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Journaling During a Pandemic: Then and Now

While the coronavirus pandemic may seem unprecedented to those of us in the midst of it, it’s not the first time a virus has consumed the nation and caused widespread shutdowns and loss of life. The Spanish Influenza of 1918 provides us with a fascinating parallel and historians are turning to personal narratives of the time to reflect and compare with present-day circumstances. Can looking to the past bring comfort or insight into our current predicament, and what sort of benefits does the act of journaling have in the midst of historic times?

Smithsonian Magazine is just one of many publications examining writings from 1918. In this article several diary entries from varied perspectives are included, such as:

 It was announced in the papers tonight that all churches, shows and schools would be closed until further notice, to prevent Spanish influenza from spreading. Good idea? I’ll say it is! So will every other school kid, I calculate. … The only cloud in my sky is that the [School] Board will add the missed days on to the end of the term.

I recommend giving the article a thorough read, as it details writings from people from all ages and walks of life. Some entries focus on the mundane and day to day, while others hone in specifically on the pandemic, the symptoms, the names of the dead and the state of the nation. Much like our own existence, theirs was a time of confusion and duality, the balance between life goes on and so many people are dying every day.

The Online Archive of California also presents a fantastic resource for reading letters and diaries themed around the 1918 Spanish Flu. Here you can find first-hand accounts from more than forty individuals, with entries such as:

There are an awfull lot of people dying just now on account of the flu. A little girl next door was buried today and theres a lady up the street a ways that is pretty sick and my little sister is just getting over it, so I guess it is pretty near my turn for every one in our family has had it but me.

For me, one of the rewarding elements of accessing these writings is the permission it gives me to write freely during this time. While many of the letters and entries mention the pandemic, there are others sprinkled with bits of gossip, details of daily chores, comments on the weather. It has been recommended by others (including in the articles linked within this post), but I’ll reiterate it here: there’s no need to write exclusively about the “big picture” events. Living through historic times doesn’t invalidate the experiences that carry over from before the “new normal.” In fact, it is as much in the simple moments as it is the grandiose ones that we unveil the truths of our lives, or times, and ourselves.

Below I’ve included a list of ten prompts I’ve brainstormed to jumpstart your journal entries. Happy writing, and be well.

  1. Grocery shopping during a pandemic is its own unique struggle! Write out a list of your latest shopping items to reflect on later. Why did you buy those items? What’s essential? What’s for fun?
  2. List out ten things you’re grateful for today.
  3. Write about one funny or unexpected thing that happened today.
  4. Take one headline from the news today and use it as the title for a poem.
  5. Stuck in your house more than ever? Describe one space within your home that you enjoy. What objects stand out? Are there textures that are pleasing to the touch or eye? Be descriptive.
  6. Review one show or movie you’ve watched during this time.
  7. If you could give advice to yourself back at the start of the pandemic, what would it entail? Write a letter to your past self for this entry.
  8. More than ever, maintaining a sense of connection to our loved ones can be challenging. For this entry, write about one person you miss spending time with and describe the closeness you share with them.
  9. We’ve all made sacrifices and there are things we’ve all missed out on due to the pandemic. Brainstorm some things you’d like to do when it becomes an option again, such as attending a concert, or hosting a party. Indulge in a little bit of hopefulness!
  10. Have you or someone you love been directly affected by the coronavirus? Describe that experience and allow yourself to process the emotions around that in a journal entry.
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