As we head into yet another holiday season marked by the uncertainty and dread of an ongoing pandemic, I’ve been trying to count my blessings. None of my loved ones have died of COVID. I have a job, a cozy home, and my health (physical, if not mental 🥴). In the grand scheme of things, I am absurdly lucky.
But I also can’t help but reflect upon everything we’ve missed out on these last two years. Most of what I’ve lost — what we have all lost — is time. Precious, precious time. For me, that’s meant time with my fiancé, who’s only just been able to get back into the US from her native England after a year and a half of travel bans. Other families across the country and around the world have been robbed of time with elderly relatives in the last months of their lives, or the first few months or years with loved ones’ newborns.
Soon, we’ll all be a couple of years older than we were when this all began, but it doesn’t necessarily feel that way — in part because certain milestones and accomplishments we might have otherwise reached continue to evade us, and might still for years to come.
I wondered how other people might be grappling with these kinds of losses, especially because they’re more amorphous than the chilling finality of death. The social scientist Pauline Boss calls those unclear and often unacknowledged absences in our lives “ambiguous loss”: the result of “an accumulation of heartbreaks that we cannot always recognize,” as Meg Bernhard put it in a December New York Times profile of the emeritus professor. Boss has recently broadened the scope of her work to “questions of societal bereavement” during this time of “atmospheric grief.”
Rose Gulati, a 22-year-old living in Toronto, was one of over a hundred people to respond to a BuzzFeed News survey last month about coping with these ambiguous losses. The pandemic began when she was halfway through her third year in university. Now that Gulati is “single, out of school and studying nothing,” she said she feels “robbed” of the time she lost. “Time at university, time with my friends, time to grow into myself. My transition from vibrant, defiant student to stay-at-home adult happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to grieve what I had lost,” she said. “I don’t go to drag shows or protests anymore. I watch TV to amuse myself and stay up late just to feel like I have something to do. The pandemic took away everything that made life fun and worthwhile.”
“In a lot of ways, I’m still 20,” Gulati continued. “In others, I’ve lived through the monotony of life and I’m dead.”
Death was a recurrent and troubling theme across multiple respondents’ answers. “I feel like I lost two years of my life and now I’m closer to death!” said Juliana Bruno, a 50-something in southern California who works in academia.
“I’ve become acutely aware of my mortality and how my time here is truly limited,” Gulati said. “I’ve tried to make peace with death. All of these things that are supposed to come up with life are coming up for me now, because I feel like I’ve lived my life and I’m done with it. The pandemic has turned life into a passive activity of waiting to die. I’m not really alive, I’m just waiting.”
Now that the Omicron variant has plunged much of the world into yet another wave of ambiguity and doubt, Gulati is far from alone when it comes to the sense of living in a perpetual state of limbo.
“I feel like it's hard to make plans at all now,” said Christina Marfice, 31, a marketing strategist in Chicago. “Everything feels tenuous all the time, like we're constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. I've found it's better for my mental health to make no plans at all than to try to plan things and have them be canceled or changed, so I've been living in this indefinite holding pattern since early 2020. It's like life is on pause right now with no indication of when it might start moving forward again.”
“Quite honestly, I can't imagine what my life will be like next August, much less five or ten years from now,” said a 22-year-old student in Utah who asked that their name be withheld from this story for privacy. “I've invested too much hope only to be burned. I'm not going to hold stock in the future anymore.”
The pandemic has made it rudely clear that none of us are getting any younger.
Many of my fellow millennials, as well as Gen Zers, feel like they’re losing or have already lost the best years of their youth — and the promises that those years were supposed to hold.
“I feel like I’m on some sort of time limit to have fun, and that I’m failing to meet that goal before time runs out,” said Becca Lo Presti, a recent college grad living in Vermont who never imagined spending the glory years of her 20s in a pandemic. “I don’t have the time to be carefree or take adventures. I feel 42, not 22.”
“I've moved home and turned 30 while living in my parents’ basement — something that I vowed would never happen,” said Allison Weiner, a marketing coordinator in Rochester, New York. “Now I'm stuck playing family game night instead of playing out my ever-dwindling youth.”
“I lost out on so much of my young adulthood,” said Holly Seibold, 24, a fiber artist in Tempe, Arizona. “I thought I would be dating and partying while making friends and putting roots down as I figured out what I want to do long term. I’m currently not doing any of those things.”
Dozens of respondents also cited dating and relationships as things they’ve missed out on these last two years.
“In a lot of ways, I’m still 20. In others, I’ve lived through the monotony of life and I’m dead.”
“I feel like the pandemic really hindered my romantic life,” said Michelle Vizzi, a 30-year-old lawyer in New York City. “I broke up with my boyfriend in December 2019 and was just starting to date again when the pandemic hit. I dated a little during the pandemic but I just felt like I lost so much time. And then suddenly I was 30. And do you know what no one warned me about turning 30 as a straight woman? That suddenly the number of likes/matches/etc. you get drops significantly. So many guys have their parameters set to stop at 29. I feel like I lost my last 2 ‘good years’ and now I have so few choices. I always thought that by 30 I would be in a long-term committed relationship and now I'm lucky if I get a match on a dating app. It's really depressing.”
“I am looking to settle down, find a life partner, buy a house and stop living with my parents,” said Rachel Lalli, 28, who builds homes in Hanover, Massachusetts. “I have little to no social life and have grown very distant from old college and high school friends. I am now left to wonder how and when I will find my person. Will the world be in a better place?”
Dating is one of the first pandemic losses that comes to mind for that 22-year-old student in Utah, where coming out, they said, “is still a dangerous endeavor.” Their university doesn’t have on-campus housing. “I've been living in off-campus apartments approved for BYU-Mormon university, pioneer of electroshock conversion therapy, and home to recent homophobic remarks by church leaders about ‘musket fire’ against queer people,” they said. “I haven't gone on a single date since moving here. I expected by this point in my life to have had at least one serious relationship.”
Delays in dating have also meant, for many people, delays in starting a family.
“Before the pandemic, I had one friend who had a baby,” said Reaganne Hansford, a 25-year-old speechwriter in Washington, DC. “Now, I have at least 10 friends with babies they had during the pandemic. I don’t know if their timelines were accelerated by the pandemic, but as someone who was NOT ready to have kids 2 years ago (and still don’t feel ready) it has made having kids really heavy on my mind lately. I ask myself if I just don’t want to be left behind by everyone else, but it has made me reevaluate what I want out of the rest of my 20s.”
Some people — myself included — are questioning whether to have children at all.
“I’ve wanted nothing more than to be a mom my whole life,” Lalli said. “But should I be bringing more people into this messed up world? Is climate change going to end us? Is it going to get so bad as to the point where we are all fighting for our lives again? I know it’s hard to say, so I keep living for a better day.”
"I feel like I lost my last 2 ‘good years’ and now I have so few choices."
“I've stopped thinking about possibly having kids someday, because it feels so impossible as a female-identifying person to go through that with American healthcare and laws being how they are,” said Jessica Clair, a 28-year-old living in the DC area. “I also can't imagine bringing a kid into this shitshow — that just feels insanely unfair now.”
“2020 was supposed to be the year that my husband and I would start our journey to becoming parents,” said Teresa Martinez, 33, who manages a medical office in southern California. “We had previously put those plans on hold due to familial obligations. His grandma got sick and passed in 2018. My father was diagnosed with cancer in late 2018. It took a toll on us to take on additional responsibilities with our families during this time [and] we made the decision to hold off on trying for a few years to focus on our families.”
After getting vaccinated, “we considered trying again,” Martinez said, “but we have seen so much in the last 2 years that it made us really stop to think, do we want to subject a child to this world we live in? Broken healthcare system in the US, broken political system, a capitalistic society in which people of average incomes are unable to afford the cost of living, the rampant racism that exists in this world, etc. Is it responsible to bring a child into this world?”
It isn’t only the potential for future families that people have given up on. Many who wrote in noted that they’ve given up relationships with current family members over the past two years because of fundamental disagreements about COVID safety.
Rachel Friedrick, a 31-year-old writer in Traverse City, Michigan, had her first child, a daughter, in October 2020. “Aside from their initial visit when she was born, we didn’t see family for the first 6+ months of her life, until the family could get vaccinated,” she said. Some family members understood while the decision to keep loved ones away ruptured other relationships completely. “My husband is a pediatrician and saw Covid patients, so we lived in constant fear that he might bring Covid home to our daughter unknowingly. I struggled through an incredibly isolating maternity leave alone, without friends or family, and then returned to my remote work trying to figure out how to balance working with a baby that refused a bottle and wanted to be fed at the breast every 2 hours. The first 6 months of my daughter’s life were some of the most lonely, isolated, and difficult days of my husband and I’s life.
“I feel such loss around the entire experience of becoming a parent,” Friedrick continued. “Memories like my baby’s first Christmas only bring up loneliness and pain, especially because of the family relationships that were broken.”
“When you work in healthcare and are seeing people dying daily in the midst of a pandemic, it becomes difficult to maintain relationships with people who are spreading false narratives about the ‘plandemic,’” Martinez said. She lost multiple friends and family members due to COVID-19: some of them died of it, and others got swept up in misinformation. “Even when trying to explain the reality of the situation, people choose to not believe,” she said. “Rather than stress myself out trying to show reality, it was easier to just step away from these relationships and focus on my own mental and physical health.”
On the flipside, when the future seems uncertain, we can better appreciate how precious time really is. The pandemic has forced many of us to consider how we want to spend our remaining days — because they are limited, and because they are all we have.
For many people, that has meant a radical reconsideration of their relationship with work.
“My life is more than half over and I fucking wasted it on stupid beliefs that I had to give 110% to ‘the man,’” said Bruno, the 50-something in southern California. “I should have been doing all that for me — not stupid work that wouldn’t even send flowers if I died tomorrow.”
“My professional life, which was for a long time the anchor of my twenties, feels pretty stupid and meaningless in the context of pandemic remote work,” said Taylor Broadfoot, 30, who works at a marijuana tech startup in Seattle.
For Clair, the pandemic “really reaffirmed that I don't want work to be a core part of my identity,” she said. “I never had huge career aspirations but this has made it even more clear that working 60+ hours a week in a salary position is just not worth it.”
“I lost my entire identity,” said Dani Steeves, a 33-year-old event manager in Ontario, Canada. “I didn't realize how intertwined I as a person had become with my job. I lost friends who I had worked with for a decade because at a time when I needed them the most, they were radio silent.” After that, “I am no longer a person who views their future solely in career terms. Now that I have seen I am an expendable asset to a company that I had devoted my life to, my future outlook no longer always involves the career I thought I would never leave.”
Without the potential of a career, romance, or parenthood to give us a sense of identity and purpose, what’s left?
“In some ways, the pandemic actually helped me become more sure of myself and make more definitive plans for the future,” said Sydney Spaulding, 23, a writer in San Diego. “When going out all the time wasn't an option anymore, it made me really look at myself in the mirror and try to get to know that person better. In a way, that was a positive change that came out of all this.”
"I've spent so much time being afraid and I decided that I don't care anymore.”
Barry F. Keaveney, a 75-year-old semi-retired photographer in rural Arizona, is focusing on “finding satisfaction in home alone time: watching better movies, better cooking, updating computer knowledge.” He thinks we’re facing “a dark future with the Covid pandemic, polarized politics, QAnon and Trump haters and liars, real climate threats and a failed Congress to deal with these problems.” He’s coping with the ambiguous losses of the past couple years by “making up for lost time.” That means “going around with my new cameras, taking photos, considering getting back to drone videos but with more new and professional gear.”
“I used to want to have everything figured out, but now I am more happy in the moment,” said Maria Natola, a 32-year-old high school teacher in Vancouver. “I know what I need to be content and to feel like I am living a full life, and many of the things I thought I ‘needed’ have turned out to be nice extras that don't make or break my life. It's cliche, but I've learned that it truly is the little things, and if the little things don't make you happy, neither will the ‘big’ things.”
“I think I lost my tolerance for bullshit during the pandemic,” said Jeane Emily DuBose, a 26-year-old who works in medical research in Chicago. “I kind of decided that I'm not going to be afraid of things anymore. I decided to start writing the book I'd been thinking about for years but never actually put to paper. I quit grad school. I quit my job and found a better one I'm excited about. I started making dumb TikToks about vintage romance novels because it's something I enjoy. I've spent so much time being afraid and I decided that I don't care anymore.”
“I need to make full use of my pause to really do what I want to do next year,” said Gulati, the 22-year-old Canadian who’s been reflecting a lot on her mortality. “I have to sit down with myself and figure out what that even is. I can’t be afraid of the future, as tiresome as it is to live it. The future is happening right now, and I want to make the most of it. I don’t want to let the past two years dictate the rest of my life. I tried to ‘live’ this summer — I slept with more men than deserved it and got too many piercings. I want to rediscover what meaning actually means to me and I want to live it. For real, this time.” ●