A Year of Trauma and Resilience: How the Pandemic Changed Everything

New York Times readers describe the ways the pandemic first hit them and upended their lives, in their own words.

By Sarah Mervosh

It dawned on us when the grocery stores ran out of toilet paper.

When we lost work, risked our lives on the job or finally gave in and bought an office chair for home.

It dawned on us when we canceled long-dreamed-of weddings. When we graduated high school from our backyards, without a stage. When we gave birth — masked and alone.

It dawned on us when our aunts died and our children died and our parents died and we realized, with sudden, crushing clarity, that Covid-19 “was not going to be a disease that happened to ‘other people.’”

Across the United States and around the globe, nearly everyone experienced a moment when the coronavirus pandemic truly hit home for them. One year later, as the pandemic carries on, having claimed more than 2.6 million lives worldwide, we asked our readers: When did the pandemic become real for you? Nearly 2,000 people responded.

Their answers, which have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, are a journey through time. It has been a year of trauma and resilience. No one has been spared, yet some have borne burdens far more profound than others.

Still, our stories connect us: each of us human, each of us just trying to survive a pandemic that changed us and the world.

A year ago…

everything changed.

Some changes were big.

Some subtle.

But for each of us, there was a moment when the pandemic became real.

When I asked a stranger on the street where she found the toilet paper she was carrying.

Heidi Fliegauf, 53, Boston

When my toddler grandson tried to feed me a blueberry through the cellphone screen.

Alice Gilgoff, 74, Rosendale, N.Y.

When I had no place other than a cemetery to take my child for fresh air and distance from people.

Ellie Dunn, 44, Queens, N.Y.

The night before my second round of chemo. I got a call saying my husband couldn’t attend because of new visitor restrictions.

Amelia Hartman, 34, Minneapolis

Seeing our county judge on TV with the governor. That’s when I knew things were going to change, especially in our small town.

Stevi Grose, 41, Cynthiana, Ky.

No more outings, meals, singing or games with Alzheimer’s clients. And no more paycheck. I started long-distance walking to ease anxiety and cope with loneliness and misplaced guilt.

Janice Randall, 64, Vashon Island, Wash.

Our favorite ice rink in Madrid being used as a morgue.

Joni Costello, 42, Madrid

When the food pantry I oversee saw an increase in need of more than 350 percent.

Natalie Nites, 26, Key Largo, Fla.

When I began wiping down everything in sight and wearing the same few outfits every single day.

Jolene Conder, 59, Brentwood, Calif.

I wrote my granddaughter a six-page letter reviewing our time together and what it meant to me in case I never saw her again.

Virginia Graves, 71, Rockport, Mass.

When I could no longer go over to my dad’s house. (My parents are divorced.)

Elizabeth Knight, 15, Clarksville, Tenn.

When they closed schools indefinitely. As a teacher, this was a really surreal experience.

Robin Freeman, 43, Marietta, Ga.

At every stage of life, milestones were upended.

First breaths…

final words…

and everything in between.

It was a year of togetherness.

And moments spent painfully apart.

Nothing during this entire pandemic felt so real as when I lay sobbing in my hospital bed not 24 hours after giving birth to my first child. My mother told me on the phone that the Canadian border agents were not letting her through the Toronto airport from the United States to come be with me.

Kelley Sykes, 27, Toronto

When we realized that we should go to the courthouse to get married on our lunch break because our wedding would be canceled and my then fiancée would lose her health insurance if she got furloughed.

Alex Herrin, 28, Nashville

My baby girl, Paloma, was born on March 11, 2020. Most of our family didn’t meet her in person.

Clary Montgomery, 33, Austin

When my college graduation was canceled. Like many first-generation college students, it was heartbreaking for me to accept that my parents would never get to see me walk across that stage after everything they have sacrificed for me.

Gabby Gil, 22, Charlotte, N.C.

We had to cancel our baby’s first birthday party.

Megan Denniston, 36, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Graduating from my backyard really drove the point home.

Julia Klopfer, 22, Boston

On a Saturday, we joyfully married — in an office, with just our parents. Seven days later, my grandma died without a funeral.

Emma Johnson, 26, St. Paul, Minn.

When my wife who had fought breast cancer for a year and beaten it contracted Covid at the end of August and then the cancer came back. She was gone by Sept. 14. Having lost the love of my life and best friend I have lost interest in everything.

Michael Boyajian, 62, Fishkill, N.Y.

My dad went into hospice care for renal failure. My husband and I became his de facto nurses. Dad died April 16. Just two of us could attend his graveside service.

Michael Hawkins, 63, Lake Oswego, Ore.

Few places were unchanged.

Our homes became crowded with work.

Millions of children were forced to learn online.

For many, a deep sense of emptiness remained.

When I was laid off from my job.

Jamie Harbeck, 38, Arlington, Va.

When I realized I became an unemployment statistic.

Amy Goggin, 41, Troy, N.Y.

When we had to lay off all our employees. No events meant no income. We drank Coronas. We laughed. We cried. We hoped this would not last too long. We have yet to be able to hire even half of them back.

Katwyn Liberti, 50, Orlando, Fla.

I moved to working remotely in our laundry room.

Brady Fopma, 42, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Taking calls from the bathtub to hide from my daughter.

Elis Hackmann Pereira, 35, Burlington, Ontario

The second I walked through the red door of my hospital’s Covid I.C.U. There were about 10 patients, and most were face down and already on continuous dialysis. The wind was knocked out of me. I didn’t know if it was due to the N95 mask or the gravity of the situation.

Mary Keckeisen, 24, Dallas

“Take home everything. Empty your lockers. You won’t be coming back.”

Max Kim, 16, Carmel, Ind.

I never graduated. I never went to senior prom. I hardly got to say goodbye to my best friends before going to college. Bye-bye, normalcy. And bye-bye, childhood and ignorant bliss.

Jess Sauer, 19, Kennett Square, Pa.

Never in my long life had my church been closed to me. I felt utterly abandoned even though I knew it was the right thing to do. This tile helped me survive the pandemic.

Lynn Hoins, 84, Riverton, Utah

When I noticed signs of emptiness outside in the world, whether it was the shelves at stores or a normally crowded train station with not a soul in sight.

Daya Devanathan, 30, Chicago

The silence. No car engines revving as neighbors headed for work. The absence of scraping scooters and giggles of kids as they walk the few blocks to our neighborhood school. The sounds marking the usual hustle and bustle of our daily lives were just gone.

Jennifer Jacoby, 68, Arlington, Mass.

The last night our grandkids spent here. I’ve lain on their beds crying more than once since then.

Stephanie Schuler, 64, Edmonds, Wash.

It was a year of heroism.




And grief.

My son was born. We pulled my older son from school. Panic attacks daily in the shower. Postpartum anxiety engulfed my life.

Megan Leder, 35, Aurora, Colo.

As a recovering alcoholic, my husband was sober for about 10 months. In March, all group meetings were canceled. He held on for about a month and a half, but the isolation became too much to bear and we are back to suffering the effects of his alcoholism.

Kathy, 66, Florida

When my usually bright and sunny 10-year-old son started having panic attacks. Death is all around him and I can’t completely protect him. Ten is too young to come to the realization that one’s parents are fallible in this way.

Carey Sue Barney, 46, Winchester, Mass.

When I contracted Covid despite taking as many precautions as I could. I cried for the rest of the day. I felt so powerless.

Kelley Schlise, 20, Madison, Wis.

I spent a month recovering from horrendous symptoms, watching daily reports about how African-Americans, like me, in my age range, with hypertension, were dying. I live alone, so I had to struggle alone, recover alone, hoping not to die alone.

Kimwa Walker, 49, Durham, N.C.

I waved goodbye to my significant other as I was wheeled into the E.R. I thought I had bronchitis. It turned out to be Covid-19. I wouldn’t see him again — except through a plate glass door — for five and a half months.

Kathy Glascott, 73, Kissimmee, Fla.

When Covid took my great-aunt in Maryland, left, (who was wild and vivacious) and then her brother in the U.K. less than two weeks later. Attending her Zoom funeral was entirely too real.

Kimberly Parkinson-St. Jean, 36, Newark, N.J.

When my father passed away from it.

Molly McLaughlin, 47, Cleveland Area

When my son died in May 2020 in New York City. He was 54 years old.

Robert Castro, 83, Merrick, N.Y.

My aunt died. She was the 34th reported Covid death in Connecticut. That was the day that I learned that Covid was not going to be a disease that happened to “other people.”

Bill Wight, 62, Kingsport, Tenn.

The last time I held my father’s hand.

Lisa Dean-Erlander, 52, Boise, Idaho

Photo credits: Deirdre Bell, Piper Smith, Erin Hughes, Antonino Clemente Mayra Nolan, Jess Sauer, Kelley Sykes, Helene Rutledge, Emma Johnson, Kyley Pulphus, Megan Denniston, Vanessa De La Hoz, Kate Wasson, Alicia Pike-Green, Megan Langley-Cass, Veronica Torres, Christina Kratlian, Felicity Nicholson, Jackie Doughty, Sasha Hizon.

Aidan Gardiner and Steven Moity contributed reporting. Asmaa Elkeurti and Fahima Haque contributed research.

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