Over the past year, for many good reasons, family members stayed apart in order to protect each other’s health. Graduation celebrations, weddings and family reunions were discouraged. Birthdays and anniversaries were classified as private affairs except for the occasional “drive by” celebration or group Zoom call.
We were urged to avoid family gatherings at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We were admonished with stories of “super spreader events” occurring as the result of a funeral. We were deluged with heartrending tales of loved ones dying alone in the hospital, no one at their side beyond a healthcare worker. We were warned about the dangers of Sunday morning church services.
None of us wanted to be the person who shared the dreaded virus or caught it from someone else. None of us wanted to be the one left behind. None of us wanted to be the cause of another’s untimely demise.
The loss of loved ones was devastating to many this past year. What we didn’t hear nearly as much about were the destructive losses associated with family estrangement that were conveniently classified as “social distancing for the benefit of a loved one.” Scores of family members distanced from each other citing COVID as the reason. But it really was much more than that. If it were only COVID, there would have been phone calls, Zoom sessions, fire pits, and porch gatherings. In fact, in many cases these options never occurred with “COVID caution” blamed as the reason.
The reality? We’re not always crazy about contact with some of our family members. We don’t share similar values. We don’t agree on politics. We don’t like who they married. They don’t like who we married. We think they’re a little weird. They think we’re a tad on the kooky side. In short, we don’t always mix so well as adults with the very people with whom we shared so many dinner tables, holidays and family vacations as children. It’s easier to stay apart, especially now that we need to “protect” ourselves from each other.
Loosening the Ties that Bind
Family rituals and traditions brought us together in the past, typically at least two or three times a year. We were bound by a shared history and customs that reminded us of this. We tolerated each other’s idiosyncrasies, long-winded stories, and petulant children because that’s what you do when you’re a family. We didn’t agree with everything our elders said, but we offered them respect because they were our parents. We demonstrated patience, tolerance and kindness, in part, as examples for our children.
“You don’t have to agree with someone,” we said, “but we do want to offer them respect.”
We may have even thought, “Someday I’ll be the older generation and I hope my family members offer me the compassion, consideration and courtesy I try to give them.”
Vaccine for Broken Ties
Now that updates on vaccination is a regular occurrence on the evening news, I hope we’ll take the time to mend the fences, tear down the walls, and cross the moats we built to protect ourselves during the pandemic. I hope we’ll make the effort to build bridges, pave pathways, smooth out rough relationships.
It would be easy to stay apart. We’ve had lots of practice doing that, but the fact of the matter is that we need each other. We need to hear opinions we don’t like and with which we disagree. We need to demonstrate respect, even when we feel disrespected. We require perspectives other than our own. Our rough spots are smoothed and sanded by the rough exterior of another.
It’s important to teach our children our values, but if we “shield” them from others with opinions that don’t align with our own . . . if we teach them to hole up in a silos of thought . . . if we continue to remove ourselves from people unlike ourselves, then we’ve harmed ourselves in more ways than we have imagined. The vaccine will hopefully bring an end to the pandemic, but to renew relationships will require much greater effort. Working toward healing and hope in our families is a good place to begin— and we don’t have to wait for a shot in the arm to make that happen.