For months now, we’ve been bombarded with public health messages and pleas to play our part in slowing the spread of coronavirus.
At first, it was all about keeping our distance and washing our hands. Early adopters led the way in re-writing social norms around greetings and farewells. Handshakes, hugs and kisses were suddenly objectionable. Virus-proof alternatives, like elbow bumps, bicep squeezes, regal-like waves and air kisses – the salutation du jour. Often accompanied by a wry smile to acknowledge the awkwardness of the situation.
For the sceptics among us or those who were just a bit slower on the uptake, it would take a wary dodge of our affectionate advance (or two) to shame us into compliance. To make us more aware and respectful of each other’s virus-free personal space.
We’ve now had time to settle into this new code and its impersonal yet more hygienic social rituals. Familiarity, however, doesn’t equate to acceptance and I find myself drawing the line at elbow bumps. I just can’t do them. To me, they seem contrived – gangsta-ish gestures designed to mock the distancing measures, bro’ – and awkwardly menacing, like a clumsy attempt at a ‘hip and shoulder’.
The changing social norms have prompted me to reflect on my pre-coronavirus habits and question why I greet or farewell others in the way that I do. 🤔
As an unashamedly tactile person, I don’t think twice about hugging and kissing family and friends. So, a distance of 1.5 metres might as well be 1.5 kilometres – it’s still too far away for me. I exercise a bit more restraint when greeting acquaintances, choosing to take my cues from them. But if I detect an ounce of receptivity, I approach with outstretched arms. On the other hand, when meeting someone for the first time in a social situation, I tend to err on the side of formality and opt for a handshake.
This infers the existence of a pecking order in my social circle. In truth, the hierarchy is fluid. Regardless of how long I’ve known you or how receptive you appear, if I enjoy your company and hope to see you again, I’ll farewell you with a heartfelt embrace. Or at least I will, once I can get closer than 1.5 metres. 🙄 For now, though, we’ll both have to make do with direct eye contact and the warmest, friendliest smile I can muster. 😊
Staying at home
The extension of social distancing – staying at home unless it’s absolutely necessary to go out – has been much harder to accept. There’s no doubt government-imposed restrictions are well-intentioned. In the absence of a vaccine, few would argue against social isolation as the key to protecting our most vulnerable citizens and arresting the community transmission of COVID-19.
But as Aristotle observed, ‘Man is by nature a social animal…’. The companionship of others is core to maintaining our sense of wellbeing. As much as communication via electronic means is a welcome lifeline to family, friends and work colleagues during the lockdown, it’s not the same as face-to-face interaction. The temptation to push the boundaries, plead for an exemption or simply flout the ‘stay at home’ rules has been strong. And it’s not just anarchy and boredom fuelling the rebellion.
The trauma of separation
In times of high stress, anxiety or fear, most of us instinctively turn to our nearest and dearest for comfort and reassurance. We might want to voice our concerns freely and be heard without judgement. Ask for advice or practical help to ease our burdens. Feel the touch of a hand, a warm embrace or the silent, companionable presence of a loved one to remind us we are not alone.
It would be so fine to see your face at my door
Doesn’t help to know you’re just time away
Long ago I reached for you and there you stood
Holding you again could only do me good
How I wish I could
But you’re so far away … ~ Carole King
When we are denied that close personal interaction, particularly physical connection, at the time we need it most, it can be incredibly harmful. Research has linked social isolation and its sometimes companion loneliness to a variety of physical health issues, psychological problems and societal consequences.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot since the emergence of heartbreaking news reports about expectant mothers giving birth without partners by their side and children dying alone in hospital. Birth and death – the most significant of life events, bookending the human life cycle. It’s unimaginable to contemplate going through such experiences in isolation and without the comfort and support of a loved one.
Traumatic too for the loved ones denied the opportunity to provide that comfort and support in these pivotal moments. Because once passed, they are lost to us forever. There are no rewind and replay buttons to transport us back to that moment in time. No second chances. The reality of our absence at that moment can haunt us, trap us in a cycle of disappointment, regret, guilt, inadequacy, self-blame … woulda, coulda, shoulda … 😞
And then there’s the nursing home residents denied visits by close relatives. Physically vulnerable because of their age and heightened risk of serious or life-threatening health complications; emotionally vulnerable in their isolation. Trapped in the minutiae and routine of nursing home life, with folk whose company they likely did not choose. Reliant on the goodwill and limited capacity of aged care staff, already stretched and under pressure during this crisis, to facilitate engagement with distant family and friends. Another deeply distressing scenario.
I’m sure we’ve all experienced the trauma of separation at some point in our lives. I’ll certainly never forget my confidence deserting me and panic setting in each time Ty* left the maternity ward after the birth of our first child, Lizzie*. The guilt and sadness on realising that my father-in-law took his last breath alone in the nursing home in which he never wanted to live. And the burning need to abandon a long-awaited holiday and fly halfway around the world to be with family and mourn him together.
Few of us would choose to be separated from loved ones in these moments and commit ourselves to years of regret and other recriminations. Sadly, s#!% happens sometimes, and it simply isn’t possible to be present. The situation is beyond our control. Circumstances conspire against us. Like they are now.
Bridging the distance
Maintaining perspective is important. As difficult as things are, many of the hardships, deprivations and consequences of distancing and isolation are temporary and will eventually improve.
In the meantime, the best we can do is stay connected with each other to the extent that social distancing allows, using whatever means we have available. Take photos, make calls, send messages. And when we fall short of expectations, which we will from time to time, exercise a little self-compassion. Give ourselves credit for past investments in our relationships. Trust that it will be enough to sustain them during this period of separation.
Then reflect on the connectivity and engagement that’s been denied us, as this will help to keep the emotional toll of isolation at the forefront of our mind post-lockdown. Let it be a handy and poignant reminder – to reach out to others with greater empathy, kindness and appreciation, and to hold our loved ones just a little bit closer, for a little bit longer and a lot more often ❤️
How has social distancing and isolation affected you and your loved ones?
*names have been changed