In Our Solitude
On the pandemic’s post-crisis feeling of loss.
By Sylvie Epstein
Late last August, when Columbia decided to cancel on-campus housing and move all courses online, my mother subjected me to a seemingly unending string of grievances. I was upset about the changes of the year, absolutely, but her disappointment on my behalf felt far more acute. She did just about everything she could over the next couple of weeks to convince me to take time off, to preserve my semesters left on campus, to make sure I really got to experience what I knew had been the best years of her own life. Against her advice, I enrolled in courses and soon began the semester remotely, living in Cambridge, Massachusetts with three other college friends.
The year that followed certainly had its challenges. My roommates and I found ourselves confused or in opposition when it came to Covid-related decisions, often unmotivated by our online classwork, and socially isolated. And though near and dear to each other’s hearts, we were ready for some new faces by the end of the fall. Generally. though, we took great solace in each other’s company. We spent our days cooking, watching bad movies, and exploring Cambridge, and by so doing created our own small Barnumbia community up north.
Near campus this spring, amid slowly loosening outdoor restrictions and very slowly increasing temperatures, we sustained an attitude of “it is what it is.” We sat at heated outdoor bars and restaurants (even in 40-degree weather), we invited acquaintances from our first-year halls on walks, and we took nerve-jangling, calculated risks inside with close friends. This was not ideal—not all days even neared okay—but we knew we were lucky to have the chance to live independently from our families, near our campus, and, most importantly, to remain safe and healthy. It was what it was.
Then, late this spring, as a national shift occurred with the proliferation of vaccines, the city came alive with rapidly declining Covid rates, and our Columbia cohort expanded the possibilities for social life, I also felt a profound internal shift in my perspective on the year.
I was suddenly overwhelmed by how much of our college lives had been lost. As I submitted my last paper of the semester via email, the realization weighed me down that I was halfway through my four years at Columbia and had only experienced five months of “the real deal.” For the first time since the pandemic began, I felt the loss my mom had anticipated so many months before.
I soon realized I wasn’t alone in this feeling. Many of the people around me experienced it, each in their own ways. Some spent less time grieving the lost years on campus than stressing about needing to “make up for lost time” in the fall. Others who had spent the year with friends from their hometowns or with family agonized over the feeling of disconnection from their college communities.
We all became keenly aware of the cool, stylish classmate we hadn’t been able to get an afternoon coffee with, the well-spoken upperclassmen from a club we had wanted the chance to know outside of meetings, the thousands of casual 1020 connections we didn’t get the chance to make. The year we had just passed suddenly hung heavy with absence, with dreams of what might have been. These feelings were logical, certainly, but why we had only picked up on them now, when we had mostly muddled through the previous fourteen months unscathed, was not.
One afternoon in late April, I was struck by a particularly strong wave of distress and tearily called up my mom, looking for comfort. When I told her I wasn’t the only one experiencing this newfound sadness, she told me she thought it made perfect sense that we were feeling this way only now.
During the height of the pandemic, she said, we had all been in survival mode. We had collectively decided to put our heads down and persist through each day, each week, each month. As households made of classmates, best friends, or families, we had silently agreed to not complain about the big picture to protect not only each other, but ourselves, from feeling consistent and pervasive longing for the lives we could have had. Though we often felt unfulfilled by frozen outdoor meetups with ever-receding friends outside our pods, or jealous and judgmental of the people in our lives who were being less cautious and more social than we were, or generally lonely and afraid of a world where hugs and handshakes could kill, our decisions to be generally “okay” had been intentional. We did not let ourselves feel upset in grand or sweeping ways, because coping with those feelings daily when there was no real end to hope for might have been insufferable. Then, with this nightmare’s conclusion not only in sight, but in reach, we were giving ourselves permission to mourn what of our time in college had been lost.
For me, being vaccinated freed up a lot of mental space and energy that had been previously occupied by fretting about catching the virus. Whether it was realistic or not for a healthy 20-year-old mostly interacting with other healthy young people to be in significant personal danger, I had been seriously anxious about the virus for much of the year. A self-diagnosed hypochondriac, I had read into and catastrophized about every tickle in my throat or tightness of my chest. I performed mental backflips each time I saw someone who wasn’t in my regular circle, and worked myself into particularly intense frenzies on the couple of occasions I had seen my grandparents. Now, for the most part, I don’t really need to be thinking this way. I spend exponentially less time each day being worried about Covid, and can lend my thoughts to other experiences. Maybe this is happening to all of us to some extent—intensely, for people like me, and subconsciously, even for my friends who hadn’t been consistently Covid-anxious. As the existential worry eases, we have the space and time to simply be sad.
It feels odd and insensitive using words like “grief” to speak of these sensations of ours, though that was the first that came to mind. Especially in a context when so many in our communities are in pain over the loss of loved ones to Covid-19. Maybe wistfulness, sentimentality, or regret better capture what we are going through. But even if we need, at times, to put it in perspective, I think we ought not to resist any reaction we’re having to losing the college experiences we had anticipated, planned for, dreamt of. The whole thing sucks, and I no longer see the benefit in convincing ourselves otherwise.
After a sizable dose of self-pity, I think it’s vital that we use these emotions as motivators. Though I sometimes experience a lack of social stamina, or being overwhelmed or self-conscious in some situations, I want to experiment with becoming a consistent and unwavering “yes” person from now on. I’ll say “yes” to the dynamic duo-themed costume party even if a close friend isn’t free to accompany me, and happily dress up as both roles. I’ll say “yes” to traveling all the way to Randall’s Island in the pouring rain to see Women’s Club Soccer play. And I’ll say “yes” to the awkward dinner with my professor and one other student, despite knowing full well he ghosted my friend last weekend.
I don’t believe that the goal in transforming into this carpe-diem version of myself should be to make up for lost time, and I really don’t want to feel the pressure to do so. These past 15 months were what they were and the next 15 will be what they will be. But I believe they will be far better if packed with interesting people, exciting 3-a.m. conversations, comforting meals, and the warmth of those I love.
A year and a bit ago, my mom was right to feel sorry for me and my peers, to say that we were missing out on what were classically considered the best years of many peoples’ lives. But now, a whole pandemic later, I feel obligated to rewrite that. To—yes—make sure that the remainder of my time in college is as full as it can be, but also (and more importantly) to take that attitude beyond Broadway and Amsterdam. A month ago, I was feeling overwhelmed by the thought that I don’t have much time in college to solidify best friendships and to learn and to grow. But this year, my life broke free from the traditional and expected. I refuse to let it revert back to routine, predictability, or simplicity going forward. Instead, I’ll become a yes person, and I’ll be better than “okay.”