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Processing the unprecedented

| Tuesday, March 22, 2022

For me, it started with an email. I didn’t know it then, but the email I received with the subject line “COVID-19/MANDATORY MEETING” was the first of countless I would receive about the pandemic from Notre Dame officials.

I was studying away in Washington, D.C. at the time, so the email (and subsequent mandatory meeting) came to us a few days earlier than the emails to the rest of the Notre Dame student body “extending” spring break. I remember my jaw actually physically dropping when our program advisors told us they were sending us home — things didn’t feel that bad yet, so we expected some online classes, or maybe just an update on COVID in the area. But no — we had to be moved out of our D.C. apartments by the end of the week, and our advisors would help coordinate our travel plans.

I remember such a feeling of astonishment the entire week — when I packed up my apartment a month earlier than expected, when I sat at a District Taco eating lunch with my friends visiting from South Bend as they processed the news of their extended spring break, when Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive for COVID-19. It felt like I didn’t pick my jaw up from off the ground until at least a few weeks later, when my shock and disbelief turned into a longer-term, low-simmering panic.

It’s not hard to psychoanalyze me and figure out why I’m writing this column now, two years to the week after these events. It’s partially the realization upon my return from spring break last week that it was my first spring break since freshman year, partially my first bout with COVID-19 a few weeks ago and partially the heavy hands of time, forcing me to accept that it’s been two years since I first heard the words COVID-19, and only a few months until I graduate. Absent all of that, however, I feel the need to write this column because I think a lot of people, myself included, are still struggling to process this pandemic.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve heard a lot of jokes about how much it sucks to be “living through a major historical event,” or talking about this era of history as if it’s uniquely bad or unprecedented.

As John Green pointed out in a TikTok a few weeks ago, this is kind of a silly thing to say — there have been much worse crises by basically every metric throughout human history. But of course, this crisis is happening to us, and it’s happening right now, and for my generation it is the most life-changing thing that has ever happened to us (sorry to the 90s babies out there, but none of us Zoomers remember 9/11). So, it makes sense that it’s something that’s still hard for us to wrap our heads around two years later.

Beyond that, this pandemic had an abrupt and unexpected beginning and a desperately awaited but still elusive end. Everyone remembers something about when COVID-19 first uprooted their lives, but can anyone say where they were when the pandemic “ended,” if it even has? I remember my first time back in a restaurant, a theater, a bowling alley. I remember when I got the first dose of my vaccine, but I’m still wearing my mask in the airport as I write this. It’s looking increasingly likely that we will never see a definitive end to this pandemic at all, and will instead “learn to live” with COVID-19. We were all waiting for it to end with a bang, but now we’d be lucky to get a whimper.

Staring down the barrel of college graduation, it’s hard not to feel cheated — not by Notre Dame or the CDC, but by the universe. I can list off tangible things I’ve lost, like a semester abroad in Greece, an in-person Junior Parents Weekend or another year living in my dorm. But it’s almost harder to cope with the losses that are less concrete — the late nights with my friends that never happened, the visits from my grandparents that got indefinitely delayed, the people that could’ve become my best friends that I never met. And this is all coming from someone who has spent two years cripplingly afraid of the COVID-19 virus and in full support of the most stringent regulations possible. There is no one to blame, and as a result it can feel like the only option is to scream into the void.

But the Observer Viewpoint section is not the void, and I don’t really want to scream. I think, to an extent, I want to acknowledge that this is something that I’m still processing, and it’s okay, and even expected, if you are, too. It’s easy to feel like I don’t have much to mourn — lots of people died, had family members die or are struggling with chronic health issues years after a COVID-19 diagnosis. But everyone has lost something during this, and if we bury those feelings of loss we’ll be stuck processing them forever.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you how to process those feelings. For me, it’s helped to write this all down. However awful it’s been, I want to remember how I felt when this all began and how I feel about it now, at its strange non-ending. I want to acknowledge the people, experiences and alternate lives I’ve lost because of this pandemic. And, most importantly, I want to be able to look forward, in the next two months and beyond, to life with some distance from this major historical event. Whatever you’ve lost, and whether you’re graduating with me or still have some time in South Bend left, I hope you can do the same.

Ellie Konfrst is a senior studying political science with a minor in the Hesburgh Program for Public Service. Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, she’s excited people will once again be forced to listen to her extremely good takes. You can find her off campus trying to decide whether or not she’ll go to law school or bragging that Taylor Swift follows her on Tumblr. She can be reached at [email protected] or @elliekonfrst13 on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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