Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing

Photography Provided

The pandemic has caused a number of emotions, including confusion, concern, panic, pain, anxiety, anger – the list goes on. One positive response to the pandemic, however, has been the act of reflection, as it has been almost impossible not to spend time contemplating how life once was, how different it is now, and how it might look in the future.

At the start of the shutdowns in the spring of 2020, a certain portion of the population felt a collective sigh of relief, as we were forced to take a break from our normal routines. We embraced the chance to take a breather and were thankful to suddenly have something that, for many, was a foreign concept – alone time.

Without having to run to appointments, meetings, classes, events, rehearsals and other extracurricular activities, we found ourselves taking a personal inventory of what we should change. Some vowed to get moving as they biked or walked off built-up stress. Others took up baking, sewing or some other project that always seemed to get pushed to the back-burner, like assembling that 1,000-piece puzzle of the ocean. No matter who you are or what your situation was, we all, at one point or another, experienced this one universal feeling – loneliness.

pandemicI was recently talking to a friend, Alex, who shared how he had a newfound appreciation for the inevitable loneliness that the elderly most certainly face. Even in normal times, many of them are unable to get out and about due to their physical or emotional limitations. How isolating that must be.

“Years ago I used to take my dog and visit nursing homes once a week, but then life got busy and the regular outing fell by the wayside,” Alex told me. “But I tell you what – when this pandemic is over, I’m going to get back to visiting the elderly.”

It makes sense that we’re feeling lonely, because the nature of many of our friendships has adjusted during the COVID crisis. Whether we know it or not, friendships are vital to our health and well-being.

According to Lydia Denworth, author of the book “Friendship,” loneliness is as deadly as cigarette smoking or obesity. “Friendship is a matter of life and death,” she writes in the book. “It is carried in our DNA, in how we’re wired. Social bonds have the power to shape the trajectories of our lives, and that means friendship is not a choice or a luxury – it’s a necessity that is critical in our ability to succeed and thrive.”

The thing I miss most is hugging. I get that not everybody is a touchy-feely kind of person. I, however, am sustained by the embrace, particularly during difficult times. I remember several years ago after my mom died, I felt lost and broken. Craving comfort, I called a friend and simply asked, “Can you come over and give me a hug?”

During the pandemic, however, doctors have repeatedly told us the importance of keeping our distance from others, and no matter how you do the math, you can’t hug someone while standing 6’ apart. I told my husband, “After I’m inoculated, I’m getting a T-shirt made that says, ‘I’ve been vaccinated. Hug me!’”

He thinks I’m joking, but he’ll know I’m serious when he sees me throw my arms around the UPS driver.

Over the course of the last year, we have found ways to connect virtually, which is better than nothing, but there’s something to be said for face-to-face interactions. They’re just inherently more intimate, more meaningful. They are the ones we remember. The ones we cherish. Several years ago, my best friend called me in tears with news that her marriage was on the rocks. I dropped what I was doing, hopped in my car and drove 90 minutes to meet her so we could hug it out, talk it through, and start the healing. I don’t think we could have covered the same ground had we not been in the same room.

There is a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. Alone is a state that we may enjoy and even seek out. Loneliness, on the other hand, leaves us feeling distressed, disheartened and depressed. According to “Psychology Today,” research has shown that loneliness poses serious threats to well-being and long-term physical health. This is because humans crave connection.

On the radio recently, a deejay was saying, “When this pandemic is over, I’m going to party hard!” I think we will all partake in our own version of that party. For some, the festivities will involve singing, dancing and whooping it up. For others, it’ll be walking side-by-side with a friend, perhaps stopping for a bite to eat at a cafe. For Alex, it’ll be revisiting those nursing homes with his pooch by his side. As for me, I’ll be hugging the grocery store clerk.

What are your plans post-pandemic? Even if you don’t yet have a plan, it’s nice to know that we are inching ever closer to being able to make – and keep – those plans. That alone is cause for celebration.

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