-2.
During the first couple months of staying home, I went through a myriad of emotions. I felt disappointment and grief over the cancellation of so many events. I felt anxious over this new threat. I felt annoyed and frustrated over the erratic responses by officials at the various levels of government and the selfish and inconsiderate behavior demonstrated by people I thought I knew. I felt comfortable and content spending every day with no one but my two dogs and getting to wear workout pants and tank tops to work. I felt amused over my enthusiasm about not even having to wear shoes to show up at my kitchen office. I felt determined to embrace our new reality and make the best of it, instead of dwelling on what had been lost.
I believed I was ahead of the pack in terms of moving through the grief process. I didn’t miss things like going out to eat or getting a hair cut. Wearing a mask wasn’t the most comfortable thing, but it was only a minor inconvenience. I quickly appreciated my empty calendar, which allowed me to slow down and reflect, rather than always running to the next appointment. I loved getting all of my groceries delivered. I still haven’t been inside a store since March! When restrictions loosened enough for me to return to the dance studio, I enjoyed being able to focus on improving the quality of my movement without the pressure of an upcoming competition.
I was done grieving. Pre-pandemic life was gone and I was making the most of the reality I had now. Or so I thought.
It wasn’t until this past week that I realized the truth. I am still grieving. A great deal in fact, for losses I hadn’t fully recognized.
There are five general stages of grief that we all go through when we experience a loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The process through these stages is not neat or linear. You can jump back and forth between stages, skip stages, or remain in one stage for much longer than the others. Through the pandemic, this country has witnessed a lot of people stuck in the denial and anger stages as they cause dramatic scenes in grocery stores and coffee shops over the simple request that they cover their nose and mouth.
Grief is a funny thing because it will show up even when we don’t realize that we’re grieving or why. Even though grief is synonymous with sorrow, it can manifest as other emotions, such as anger, confusion, anxiety, or in my case, a general feeling of “stuck.”
It was probably the last month to six weeks that I started to notice anything. It was harder to get into a flow for my writing. I used to post daily on my blog’s social media accounts, but since the pandemic, I’ve only posted a couple times a week because I can’t think of anything meaningful to say or share. I struggled to find enthusiasm in dance performance opportunities. I felt disconnected from the ballroom world that I used to call home.
Then my body started speaking up. Pain and tension in my hips and lower back sent me back to physical therapy. Saturdays began to mark a weekly tension headache. Finally, an old knot in my neck decided to flare up for nearly a week, limiting my mobility.
A conversation with one of my coaches shed light on what the heck was wrong with me. Despite believing that I had embraced the “new normal” and said goodbye to my pre-pandemic life, I was still holding onto it.
I was grieving for the way I used to know just what to share with my blog readers every week and what message someone needed to see every day on my social media accounts. I grieved for the way the words used to just flow.
I was grieving over the loss of my old dance studio where I had trained for over seven years. It didn’t survive the shutdown, and even though my dance coach is running his own studio now, I’ve realized I am still processing the many changes that have come with that move.
My old studio was my second home. It was where I could escape the daily grind and focus on my passion and what made me feel truly like myself. The changes that came with moving to a different dance space that also operated in a different way would have been significant enough. Add in all of the changes due to the pandemic and the mole hill becomes a mountain.
What hit me the hardest was realizing that I was grieving for the way I used to connect to the ballroom dance world. It didn’t matter who you were or where you came from. It didn’t matter what size, shape, age or race you were. We were all ballroom dancers, and that shared passion created an instant closeness and camaraderie.
The pandemic revealed a different reality in the ballroom world. The ballroom bubble, that protective shield that covered every dance studio and every competition floor and prevented “real life” from entering, had burst. While I thought the bubble had kept the real world out, what it really did was keep us blinded by the bright lights and rhinestoned costumes.
Racism was present, like everywhere else, and reared its ugly head as the movement for social justice in the world gained new energy and momentum. Dancers attacked other dancers on social media for speaking out. The ballroom world divided on matters of health and safety, with some dancers isolating at home until a vaccine is available and others refusing to wear a mask on their dance lessons. I had trouble processing what I was seeing as event organizers held their competitions with little to no safety measures (including no masks), even after reports of outbreaks at other competitions. I couldn’t understand how some teachers could appear so cavalier with their students’ safety as they taught in person before restrictions were lifted or traveled the country to any competitions that avoided shutdown.
People can be selfish and inconsiderate, but ballroom dancers? We were supposed to be different. As dancers, we were supposed to care about and support each other. We were always ready to step in and help a fellow dancer. We cheered for each other, we comforted each other, we encouraged each other. Now we dismiss and argue and insult.
The pandemic happened. Shutdowns happened. Unjust murders happened. Political chaos happened. And the one place where we would normally seek refuge was unavailable to us.
Dance is supposed to represent a safe space. People of all colors and creeds can come together and express themselves freely through rhythmic movement. As I lean against a heating pad to ease the tension in my neck and back, I am grieving the loss of that safe space. The bubble has burst and the rose-colored glasses have been ripped off and smashed on the ground. Not only has dancing itself become a higher risk activity due to the virus, this pandemic has shown that when push comes to shove, dancers can be just as racist, selfish, rude and inconsiderate as any other human.
Maybe it was a naïve belief to carry. Dancers are humans after all. I always thought we held ourselves to higher standards though. At the beginning of the pandemic shutdowns, the dance world seemed to come together. Gradually though, division appeared just like it did in the rest of the world as people got tired of restricting themselves for the sake of others.
The anger phase of my grief may be showing a bit. I feel hurt and betrayed by people I’ve never met, but felt a connection to because we were dancers. Now, if/when I ever return to a competition, I will wonder who in the room was willing to risk my life so they could enjoy their dancing.
Of course, not everyone is acting in a way that is unbecoming a dancer (or human being). Many are staying considerate of those around them and doing everything they can to keep everyone safe and sane. I want to acknowledge and thank those people.
We are in very unusual circumstances. We haven’t experienced something like this pandemic before; therefore, we were not prepared to handle the emotional fallout.
The purpose of writing this article is not to blame or shame people for their reactions to unprecedented times. The purpose is to acknowledge the grief that needs to be processed.
Much of the ugly behavior I’m witnessing is a result of unacknowledged and unhandled grief. As a society, we are experiencing extreme and prolonged stress coming from multiple sources and most of us are not equipped to handle or process it in a healthy way. It’s no surprise that therapists are seeing a huge uptick in cases of depression and anxiety.
Writing is one way I process, but this article recognizing and acknowledging the many things I’m still grieving over is just another step on the journey. We are not done with this pandemic. People continue to get sick and die. The political tension in this country will probably get worse before it gets better. We will potentially see more extreme and erratic behavior from those around us as the stress of our current reality continues to weigh heavy on all of us.
We cannot put a time limit on our grieving process. We cannot tell ourselves to just get over it because the loss isn’t over yet.
After seven months, I’m still grieving over things I didn’t fully recognize were lost. I may find I have more grieving and processing to do after a year or three. I may believe I’ve finally moved on and then find myself suddenly pulled back.
Grief is a funny thing.
As you grieve, please be kind and patient with yourself and be considerate of others as they also grieve. We really are in this together, whether we want to be or not.