“We could write something, maybe a guide for combating loneliness.”
With this suggestion, a blog brainstorm turned into a vulnerable forum of self-sharing. One contributor bared his personal reaction to today’s circumstances, then it felt inhuman to withhold one’s own reaction. Personally, I had finished a 2,200-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2019. Long stretches of solitude made me simultaneously less reliant on, yet more appreciative of, the company of others.
In this brainstorming conversation, others’ histories affected their feelings about quarantine, too. And how the feelings varied – most were lonely, some were loving the at-home life, some teetered between the two. It became clear that, although our shared enemy is global, the human experience is still far from universal.
So, I write on behalf of myself. I’m closer to 30 than 20, I can still pay my bills, three of my grandparents are alive, no spouse or kids. I’m not an emotional spokesperson, feeling on behalf of my coworkers, people my age, anyone. This isn’t a 5-step guide to cure sadness. Everything below is based on my own experience. By sharing my perspective and some thoughts that comfort me, I encourage you to face, fully experience and finally overcome any uncomfortable feelings you have in present quarantined life.
Many, if not all of us now have a feeling in common: grief. We have lost something, be it normalcy, our sense of security, freedom to explore, or worst of all, people we love. Unlike a more common grieving process, our total loss is still undefined so we’re unsure if it’s the appropriate time to wholly address how we feel.
When experiencing grief, our expressions may include denial, willful ignorance, insatiable hunger for answers, frustration, anger, indifference, enjoyment in the quiet time, or a hybrid of these few I’ve listed. A numbing level of complexity is added by the fact that everyone is experiencing this loss. The thoughtful check-in texts may not come as often as they do during a more personal period of mourning. We may trick ourselves into thinking that our sadness is invalid, since everyone is experiencing it. Each person’s coping process is a personal ceremony and should not be judged critically. Uncharacteristic emotions you’re finding in yourself and others may be rooted in grief. This realization helps us to empathize.
We are suddenly on house arrest with no visitation. This leads to all sorts of implications that your friends and co-workers may not readily mention in casual conversation. Some people are now only accompanied by silence, self-assessment, and a succulent after the webcam blinks off. Some have the new duty of educating a child. Planners are uncomfortable with this lack of certainty. Freewheelers are uncomfortable with this lack of freedom. Some are busier than ever, while some have alphabetized their spice cabinet. Most are estranged from their oldest relatives.
It’s tougher to read unspoken signals of these circumstances without being in the same room. That friend who used to seemingly read your mind may now have a harder time telling when you need some extra kindness. When we more openly discuss our personal situations and the contexts that affect our moods, we give people around us the opportunity to act with more compassion.
I’m lucky to spend my workweek with strong, gentle people. Collectively, our job responsibilities are prioritized just below human duties. The newest of such duties is to supplement the lost comforts of coffee chats, happy hours, in-person laughter, and that feeling of walking out of the office together after a hard-won week. No matter how siloed our individual efforts may seem, we all feel better when we share our wins and losses with someone.
It may seem unprofessional to reveal your emotions to your work team. You may feel expected to tell everyone your weekend was “great!” when it wasn’t. You’re not a machine. When you are more honest about a cloudy mood or mounting stress, your team can lighten your load and give you space to address the life issues that are distracting you at work. Ultimately, more humanity and kindness at work increase our job satisfaction and efficacy.
I may not be able to visit, but through the magic of modern networks, I can still show my grandparents the length of my hair, compliment them on their sweaters and ask them about their day. Pleasant video chats like these don’t resurrect normalcy, but even a semblance of assembly is comforting. At our core, people are pack creatures and need to be seen and accepted.
Granted, many of us spend our workdays on the phone or in meetings – making time for another call sounds like more work. Plus, digital video doesn’t fully replace real eye contact. These may be true, but we must not discount the importance of sharing the little details of our lives and asking others for theirs. This is the fastest solve for managing your own loneliness – give someone else who may be lonely a call!
In a strange way, I’m comforted that this isn’t my first grieving ceremony and it hopefully won’t be my last. Most adults have experienced profound and unexpected distress before. Solitude, fear, confusion, loss – these concepts existed before 2020. Life after COVID-19 will still be unpredictable, occasionally disappointing, and lonely at times. We will pick up the phone to bad news again. But with strength, we will be ready to ride the next wave of sudden circumstance with braver stability. In our most triumphant tales, we convert our burdens into personal power.
To me, life in quarantine feels like a timeout for the whole world, a period to reflect on our lives before. When we get free, we can double down in our panicked, survive-first-feel-later, hoard-all-resources ways, or we can come out with a greater appreciation for each other’s company and support. The image that most helps me through my loneliness is that this figurative rain will eventually stop, the streets will dry, and our friends will come out to greet us again. Even on a rainy day like today, we must find hope in simple existence. Hope that our physical boundaries will re-tighten, we will share stupid jokes, and our happiness will persist long past that first post-quarantine hug.