You aren’t alone in feeling alone during COVID-19.
By Jamie Aten, Ph.D. & Kent Annan, M.Div.
During challenging times, it’s common for some of the people you need most to suddenly be nowhere to be found. Never has this been truer than during the pandemic. I’m not talking about friends who don’t physically show up because of social distancing guidelines; rather, I’m talking about friends who stop showing up virtually.
Perhaps you have a strong support system that has reached out and supported you through the pandemic, or even a possible COVID-19 diagnosis. Even so, it’s likely that almost everyone reading this has had several previously close friends and family members seemingly “fall off the face of the earth.”
If this describes your experience, know that you aren’t alone in feeling alone.
It’s normal to feel saddened and hurt and to struggle because of this. And even if this is a small minority of just a few people, it may feel like the isolation is compounding your COVID-19 struggles. While there’s no prescriptive way to respond to those who pull away during difficult seasons—like these unprecedented times, a COVID-19 diagnosis, or even loss of a loved one to the disease—there are alternatives that will help you mitigate the hurt from worsening.
Even if your feelings may have been bruised when some of the people in your life withdrew, try to reach out. I found these conversation starters helpful in doing so:
“I wanted to make sure you heard the news from me.”
“Just wanted to check in and see if you had any questions for me.”
“I’ve missed you, I hope we can connect soon online.”
“I’ve been thinking about you.”
Reaching out may be as simple as a short text, email, or social media post. Also, don’t fret about just picking up your cell phone and making a quick call. Don’t worry about what you’ll say or what the other person may say; the process of reaching out is in and of itself valuable. And if at first, you don’t succeed, try again, as maintaining relationships during a pandemic takes endurance.
Release Some Relationships
However, I also realize that because of COVID-19 you may not have the emotional energy it takes to rebuild a friendship. This is especially true if you are actively in quarantine, receiving treatment, or mourning a loss. If this describes you, it’s important to remember to give yourself permission to release the friendship for a time. Paradoxically, you may find that giving yourself permission to let go for a period of time may actually give you the emotional energy you need to try to maintain your relationship. Sometimes mitigating relational strain involves lovingly releasing those who aren’t able to care well for you during the pandemic. Whether you choose to pursue someone you’ve cared about or whether you choose to release that person for a season, doing so will help reduce this hardship.
Reset Healthy Boundaries
Shortly after COVID-19 hit, I tried to engage with an old friend to repair our relationship. Yet despite my efforts, this person remained distant. When that didn’t work, I expressed my concerns and aired how I was feeling. I eventually came to terms with the fact that this friendship wasn’t healthy for me. I needed to be surrounded by others who helped bring peace to the chaos I was going through. It was challenging, but boundaries needed to be set. It took forgiving this person who fell away after deeply wounding me before I could move forward. When you choose to forgive, you give a gift not just to the other person but also to yourself.
Remember Others Actively Reaching Out
Because of the heightened isolation most people are experiencing during the pandemic, it can be easy to focus on those who aren’t there for you. But remember, it’s more helpful to focus on those who have continued to be supportive. Focus on being mindful of others who continue to reach out to you, as well as times when someone you didn’t expect to be friendly, was. The more you welcome others already trying to help, the less lonely you’ll feel.
Reframe by Perspective Shifting
I’ve also discovered over the years that sometimes when I feel lonely, it’s because I was the person pulling away from others who had been there for me. Make sure you aren’t unintentionally walling yourself from others without even realizing. If you’ve struggled with this at times in the past, you’ll likely need to be even more intentional in building and maintaining relationships through COVID-19.
But let’s say it’s not you who has pulled away, but your friend or loved one has been doing the backpedaling. Before jumping to conclusions, pause long enough to perspective shift. Yes, the reason the other person may not be as present in your life could be because of a relationship conflict issue, or perhaps they are indeed holding onto a grudge. However, it could also be that they are just struggling like you, and wishing you’d reach out to them.
Each relationship is unique and works differently. What works for one person might not be effective with another. But the steps mentioned above are a good place to start if you are feeling lonely and wondering how to maintain relationships through the pandemic.
Jamie Ate, Ph.D. is founder and co- director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College and Blanchard Professor of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit jamieaten.com. Kent Annan, M.Div. is co- director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Associate Lecturer of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College. Follow on Twitter at @kentannan or visit kentannan.com. They are also the co-founders of National COVID-19 Day.