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How to celebrate special occasions in a pandemic

When we can’t gather together, perspective and flexibility are key, says Ryerson psychologist Diana Brecher
By: Lindsey Craig
June 09, 2020
A woman sitting on her couch in front of a laptop holding a plate with a cupcake on it

Despite physical distancing limitations, Ryerson psychologist Diana Brecher says we can still find ways to honour important events. (Photo: Istock).

If you’ve had a birthday since the pandemic began, or if you know someone who has, you know that celebrating an event while physical distancing can be, well… limiting.

With Covid-19 regulations preventing us from gathering with friends and loved ones, the way we typically celebrate, at least for now, isn’t possible: no dinners out with family and friends, no late night dance parties, no special trips, no backyard barbecues or picnics with dozens of friends.

Instead, many of us are downloading Zoom and sending links for virtual parties. Others are organizing drive-by celebrations, creating signs to hold up for loved ones and shouting special greetings from a car window.

Of course, the pandemic has affected far more than birthdays. The way we come together for weddings, funerals, anniversaries, retirements, graduations, religious holidays and more – has been severely altered.

While the milestones vary, what’s in common – the chance to gather with others – is what has been lost.

“When we have something special to celebrate, very rarely do people choose to celebrate alone. And yet, if you’re living alone today, that could be what you have to do,” said Ryerson psychologist Diana Brecher.

So, what is it about coming together that we crave? And what happens when we can’t? As the pandemic continues, are there certain things we can do to help fill the void?

Tribal by nature

When it comes to recognizing events, Brecher says it’s human nature to want to share that experience with others.

“As a species, we are a social animal. We need people,” she said.

“If we look back in time, our survival was predicated by our membership to a group or a tribe. If you were shunned by your community, you would die,” she continued.

So, when we feel the absence of others, especially at critical times, it can have a major impact.

Power in numbers

Brecher explains that when we celebrate something special with friends or family, it strengthens the emotion we feel.

“When we celebrate with the people closest to us, those feelings are enhanced,” she said. “So, if you celebrate your birthday, that joy you feel will be amplified if you’re with a partner, your family or your closest friends.”

She also says it’s why we share our troubles with people close to us.

“We want a sympathetic ear, we need someone to say, ‘You have the ability to get through this,’ and that honouring of you is so important,” she said.

“This is why loneliness can be so difficult in isolation,” she said. “Even in the prison system, the most severe punishment is solitary confinement.”

‘Your life isn’t over if you don’t have a birthday party’

Given that we currently can’t meet this social need, Brecher says there are a few things that can help us cope.

The first, she says, is perspective.

“Your life isn’t over if you don’t have a birthday party, and yes, it’s going to be disappointing if your wedding is postponed or you go to City Hall instead, but it’s hardship, not tragedy,” she said.

Brecher also says this situation highlights the privilege many of us have taken for granted.

You can only fuss about what’s missing when you have your basic needs in place,” she said, referring to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (external link) .

Letting go

Next, Brecher says emotional agility is key.

“It’s about letting go of the rigid notion that this is the way something is supposed to be,” she said. “You need to open yourself up to whatever form of celebration you can access.”

She says the longer it takes us to adapt our expectations, the harder it will be.

Happiness: anticipation, participation, recapitulation

After keeping things in perspective and adapting our mindset, is there anything else can we do?

Brecher says there are three stages to happiness: anticipation, participation and recapitulation – which are key to serving our emotional needs. They shouldn’t be sacrificed, she said, even if a large-scale wedding becomes a simple backyard ceremony or a festival goes online.

The first stage, anticipation, is when hoping, dreaming and planning occurs. While a surprise anniversary party may be replaced by a Zoom call – there could still be joy in planning a special surprise guest.

The second stage, participation, is bringing that plan to life and enjoying the moment. Recapitulation, the final stage, is where we take time, after the event, to review and savour the experience.

“How many times do people go on a holiday, come back and create photo albums to show their friends and family? It’s the reminiscing and reflecting that’s so important,” Brecher said.

In the case of a graduation, Brecher says future plans can be made for a party when it’s safe to do so, and in the meantime, students could take time to reflect upon and share their experiences and their successes with friends and loved ones.

With funerals and more sombre events, while it’s exceptionally difficult not being able to gather, those in grief can still find ways to commemorate their loved ones and participate in rituals that will help them heal.

“You can still light a candle, you can still share stories and create expressions around who the person was,” she said, noting we can also plan to honour those we have lost through a memorial service when physical distancing has lifted.

No matter the circumstance, commemoration or celebration, Brecher says, “We need to say, ‘I can’t do it this way, but I can do it that way.’”


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