Connection — a powerful lesson from the pandemic
9.30 pm on a Wednesday. I’m exhausted from another relentless day of remote learning with my two young children. I could say I’m looking forward to the upcoming weekend, but that would be a lie. Each day blends into the next, some days, I must remind myself what day it is and hope I haven’t missed an important Zoom meeting. Having just put the kids to bed, I’m sprawled comfortably across my couch, laptop in hand, scanning the pages of one of the most famous books published, I’m researching for my next blog. Given that I’m feeling exhausted, this may sound somewhat irrational. Why not close my laptop and lose myself in the screen of a big TV, watch some mindless show that allows me just to switch off?
In normal circumstances, I would consider doing this. But these are not normal circumstances and time is one of those luxuries that has become severely limited. And since I have remained determined to continue writing for The Picture Healer, I must keep going to get everything done. The book I’m looking through is the English Dictionary (online version). Yes, you have indeed read correctly. Tonight, I’m lost in words. Words that right now, resonate and have more significant relevance in 2020. This is a year that we’ll struggle to forget. The year of massive worldwide interruptions, the year we’ll reflect on for the change it has enforced into our lives. We will remember this year as one that marked the acceleration of online learning, Zoom meetings and an increasing acceptance of working from home. Indeed, it’s the beginning of a remarkably different looking world, and a transformation we’d never imagined.
Back to my research, in my quest for words of greater significance, one word jumps out at me. It’s taken on greater importance during the pandemic. I’m referring to is connection. On the surface connection is a nice word, it’s widely known, and most of us understand what it means. Yet, given the changing face of our world, this word has taken on a new meaning. So much so, I think the word connection warrants a blog of its own.
As humans, we are fundamentally social beings; we are at our best when feeling connected to and acknowledged by others. We crave real and meaningful opportunities for socialization within our network of friends and within the community in which we reside. Until now, we’ve been able to fulfil this basic human need with ease as we go about our daily lives. Then COVID 19 hit, impacting on our ability to connect with anyone other than those with whom we live. When unable to meet our fundamental need for connection, what happens to us as individuals and as a society? How do we continue to get through each day? How do we remain psychologically intact? It’s a big topic of discussion, and the answers we seek may not be easily achievable. Instead, I am developing a framework for dealing with such loss.
Back to the dictionary, which defines connection as:
- The act or state of connecting
- The state of being connected
- Anything that connects; a connecting part; bond; link (o
- Association or relationship
- A circle of friends or associates or a member of such a circle
- Association with or development of something; observed; imagined; discussed etc.
One of the most significant and confronting challenges due to the onset of COVID-19 is the essential requirement for us as individuals to isolate. Besides staying 1.5 metres apart, we’ve also been instructed to refrain from seeing other people, face-to-face for months. We’re told this is essential if we are to emerge from this pandemic successfully. We must obey and retreat to our homes like a hermit, to avoid social contact. The Government advises us continuously that staying apart is the number one priority, the key to flattening the curve of infection rates. I acknowledge this is something we’ve needed to do.
However, much to the distress of many, this isolation rule goes against the strong innate sense of wanting and needing to be in close proximity with other people; to have real and vital connections with others, particularly those with whom have a close relationship. Therefore, this requirement, to retreat from friendships and other social groups, goes against the very essence of what it means to be alive. And while the devastation of COVID-19 cannot be denied, we are yet to understand the detrimental effects this lack of connection may have on our emotional and mental well-being moving forward.
Isolation is a hard pill to swallow. Most of us want to do the right thing but have a strong sense of yearning for that which we can’t have. We’ve lost a lot this year; gone are the days of shaking hands, hugging, and welcoming visitors into our own homes. The vitally important advice, to stay apart, has become essential and deeply ingrained into our minds and cultures. Yet, this new behavior goes against well known, reputable psychological facts. Facts that describe connection as a central part of being human. Connection enhances our quality of life, gives us reason to get out of bed each day and contributes to keeping our brain healthy and active. Connectivity is a powerful tool of wellness for everyone, a tool we need for our mental health and well-being.
The more we stay isolated within the confines of our homes, cut off from friends and family, the lack of physical touch and presence presents a mental challenge for all of us. Professor Brene Brown, noted for her work on human connection and vulnerability, in an interview she has advocated that:
“… a deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don’t function as we were meant to.” (Brene Brown)
As such, the ‘stuff’ many of us have previously valued, showed off, deemed to be important in life, is likely being re-evaluated. The long-standing desire for material possessions such as big fancy homes, fast cars and a closet full of beautiful clothes, is gradually being far outweighed by the acknowledgement that a need for a greater sense of real human connections is more important. In hindsight, the benefits of connection may be one of our most powerful lessons from this devastating time.
Until now, I have experienced a great sense of loss and of loneliness. I’ve felt sadness and grief for what I can no longer do. I’ve experienced perplexing moments, countless difficulties and even times of great inspiration. Each day has contained a few ups followed by a lot of downs. Luckily, I’ve made time to explore why this is so. I’ve sought to learn more about current issues facing our society in preparing to write on my chosen topic for the week. Writing for an audience has become one of my primary ways of staying connected with the world. I’ve not ignored our current predicament, and I’ve refused to sugarcoat anything I write and give the impression that life and living alone with just my immediate family, is easy. On the contrary, the writing I produce comes from daily life as it is lived and experienced. The words that flow onto the pages reflect my feelings and thoughts on that day and the issues at hand.
Right now, connection stands out as a critical facet of life, yet it is missing from the lives of all of us currently in home confinement. The situation may be more dire for particular demographics such as the elderly. Currently, the risk of stepping out for this group of people is too great to take. I know of many examples where beloved and greatly missed grandparents have not seen their children and grandchildren for six months or more. Likewise, I know families who have yet to have meet babies who have been born during the pandemic.
A child’s point of view
Children also deserve recognition, as many have been severely disadvantaged for most of this year. While children are not classified as a demographic at considerable risk, medically speaking, COVID-19 has significantly transformed the daily lives of our little people. The way they see and interact with the world around them has changed dramatically. The compulsory measure of wearing face masks may result in a previously harmless walk down the street now becoming scary and something to be avoided. Measures such as quarantine, physical distancing, school closures, and depriving the innocent hug, affect our children. Precious friendships are sadly missed and no matter how many FaceTime or Zoom meeting we set up, they continue to yearn for that face to face interaction, to be kids, doing what kids do: playing.
Sadly, the younger the child, the less capacity they have to understand what is happening. Undoubtedly, some children may cope better than others, but for many, big and scary feelings may arise, big enough to cause internal distress, in response to a world where they no longer feel safe.
Not only have children been severely compromised on a social level, educationally, they’ve also been disadvantaged. Some children are forced to struggle through remote learning alone; others don’t even bother, and some families do everything they can, but even then, the education doesn’t feel up to scratch. The repercussions may be felt for many years to come. As parents, our job is to step in, be alert and watch for signs that may indicate a child is experiencing difficulties. Problems with sleeping and a general sense of unhappiness, for example, may indicate a problem that needs to be addressed, the sooner the better. Yet, I’ve been told, “Your children will not be adversely affected by this year”. I disagree. I believe our children will suffer the long-term consequences of a pandemic in which they played no role.
“But it’s not fair; it’s my grade two sleepover.”
This is the response I received from my eight-year-old who has been excitedly looking forward to experiencing her first school sleep out. She’s been talking about this same event since she was in grade one! Small problem from the mature mind of an adult, transforms into a massive injustice in the mind of a child. And rightly so. Any attempt to reason leads to more disappointment. Being the smart cookie she is, my daughter will enter a debate with anyone who dares to suggest otherwise. It’s devastating to witness.
Then there’s my younger daughter who has missed the best part of one of the most critical years of a child’s schooling: prep. At the tender age of six, she hasn’t had an opportunity to establish a daily routine of attending school. Establishing a core group of friends has been impossible, and that special feeling a child experiences when meeting their very first schoolteacher has been denied. Sadly, prep children have missed out on the pleasure of developing a strong relationship with their first ever teacher. Class time has been so scarce, any chance of developing core concentration skills that sets a child up for their formal education, hasn’t had an opportunity to grow. In many respects, these children will move onto grade one without many fundamental skills.
Take home message
No-one is immune from the psychological impact of COVID19. Many people will never contract the virus but will still face considerable psychological problems sometime. So, given this, what can we do, particularly for the well-being of our most vulnerable, to encourage connection with our children?
- Be a positive example – lead by example and try to stay calm, even during times of distress (I acknowledge, this is extremely difficult to do!). A child’s mind is like a sponge; they take on everything going on around them. If we are always in a state of disarray, our children are likely to be struggling too. Think carefully about what we say, and how we say it. Way more intelligent than we give them credit for, children will pick up on the slightest sign of distress or bad news.
- Be a source of reassurance – Show children they are safe, loved and cared for. Reassure them that you as a family are doing everything possible to stay safe. Avoid supressing emotion; they need to know that this is a normal and acceptable part of life. Likewise, they need to know it’s okay to let their emotions out.
- Be a good listener – Assure them that you are their go-to person. They can tell you anything and you will not get upset by what they express.
- Avoid the blame game – As hard as this may be, don’t pave the way for more stigma. Keep these thoughts to yourself, write them down in a private journal; keep your thoughts for yourself.
- Supervise and screen – Anything the children are watching on television, or online. The media is skilled at exaggerating the facts and overlooking anything positive. Regardless, the only information children need is that which comes from their parents or teachers.
- Age appropriate and accurate information – Providing age-appropriate information is essential. Avoid overloading children with fear by going into too much detail, especially if the information isn’t age appropriate.
Finally, cut the children some slack. If your children are highly emotional and challenging, consider the possibility this reflects the world they are experiencing. Being shut away in their own home for extended periods is not normal for a child. Therefore, difficult behaviours may be their way of coping. Above all, we need to empower our children by showing them how to be proactive and educate them on how they can help to reduce the risk of spreading germs. We can demonstrate and be an advocate for hand washing, coughing, and sneezing into the elbow, staying at home if feeling unwell and, if it helps children to feel safer, allow them to wear a mask. Overwhelming, the message here is one of empowerment. Empower our children through appropriate information. Equip them with the skills and knowledge so they can do their part in minimising the risk to their health and the health of the people around them. Crucially, allow plenty of time for children to chat with their friends. Reassure them that the pandemic will pass, and soon they’ll be happily playing with their friends, outside, in a community that is again acceptable and safe.