Sarah Whelan, from Dublin, lives in Sydney, in Australia, where she is a Social Worker, Mentor and Founder of Irish Women Abroad.
Sarah has kindly agreed to share with us about her reaction when she first heard about the pandemic -COVID19, as well as touching on the impact it has had on her life and family and shares her advice for Irish expats around the world.
Can You Tell Us a Little About Yourself?
I’m a Sydney-based Dubliner and have been living in Australia for 13 years with my Irish husband (who I actually met in Sydney 6 years ago). I originally travelled to Australia on a working holiday and I couldn’t see myself living in Sydney for the long term. However, on my return to Ireland, I missed Sydney so much that I made the decision that I would return to live here for the foreseeable future. I didn’t realise it at the time, but I had fallen completely in love with this beautiful country.
In 2016, my daughter was born in Sydney away from my family and friends, and like many other Irish expats, it prompted me to plan the move to Ireland. The decision to return to Ireland was extremely difficult.
I thought about moving back home many times over the years, but it was only after having my own family abroad that the pull became so great. We loved living in Dublin again, spending time with family and friends but it didn’t feel quite right. After a lot of soul searching we returned to Sydney at the end of 2017 and have been living happily in Sydney since.
Since that time I founded IWA in 2019 as living abroad can at times be so isolating and difficult and I felt inspired to bring Irish women together in a supportive and encouraging environment and to empower Irish women to believe in themselves and to form positive connections.
How Did You React When You Heard First About the Pandemic?
When I heard first about the pandemic I was actually really sick with a horrible cough and feared that I may have COVID myself. Luckily, it was confirmed that it wasn’t the case, but as a result, I abruptly started working from home with no preparation. The situation hasn’t changed since then and it’s likely to continue for the next few months.
It was a very unsettling, confronting and lonely time, to begin with, and I remember hoping that it was all a bad dream and I would wake up and it would be over. I barely left the house for the first three weeks, unless it was to get exercise around the block.
My four-year-old daughter also stayed at home until she too recovered from her cough, but then needed to return to child care. I never realised how impractical apartment living is with children until COVID-19 struck!
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One thing that really stood out for me at the time, was how incredibly grateful I felt to live in Australia, but at the same time, I had pangs of homesickness I have never experienced before. There’s something about being told you can’t travel overseas that makes you want to even more!
What Impact Has Coronavirus Had on Your Life?
It happened so suddenly and life became dramatically different almost overnight. All of the plans I had made for 2020, including many events for Irish women were postponed instantly. I remember feeling uncertain about things I had, like others, take for granted.
From feelings of fear, anxiety, confusion and shock, to the adjustment of a new routine.
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The separation from people I care about really made me think deeply about our decision to live abroad. I was missing events and get-togethers. Brunches, dinners and coffee dates. The human connection. Video calls such as on the Zoom app are great but nothing beats face to face contact.
I noticed a few times that guilt would creep in, guilt for enjoying myself whilst seeing all of the horror images of what was happening in Ireland and the rest of the world on social media. The impact of the calls home and the dreaded thoughts of worst-case scenarios should a loved one pass away from the deadly virus played on my mind. Or worse still, worrying about what would happen if anything happened to myself or my husband and who would take care of my little girl.
Thoughts that I hadn’t really given much energy to previously. It was hard to watch on the sidelines as others struggled and businesses closed their doors and many friends have lost their jobs. I didn’t know what to say or to do to help.
I can vividly remember the heartbreak of telling my daughter that everything she enjoyed in life was closed, Irish dancing and gymnastic classes put on hold and that she wasn’t going to be able to play with her friends and neighbours. Having no timeline to speak of, was even harder.
What Positives (if any) Came About From COVID 19?
I have learned how resilient Irish expats are but also the power of community. The Irish Organisations spread out across Australia and around the world have supported the most vulnerable Irish people and have started fantastic initiatives to raise money, such as online concerts and webinars to raise awareness for Mental Health. IWA’s virtual events which were named “Cuppa Chats” were so successful at bringing Irish women together all over the world at a time when we really needed it.
I am so grateful for all I have in my life, the Irish community and the support has been just amazing. The simpler ways of life during the pandemic has brought awareness to the things that really light me up and the most meaningful relationships.
The power of the Online world
In such a short amount of time, Irish expats around the world have really embraced the online world, myself included. I have taken up courses, joined mentoring groups and attended many wonderful virtual events. I have even booked my first ever virtual retreat in the coming weeks which I am really looking forward to. I even organised virtual playdates for my daughter with all of her favourite characters from Frozen characters to Barbie with an events company in Sydney.
Home cooking and baking
I have never baked and cooked hearty “Irish meals” as much as I have in the last 3 months. Baking bread seems to offer stress relief but also many of us are learning new skills. I’ve even heard that baking bread is at the core of our culture and that this is an instinctive return to the roots of civilization!
What Can People do to Look After Themselves During These Difficult Times?
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Connection and community
A kind and encouraging word can go a long way in supporting someone who is finding life challenging. Reach out to people and let them know you care whether it’s a call, don’t underestimate the power you have to offer hope to another person. There’s a good chance they are also feeling isolated.
Don’t wait for people to connect with you, reach out to them if you are struggling. Ask your friends how they are feeling and share your own experiences too.
Do what makes you feel good and give yourself permission to do what is good for your soul. Crying helps release built-up emotions and it is normal to cry with so much change at once. Secret cries in the bath or in the car have really helped me get through.
Stay off social media
Limit time spent on social media if you can as it can really affect your mental health when all you are seeing is the negative things happening in the world.
Surround yourself in positivity
Read a motivational book, listen to an uplifting podcast or watch an inspiring documentary on Netflix. There are some pretty good Irish ones on there if you want a taste of home.
Give yourself a break
If you are working from home (especially if you have kids at home) accept that you are doing your best and that is all you can ask of yourself. Get through the day as best as you can.
When you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed the best thing to do is to stay active (but often the hardest). As much as you might feel like hiding from all the chaos right now, the simple act of getting outside and going for a walk can do wonders.
Sit with yourself
It can be tempting to distract yourself when the world is in turmoil but use the time to go within e.g enjoy a mediation, an Epsom salt bath or a warm and soothing drink and reflect. The more calm and centred you feel the more you can support others going through a tough time.
Any Final Thoughts?
Life post-COVID-19 is going to involve a certain amount of adjustment for all of us. Only time will tell what the new normal will look like. We are all grieving. Grieving for what we had, what we have lost and the uncertainty facing us in the future.
I hope we forge ahead with a renewed sense of perspective and gratitude and that we don’t take things for granted like we used to. Trips to Ireland are no longer as simple as they once were, but I am hopeful that the new normal will bring people closer together and maybe even encourage Irish expats to return to Ireland to be closer to family if that is the direction they have been longing to take.
It’s hard being away from home but I’ve never felt prouder to be Irish. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “what seems to us as bitter trials are often blessings in disguise”.
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Sarah is a Mentor for Irish expats and Founder of Irish Women Abroad, which is a community of Irish women supporting each other whilst living away from home. It is a safe space for Irish women to network and connect with each other and share our lived experiences. We do this through our online community and by organising face to face events throughout the year. What’s unique about Irish Women Abroad is that we are an inclusive community – we are from all different age groups and all walks of life.