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Ellen Braaten How will we know if the Covid pandemic is really over? And how will we feel when it is?

It takes time to process that a traumatic event happened — and it can take time to accept that the event is over, too.
Image: Illustration of a woman leaving a crumbling home.
"The end" of Covid-19 may be a series of small events and gradual re-emergences into a changed reality as changed people.Jun Cen / for NBC News

Most people remember the day Covid-19 became real to them. For me, it was March 13, 2020: I was in a foreign country and was told by the U.S. government that I needed to immediately return home. For some, it may have become real the day they began working from home, found themselves teaching their kids full time or canceled their weddings. For others, it may not have become real until they or someone they loved contracted Covid-19. Some of us have losses — loved ones, our businesses, our jobs, our careers — that made this pandemic traumatically tangible.

Most of us have drifted through these often-disastrous last few months rather than really lived them. And now, while we have all been hoping for a clear conclusion to the pandemic, it’s likely that there won’t be a single day to mark in celebration. Rather, "the end" may be a series of small events and gradual re-emergences into a changed reality as changed people, and it may be more difficult to navigate than we imagine.

For instance, newly vaccinated and on my way from Boston to Wisconsin to visit my 84-year-old mom — who I hadn’t seen in over a year — hearing “In the event of a water landing” brought tears to my eyes. It had been almost a year since I heard a flight attendant give euphemistic instructions on how to survive if the plane were to crash land in a body of water; I was surprised both that I was able to recite the instructions by heart, like a catechism, and even more surprised to have an emotional reaction to hearing them.

The pandemic is something we might have to accept twice: We needed to accept its onset, and eventually we will need to accept its conclusion.

I thought to myself, "Could this really be the beginning of the end of Covid-19? Is this how we'll realize it? When we emotionally re-experience common events that we once took for granted?”

Rebuilding after a disaster or a trauma typically takes much more time than the disaster itself. You might find yourself coping with leftover mental health issues that were triggered or exacerbated by the pandemic. The healing phase might take a while.

And acceptance of the end of the traumatic event is not a passive activity. There are ways to nourish the reconstruction — or acceptance — process.

For many of the us, the past year has been quite similar to the stages of grief we may have learned in an intro psychology course: We've seen people go from the “It’s just the flu” denials to believing that Covid-19 is actually a problem; then transitioning to the “This is going to cost us millions” stage of anger that it was happening; onto the “If I wear my mask religiously, can I go to the hairdresser?” bargaining stage; and finally to the “My business/relationship/mental health can’t survive this shutdown” depression and feelings of hopelessness stage.

Acceptance of the end of the traumatic event is not a passive activity.

The last of the stages of grief, of course, is acceptance. Acceptance typically refers to the process of assenting to the reality of a situation, and it assumes that the situation is permanent — a death, a divorce. But the pandemic is something we might have to accept twice: We needed to accept its onset, and eventually we will need to accept its conclusion.

Complicating things even more, full acceptance of the pandemic hasn’t happened at all for some of us. For others, our acceptance can be inconsistent — accepting the effects at times, while holding on to disbelief at other times.

But if the positive trends continue, including increasing vaccination rates and lower hospitalization rates, then we may soon be or need to be in a different sort of place of acceptance — one that signifies the end of the pandemic.

For some, accepting that the pandemic is over may be no easier than it was for some people to accept that the pandemic was occurring at all.

For people having difficulty accepting that the pandemic is over — when it is over — a good place to begin, even today, is to acknowledge what we’ve lost. We’ve all lost something in this last year. Take note of what that is and how it’s influenced your life. Count your blessings, too: The fact that we can read these words alone is something to be thankful for. We’ve become resilient even if we didn’t want to participate in becoming so.

Some people will barely acknowledge that Covid-19 ever occurred; others might take years to recover from this time period. All of these paths are valid.

Second, don’t make the mistake of wishing for everything to go back to exactly how it used to be. The world has been changed — and so have we. Now is the time to find new meanings, while mourning the losses. Some things will be the same, but many things won’t and that's OK.

Then you can begin to start building new hopes and aspirations for yourself. Figure out what you want to do next. This doesn’t need to be something huge; it can be as simple as seeing friends for coffee indoors every Tuesday morning or as complex as embarking on the trip you’d always dreamed of taking. Having future goals and plans is strongly related to positive mental health outcomes.

Lastly, there is no appropriate way or timeline to move into the post-pandemic world. How we react will depend on things such as our social networks, our coping strategies and how much we’ve lost over the last year. Some people will barely acknowledge that Covid-19 ever occurred, and others might take years to recover from this time period. All of these paths are valid.

While we might not be able to point to the “last day” of Covid-19 — only time will tell whether my own reaction to “Make sure your seatbelt is securely fastened” was an emotional harbinger of a new world or a moment in a much longer recovery period — someday in the not-too-distant future, we will find ourselves doing something that was at one time very normal. Whether that is standing without a mask on a crowded subway, waving goodbye to our children as we drop them off at school or dancing the hora at a wedding, in that moment, each of us will be accepting the reality that the pandemic has ended.

While that moment or that day will likely include a large feeling of relief, it might be less joyful and more complicated than we expected. And that, too, will be OK.