The Grief of Social Distance

It’s only been a few weeks since social distancing measures were first employed in our state. It’s only been a few days since the governor enacted a “stay at home” order. For others, social distancing and shelter in place orders have been in place longer. Now, after the orders have been given and the novelty of being at home is wearing off, we have to begin the work of adjusting to our new reality.

The first few days of anyone’s social distancing/home stay may have felt like a reprieve from the day to day stress of commuting and meetings and professional appearances. We can wear sweats to work, and eat when we want, and avoid awkward encounters with that coworker, etc. Time and again, we have used humor to communicate the reality of our new work from home (WFH) lives and to relieve some pressure from the stress of our societal circumstances.

There have been jokes about how introverts can handle this with no problem and how Gen X was conditioned for social distancing and self-isolation throughout childhood and adolescence. I am both an introvert and a Gen Xer. In a way it’s true: as an introvert, I have no problem being on my own. I have a thousands and one projects to keep me busy. As a Gen Xer, I can MacGuyver a three-course meal using cereal, mac and cheese, and popcorn as my only ingredients.

While humor is a great way to relieve tension, and there may be some truth to the stereotypes floating around the internet, the fact is: a lack of social (and face-to-face) interaction for weeks on end is difficult for everyone.

I have a spouse and an infant to keep me occupied. Many people are home alone with no daily face-to-face interaction–save perhaps video chat meetings with coworkers or friends. The joys of alone time disappear faster than one might expect. The novelty of being home with a spouse you don’t see regularly can get wearing too since alone time is a thing of the past.

Suddenly being deprived of socialization with colleagues, friends, and family comes with an emotional price. As does having to clear our calendars of weekly and monthly events that help reduce stress, keep us socialized, and work our minds, bodies, and spirits. Various labels can be used to describe our experiences: loneliness, anxiety, boredom, “cabin fever,” etc. One category that we may forget to include is grief.

We are not just missing our social freedoms and our face-to-face time, we are grieving the sudden cessation of our life as we knew it. We are grieving lost interactions, lost wages, lost purpose, lost comforts, and perhaps we fear for the future. This time is and will be a profound experience for many people, not just because of the virus spreading through our communities, but also because of the deep emotional and economic resonance social distancing will have on us all by the time we are able to resume our in-person contact and our work.

We are grieving the life that helped keep us calm and centered, the life that helped distract us from troubles (sometimes too well), and the life that provided us meaning. Now, as with any experience of grief, we have to comes to terms with new meanings in our life, we have to adapt to the sudden loss of community and individuals that helped make our lives tolerable/livable.

Consider the following suggestions for adjusting to our new present:

Accept and surrender to social distance and the accompanying isolation.

We’ve been at this for a few weeks now; however, not everyone has accepted social distancing/isolation and many continue to rebel against it. Acceptance is the first part of the adjustment to this new way of living, surrender is the important second piece. Give yourself over to the distance and isolation, and truly immerse yourself in this present moment. The sooner you give yourself to the restructured social world in which we now live, the sooner you can begin adapting to your new routine.

Allow yourself to feel sad about the things you miss in this new present.

It’s okay to be sad about missing your happy hours, your workouts, your shopping expeditions, etc. You may even find yourself missing things you never thought you would, like your office or your commute, because of the interaction and sense of purpose they provided you. Let yourself feel the weight of the loss and don’t try to push it away with distractions. When you feel heavy, acknowledge it and reflect on why you feel the way you do. What are you missing? What did that activity or interaction provide you that you don’t have now? What can you substitute that may provide a similar sense in your life now? You may discover new priorities in this reflection as well; that is, things that seemed unimportant or annoying before, when seen through the lens of isolation, are understood for the purpose they once served in your life.

Share your sadness, grief, and frustrations with others.

Don’t keep your frustration at being isolated to yourself. Share your emotions with friends, family, coworkers, etc., even if may not have been part of your relationship(s) before. As our form of interaction has changed, the form of our relationships will also change. We need emotional connection more in this present than we may have had before. Reach out to those around you, confide in a trusted friend, family member, significant other, or colleague, and be an ear for others who need to share their struggles at this time. There is no weakness in admitting this period is difficult.

Avoid using alcohol and drugs to numb your feelings of loss, loneliness, and frustration.

Turning to alcohol and drugs as a means of forgetting our stressful present or dealing with boredom, loneliness, or anxiety is problematic. Drinking and using drugs as a coping mechanism for stress will make things worse rather than better, and may create long-term problems that outlast this period of isolation. Channel that frustration into creative activities (like hobbies) or exercise that burn off nervous energy and transform anxiety into something productive. If you feel that you are relying heavily on alcohol and drugs to cope with social distancing and isolation, contact a professional as soon as possible. Telemedicine is available to help.

Document your feelings and thoughts in a journal, blog, video diary, or vlog.

Keep track of your emotional experience through writing (either privately or publicly). Writing for yourself and/or others can help you make sense of the emotions churning through you at this time. You may find that, by putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys), you can work through some of the anxiety and grief you feel and/or begin to explore ways to improve your circumstances (i.e., through a mental and/or emotional shift in how you approach emotions associated with social distancing and isolation).

Contact a professional your emotions are overwhelming and you feel that living during this pandemic is too much.

Thankfully we have access to telemedicine during this outbreak. Take advantage of it whenever you can. If you are struggling with loneliness, isolation, guilt over not being able to help family and friends, anger, etc. contact a counselor or grief therapist using telemedicine services. Your PCP may be able to direct you to mental health professionals using video services for counseling sessions. Right now especially, reaching out for assistance with this sudden and drastic transition may make all the difference for your social distancing experience.

If you have any suggestions for how people can come to terms with the new normal of social distancing and self-isolation, please note them in the comments section below or post a message on the ANCarroll Facebook page.

I wish all of you good health, safety, and calm.

XO

A

Published by ancarroll

Alexandra N. Carroll is an Adjunct Professor at St. Michael's College in Vermont. She writes on grief and self-care from her home in Burlington. In her spare time, Alexandra crochets, reads, and explores.

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