Kate Dennis

While the world anxiously watches the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic, stories of those affected by the virus continue to emerge.  Though many of these stories focus on people who have contracted COVID-19, many have been personally impacted by the virus without ever being infected. As these stories emerge, it is important to apply Sayantani DasGupta’s theory of narrative humility, meaning that these stories deserved to be heard and listened to, even if they seem predictable or “typical.” Grace Smith,[1] a college student, tells her story of COVID-19 and how her life has been drastically altered throughout this pandemic, even though she herself has not contracted the virus.  When asked about her experience during this pandemic, Grace states, “It’s been a little crazy, I think, for everyone.  It’s a new adjustment for sure,” (Smith).  As Grace tells her story of COVID-19 and living through a pandemic, it is clear that her story is shaped by her occupation, age, and culture.

When telling her story of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, Grace begins with the end of March, when COVID-19 related school closures caused her to leave the College of Charleston and return home.  She recalls finishing her semester at home, including taking her final exams online.  During the summer, many of Grace’s planned activities, such as her plans to study abroad, were cancelled due to COVID-19 precautions.  Grace spent the summer in quarantine with her family. Throughout her story, she expresses feelings of frustration and isolation, stemming from limited social interaction and living in relative isolation with only her immediate family for company. She combats these feelings with outdoor activity and exercise, such as hiking and running. As she tells her story, Grace emphasizes the lifestyle changes that she has made to protect herself and others, such as social distancing and wearing a mask when she goes out in public.  When referring to life during a pandemic, Grace states, “It’s a whole new environment” (Smith).

Grace’s occupation as a College of Charleston student plays a major role in her story of COVID-19.  Given that colleges across the U.S. closed in the beginning of the pandemic to prevent the spread of the virus, many college students, including Grace, experienced major disruptions to everyday routines.  This is a concept that Frank emphasizes when discussing illness narratives, because illness interrupts life, and these interruptions become major pieces of the storyteller’s narrative.  For Grace, this interruption meant that she was forced to abandon her life in Charleston and move back home to complete the remainder of her academic work.  Grace notes that while her professors were accommodating during the online learning period, she still wanted to be back on campus for the fall semester, especially so that she could attend in-person classes.  When asked about being a college student during the COVID-19 pandemic, Grace states, “I think just being in college in general, you feel a sense of kind of being robbed of the experience and what it normally is,” (Smith).

Along with her status as a college student, Grace’s experience with the COVID-19 pandemic is also influenced by her age.  As a 20 year old, Grace states that while she is still concerned about contracting COVID-19 and facing some of the lingering symptoms, such as loss of taste and smell, she feels that her age lowers her risk for the more dangerous effects of the virus. Grace states, “In terms of like, really terrible damage to my lungs and scarring and all that, I think I’m not as susceptible or I don’t think it would affect me as much considering  I don’t have a past of smoking, I’m healthy, I’m young. I think my body could do a pretty good job of recovering” (Smith).  This is a fairly common mentality throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, given that the virus tends to have a more negative impact on the elderly and people with pre-existing conditions. If Grace were older, she would possibly face more worry about her health and her body’s ability to fend off the virus.

Another external factor that influence’s Grace’s COVID-19 story is the family culture in which she was raised.  Grace mentions that she has a large extended family, given that her mother is one of ten children, and that gathering together as a family was a very important tradition.  Grace states, “I’m so used to, whenever I’m home, seeing family all the time, like every weekend… That’s definitely been a huge adjustment,” (Smith).  Grace notes that this adjustment was extremely noticeable during Thanksgiving, when her entire family was unable to gather together.  Isolation from family is something that has played a major role in the COVID-19 experience of many, often contributing to feelings of loneliness and frustration at the loss of tradition and routine.  Grace notes that while she has been able to see her family occasionally during the pandemic, the limited contact is still a major source of disruption and adjustment.

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, it is incredibly important to pay attention to the stories that are being told as a result.  This is a pandemic that impacts everyone in some way, and everyone’s experience will be different, which is why it is crucial to apply DasGupta’s theoretical approach of narrative humility when hearing the stories.  In her TED Talk, “Narrative Humility,” DasGupta calls “being heard, being made to understand that we matter in this world” a “fundamental human need” (DasGupta).  Even if someone’s story seems “typical” or uninteresting in its relative normalcy, the storyteller still deserves to be heard and understood.

Throughout Grace’s story, she often mentions the changes that she and many others have had to adapt to in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This concept of the pandemic as something that causes disruption to everyday life corresponds with Arthur Frank’s idea of narrative wreckage and the importance of illness narratives.  In his book, The Wounded Storyteller, Frank writes, “Almost every illness story I have read carries some sense of being shipwrecked by the storm of disease, and many use this metaphor explicitly.  Extending this metaphor describes storytelling as repair work on the wreck” (Frank 54).  Even if someone has not contracted the virus, the pandemic has caused many people to experience Frank’s idea of wreckage, which is why these stories are so crucial. As more people begin to tell and share their stories, they can begin to truly process all of the changes and disruptions caused by the pandemic, which may promote emotional healing for the trauma brought on by the uncertainty and fear of living through a pandemic. Given that this pandemic is so widespread, the future repercussions have the potential to be incredibly prominent.  By gathering a wide array of illness narratives of different people’s experiences, everyday people and healthcare professionals alike can gain insight into the ways in which a pandemic of this magnitude impacts those who are living through it, and how certain external factors influence a person’s experience with illness.  Not only will this increase understanding for those who are facing the COVID-19 pandemic, but it can also help prepare for future pandemics and public health crises.


[1] To protect the interviewee’s confidentiality, Grace Smith is a pseudonym.