Processing the Pandemic

April 10, 2020

On January 7, 2020, I flew out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to spend four months living and working in London, England. With my life neatly folded into two suitcases and my backpack, my work visa in hand, and my tearful goodbyes to friends and family still front of mind, I set off for a dream semester in the very heart of a city I had spent years dreaming about. About two months later, I was back on a plane, leaving the UK and the life I had anticipated this semester behind, as my program was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not Exactly Expected

The reality of coronavirus and just what its implications might be began to fully form at the end of February. As students in my program began to return from a week off, conversations centered around what might become of our program as we whispered about others across Europe being sent home. As the days wore on, students from colleges across the US began to get notifications from their own school to return immediately. Emails came in every couple of hours, each one detailing how the program coordinators were watching the situation, but not giving much more detail. Updates and new regulations from governments on both sides of the pond rolled in regularly. Finally, on the evening of March 13, I received the final news from the University of Minnesota that I was to be leaving London no later than March 20 and that the study abroad program in London was canceled. Six days, a few canceled flights, several changing government regulations, multiple public breakdowns, and over 4,000 miles later, I was back in my hometown, left to piece together my semester. 

It’s Not Going to Be Pretty... 

My situation was unique. From the study abroad location to the time frame and information provided to the amount of time I had in total, the experience was incredibly personal. Despite this, there’s still a common thread through everyone’s stories: confusion and uncertainty with both where this virus might take us and how to process it all. Travel, work, school, and life have all changed in a matter of weeks and completely altered how we exist with each other. Nothing makes sense right now. And if the upheaval of my semester taught me anything, it’s that it won’t make sense for a while and that the initial gut reaction to these changes is valid. It’s okay if your first response was anger or sadness. It’s okay to view the cancelations of flights, plans, concerts, nights out with friends, and regular life as a loss, because it is. It’s okay if you want to take a minute to have a cry. In a society governed by “I’m fine” and “it happens,” it’s okay to take a step back and realize that you aren’t fine, and this kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s okay to flag this situation and the intensity of the emotions it creates as real and not something to just be cast aside. You are allowed to hold anger, sadness, frustration—whatever that emotion might be—toward a situation in which you have no control, no information, and seemingly no end. 

...But It’s Not the End

But those gut reaction emotions can’t be the end of the story. Frankly, being told that the life I had poured so much of my time, energy, money, and heart into ended after only two months hurt more than anything I’ve dealt with until this point. It was difficult, and I’ll admit that I cried in the Sainsbury’s parking lot when I got the news. But that wasn’t and can’t be the endpoint. Coming to terms with both the end of my program and the changes to my life that our current world has brought is a continuous process of understanding the duality of those two months. I created a beautiful life and routine for myself in one of the most exciting cities in the world. I formed a family of my own with roommates I had never met prior to moving in. I traveled to places I had only seen on maps or read about in stories. I built my professional skills through an internship that opened my eyes to aspects of the public relations world that I didn’t know existed. I had a beautiful semester that meant the world to me. Even though I had the second half and all the undiscovered wonders that it held stolen from me, I experienced two months of joy and life like I never have before. At the end of the day, I’m forever grateful for what I was privileged enough to have in London at all.

As we all continue to carry on in this new, socially-distant life, it’s important to validate the duality. Both the loss of anticipated plans and the gain of a new life are equally important and equally valid. Understand what both sides of your response to the pandemic might look like. What was your gut reaction? What are you missing from the life you had before? On the opposite side, what has stayed the same? What can you do each day to remind yourself of what is sustaining you through this time? How can you reach out to others and support the people of your community who might not be doing as well through everything?

I’ve found that journaling about how I’m doing each day, setting up regular FaceTime and Zoom calls with friends, maintaining ties to the people I met in London, and regular runs have helped me avoid dropping an anchor in that sadness and anger while still understanding how it affects my day. Processing both sides of the pandemic is going to look different for everyone, but finding ways to work through your response will help us weather this storm a little easier. 

We Will Make it Through

As often as it’s been said, we really are in a totally unprecedented time. I’m not living in a world I expected to be in when I flew out of the United States at the beginning of the year. I can still mourn that loss while celebrating the beauty and wonder I was able to experience in two incredible months. Understand and validate your response to this crisis, both the positives and the negatives, and support those around you through this time until we are all able to return to life as usual.