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Mercy Professor Shares Observations and Student Stories in “Rituals in the Time of COVID-19”

Evan Imber Black

Evan Imber-Black, Mercy College professor and program director of the graduate program in marriage and family therapy, knows about rituals.

Along with two books and numerous articles on the subject, Imber-Black has recently addressed the topic in her new article, “Rituals in the Time of COVID-19: Imagination, Responsiveness, and the Human Spirit.” Published in a special issue of Family Process, the leading peer-reviewed journal in the field of family therapy, the article addresses the human need for ritual, even when the very nature of those rituals has been upended by the coronavirus.

“In my reading and observations, I had begun to notice what people were struggling with,” said Imber-Black. “Lockdown first began in the spring, normally marked by numerous holidays and celebratory occasions — Easter, Passover, Ramadan, Nowruz — that involve traveling, gathering in large groups, or sharing meals. Yet when people couldn’t be together because of stay-at-home orders, they created new ways to mark these important life events.”

Imber-Black asked several colleagues, students and former students to share stories for her article. “Two anecdotes about celebrating Ramadan were provided by Mercy students. Another story, about a gay couple who transformed their family dinner into a formal event every night, came from a former graduate student of mine,” she said. These and other individuals who shared their stories were cited in the article’s acknowledgements.

Imber-Black postulates that the human urge to create ritual is deep and lasting, and cannot be deterred by interruptions to routine, even by something as profoundly disruptive as the pandemic. “It shows how important rituals are in our lives, whether small, daily one like sitting down to a meal or kissing a child goodnight, to major life events like milestone birthdays,” she said. “These new rituals show a kind of insistence, as if people are saying, ‘We’re not going to let this go, it’s too important.’”

In her paper, Imber-Black advises family therapists to encourage their clients to talk about their feelings of disappointment over missed rituals, ranging from a postponed wedding to a socially distanced funeral. She includes a poignant anecdote about a woman who was unable to visit or even telephone her elderly mother in a nursing home. When the mother contracted the virus and passed away, the daughter was dismayed to learn that the funeral home would allow only three mourners at the graveside. The daughter instead wrote a letter to her mother, planning to read it at the graveside once restrictions were lifted — her own goodbye ritual.

Yet, even short of illness and death, the many disruptions of the pandemic have caused deep disappointment, even grief, over the loss of important rituals that mark human lives. “I felt so much empathy for Mercy College seniors who missed out on the graduation ceremony they had been hoping for,” said Imber-Black. “At Mercy, we did the best we could by holding graduation as a live-streaming event. We named every student, we shared videos of graduates wearing their caps and gowns. We created a new ritual of celebration that was still impactful even if different than anticipated.”

Still, whether the new ritual is a drive-by birthday celebration from balloon-covered cars to a Zoom Bat Mitvah, Imber-Black is convinced that the human spirit will prevail. “Some of these new rituals will stay with us,” she said. “We’ll have rituals for what we can do now, not what we used to do. We might even decide we prefer them, staying home instead of traveling, or embracing communication via Zoom or FaceTime.” As she wrote in her conclusions, “When the shutdown finally becomes a memory and some of the newly invented rituals slip away, I predict that many will maintain as discoveries of our creativities, our capacities, and our requirement for the human connections rituals provide.”

The full text of Dr. Imber-Black’s article can be accessed at https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/famp.12581.