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The 5 Stages of Travel Grief

By Ashlea Halpern

Mar 25, 2020

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A photo from Belgrade in 2019, where the writer traveled on assignment. 

Photo by Ashlea Halpern

A photo from Belgrade in 2019, where the writer traveled on assignment. 

The denial started when we heard about Wuhan. As we process constant change during the COVID-19 global pandemic, it feels a whole lot like the five stages of grief. Can we reach acceptance soon?

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As a freelance travel writer and AFAR’s editor-at-large, I spend about half of my year on the road. In 2019, work assignments took me to Belize, Serbia, Ireland, France, Uzbekistan, and Switzerland, plus seven countries in Africa and nearly a dozen U.S. states. The first half of 2020 was even more stacked, with back-to-back trips planned in Las Vegas, the Galápagos, Qatar, Guyana, Qatar (again), Peru, and Alaska. 

Oh, how the world has changed. 

With breakneck spread, the novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc on every corner of the travel industry and society at large. I don’t know anyone whose universe hasn’t been upended by COVID-19. Grounded flights, sealed borders, shelter-at-home orders: I’m still puzzling through the whiplash myself. Up is down, backward is forward. This beast of a virus steamrolled its way into our lives and is now holding court in our houses, at our jobs, in our newsfeeds, and in our heads. 

In the grand scheme of things, disrupted travel is nothing to complain about. The fact that mandatory social distancing is laying waste to so many “nonessential” industries is unfortunately a sacrifice that dutiful members of a globalized public have to make for the greater good. I may lose my livelihood and everything I’ve ever worked for, but other people are losing their lives

That doesn’t make me feel any less sad, or angry, or fearful. My mood these days is pendulous, vacillating between sanguine optimism (Peru in May? It could totally still happen!) and nihilistic melancholy (I’ll never travel again, unless you count the “international foods” aisle at Cub). Lost income aside, coronavirus has laid bare an uncomfortable truth: I don’t know who I am if not a traveler. 

Stage One: Denial

I don’t remember the first time I wrote the word coronavirus, but Gmail does. It was in a note to my dad from Tuesday, February 4—subject line “so this coronavirus.” China was the pariah and its stock market was crashing. I knew the situation in Wuhan was a mess, but it was hard to comprehend. I hadn’t visited China in years. This felt like someone else’s problem, somewhere far, far away.

I didn’t think much about coronavirus again until 10 days later, when the State Department began evacuating Americans aboard the Diamond Princess. It was a disturbing story but still felt confined to Wuhan, and now the cruise industry.

On Friday, February 28, I went to an Urgent Care in Minneapolis. Earlier that week, I’d had a sore throat and wheezing cough, chased with shaking and chills and 101.5-degree fever. Because I have asthma and a volatile on-again, off-again romance with pneumonia, I couldn’t take any risks. One traumatizing nose swab later, I tested positive for Influenza A. The doctor wrote me a script for Tamiflu and told me to get some rest. (She never tested for coronavirus.) On Sunday, March 1, I flew to the Galápagos for work. “At least it’s not coronavirus!” I chirped to anyone who would listen.

Stage Two: Anger

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The following Sunday, March 8, I flew from Ecuador back to J.F.K. and waltzed right through Global Entry—no questions asked, no temperature taken. As I waited for my duffel at the baggage carousel, I was dumbstruck, and a bit incensed. The United States is doing nothing to stop this thing, I thought. Here I am, fresh off a plane from a country with enough worrisome cases of coronavirus that security officials screened me for a fever on three different occasions, yet nobody in America gives me a passing glance. Folks I knew flying back from Italy and Japan reported similar experiences.

Though momentarily disgruntled, my denial was still presidential in scope. I leaned heavily on flu vs. coronavirus mortality rates and didn’t buy the media’s clickbait hysterics. My next two international assignments were scheduled for March 21–28 (Qatar) and April 2–9 (Guyana), and dammit, I was going. On Tuesday, March 10, I sat at my computer and ordered two new swimsuits, a rashguard, a wide-brimmed sun hat, sunglasses, two pairs of sandals, and half a closet’s worth of summery linens. That’s how deluded I was.

On Thursday, March 12, shit got real. Cardi B had called it two days earlier, but I wasn’t listening. First my Qatar trip was cancelled, then Guyana. My travel plans were collapsing like dominos; each lost assignment represented one less check I could put toward rent. I was indignant. What do you mean it’s canceled and they’re closing borders?! I’m 38! I’m not immunosuppressed! You can’t tell me what to do! 

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

Stage Three: Bargaining

OK, OK, fine, I reasoned. Qatar and Guyana are off the table. I’ll reschedule what I can for April and figure out somewhere else to go in the interim. Flights were dirt-cheap because the airlines were hemorrhaging passengers. Before I could even rebook, things changed again . . . then again. Everywhere I looked, countries were bolting their doors and pulling down the shades. I couldn’t refresh the New York Times homepage fast enough to keep up with the bad news. 

My inner voices were at war. One was combing the internet for flight deals; the other was urging my boyfriend to sweep the grocery store for nonperishables. “Go! Hurry!” Before it’s too late. 

Stage Four: Depression

Looking back, I cringe at how quick I was to gamble my own health and the health of others. But at that moment, on March 12, I was in a total tailspin, desperate to preserve some semblance of normalcy. 

Within 24 hours, I too was gripped with debilitating dread. Schools around the country closed. Nursing homes were under siege. Entire offices moved online, seemingly overnight. South By Southwest was canceled and Coachella bumped to fall. Professional sports ground to a halt. Tom Hanks announced he had the virus, then Sophie Trudeau, then Idris Elba. Broadway went dark. The Met shuttered. Restaurants and bars, too. One after another, the cornerstones of our social and cultural fabric shut down. 

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It felt like it couldn’t get worse, until friends started getting laid off. Small business owners were drowning. Artists and musicians, who on a good day already teeter on the precipice of financial ruin, were launching GoFundMes at a dizzying clip. My IRA dropped nearly 40 percent, while in-the-know senators saved themselves millions selling off hospitality stocks before the market plummeted. Bodies were piling up in Italian churches, with no one to bury them. Rich people were buying ventilators directly from manufacturers, while doctors and nurses stormed the frontlines with no ammo.

It’s like the Great Depression meets the 1918 Spanish flu, I fretted. If we don’t die, literally, from the coronavirus, we will be annihilated by socioeconomic collapse. In a particularly low moment, I imagined reports of gunshots on Next Door as bands of looters, coming for our Purell. I lost track of how many times I typed the phrase, “It feels like the world is upside down.”  The comedians and Twitterati couldn’t produce memes fast enough to lighten the mood.

On Thursday, March 19, the State Department issued an unprecedented Level 4: “Do Not Travel” warning. What had traditionally been reserved for war-torn countries and mass disease outbreaks now applied to the whole world. The United States, Mexico, and Canada were corking their borders to nonessential travel. Americans who were outside the country were told to return immediately—or plan to stay abroad indefinitely. 

Looming over all of that heartbreak was an even more sickening thought: Is this the end of travel? I hated myself for asking such a trivial question when people were dying and losing jobs and folding businesses they had spent a lifetime building. But I knew others in my industry were wondering the same thing and feeling just as unmoored by the deafening silence that answered.

Stage Five: Acceptance

I don’t know if it was a Jewish grandmother or Public Enemy who coined it first, but the proverb “Man plans, God laughs” has never felt truer than right now. This wasn’t the spring any of us imagined, not by a long shot, but it’s the spring we got. 

The best I can do under the circumstances is hunker down at home, recalibrate my workload to focus on COVID-19 reporting, and seek out low-trafficked trails where I can walk in the sunshine and be reminded that not everything in life is terrible. 

When I learned that Wuhan hit a milestone on March 18—no new local infections—the entirety of my being sparkled with hope. That could be us in three months! Do I still worry about the devastating impact this thing will have on the travel industry, the global economy, and the November election? Of course. But I also know it’s beyond my control. What gives me hope is knowing that the fire of travel, once lit, can never be extinguished. Experiencing the good in the world is what keeps us alive. 

My suitcase is still sitting next to my desk, as accessible as pen and paper. The second these travel bans lift and borders reopen and our planet returns to normal-ish, I want to be the first one at the boarding gate, helping the industry rebound and leading the way for others. I refuse to imagine a life without travel. It’s the only way to get through this.

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