Cafeteria Tears: An Invitation to Grieve the Pandemic

No one could see my lips quiver behind my mask. They’d have to look close to see the tears gathering in the corner of my eyes.

I sat at a cafeteria table at a local high school as I watched each family begin their 15 minutes of waiting after their children received their second Covid-19 vaccine.

I glanced over and through my hazy eyes, saw my children buried in a Pokémon Go game on my phone, oblivious to their mother’s tear-soaked mask.

I saw the EMT’s playing games on their phone. Teens waiting by the door to give kids a sticker and a certificate as they left. Upbeat music from Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson singing out from a speaker on stage, right next to a disco ball casting colorful light everywhere.

Image from Unsplash

I could feel the relief and celebration in the room. We knew how long the wait for this moment had been. We knew the fear, exhaustion, and worry. We knew the cancelled vacations and play dates. We knew the multitude of ways we kept the worst of this global crisis from our young kids. We knew the subtle forehead touches to see if a fever was present.

My body silently shook with tears of gratitude and relief. I didn’t stop them. Without my phone to distract me and a forced 15 minute wait, I chose to be present to my inner experience.

As the tears flowed and I hoped no one looked too closely at my face, I thought about how we grieve a thing we're so happy to put in the rear-view mirror.

We went through a thing. Quite a difficult thing. And I see how ready we are to move on. But I know, from personal experience, that the pain and grief we hide away in poorly lit corners of ourselves doesn’t simply vanish. It waits for us to give it our full attention. And until we do, it will find all kinds of creative ways to make itself known. Physical pain, anxiety, depression, emotional pain.

We hold pain and grief from living through a global pandemic. If we rush ahead and force new normals into being, we’re missing a crucial step in being human.

Those 15 minutes in that cafeteria felt like holy ground. Time that invited reflection and gratitude. Grief and loss.

Then we did what I knew we’d all do. Our time was up and out the doors we went. Back into normal life. Back in the rhythms where we can almost forget what we’ve journeyed.

But in that high school cafeteria on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, my body could not forget. I could not pretend a pandemic didn’t happen. I could not lull myself into a distracted space.

There was simply 15 minutes to feel it all.

And it felt like freedom.