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The Emotional Toll Social Distancing Has Taken on People Should Not Be Underestimated

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

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Without question the most heart-wrenching thing about a deadly virus is when someone becomes seriously ill and loses their life. The unimaginable pain and suffering they go through, followed by the immeasurable grief family and friends must endure in the days, weeks, and months after is something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

But another toll these things can take on people is one unrelated to finding out someone you love and care about is suffering from the virus. It is the emotional one that comes from when a person either decides to follow recommended guidelines on staying at home and social distancing, or has no choice but to do so thanks to orders at the local and/or state levels that mandate which businesses can stay open and which ones have to shut down.

Many states in America have been under some sort of stay at home/shelter in place order since mid to late March. That’s a long time to go without a job, without much interaction with people, without feeling any real sense of normalcy in your life.

This is true for everyone, but especially for retired seniors, senior couples, or other people who live alone who are being extra cautious.

My mom and dad are senior citizens, and my dad is at especially high risk for catching the Wuhan coronavirus because he has multiple underlying conditions.

Before the outbreak started, I was at mom and dad’s house twice a month – for roughly 10 to 12 days out of the month helping them out wherever needed, including going to get groceries, taking out trash, cleaning, running general errands, etc. It’s something I enjoyed doing for them and with them. In addition to being family who I love and would do anything for, they raised me, so I felt I owed it to them to pay back all the years they worked hard to provide for my sisters and me.

But once the stay at home orders went into effect at the local and state levels here in North Carolina, the prolonged visits stopped. In fact, since mid-March, I’ve only been to their house 4 or 5 times – each time just to drop groceries off on the porch as my mom has looked on from behind the glass/storm door with a bittersweet look on her face. Happy to see me, but unhappy that we can’t touch and hug each other.

The first visit I made, I could see she was crying. I was, too, on the inside, but on the outside I tried to be strong – for her.

But over time, she’s become the stronger one in this, and I the weaker one. Typical mom, always being strong even in the face of so many obstacles. But she understands she has to be, for my dad – for who she is the primary caregiver, and for me and my sisters, who she does not want to worry.

Me, on the other hand, I want to cry each time she mentions to me that she’s struggled with a task, whether it’s doing a load of laundry or cooking dinner or having to do some things for my dad. It’s almost a physical hurt for me not to be able to be there.

We do video chats every day in order to connect and shoot the breeze. More often than not we talk about how we miss being able to spend time with each other. Family to us has always been everything. Whether times were good or not we always had each other. It doesn’t compute with either of us that the best way to help right now is to stay away.

A little over a week ago, mom and I discussed the possibility of me starting to come back over by the end of the month to stay for a few days. She was on board with it, but I told her we’d talk more a little closer to time to see if she and my dad still felt comfortable with it.

Just a few days ago when we did one of our video chats, though, I could tell something was wrong. Mom eventually told me that she thought it might be for the best we wait a few weeks more before I started coming over for overnight visits again. I could tell it was hard for her, and it was honestly the first sign of fear I’ve seen in her since all of this started.

She wasn’t just worried about my dad possibly catching the virus or her catching it from me coming over, she was worried one of them could give it to me in the event they had interacted with someone who might have it.

We both cried on the phone that day. A lot. The emotional toll of being away from each other for two months rushed to the surface in a gigantic wave.

Mom, dad, and I did have another chat not long after that where we talked about the possibility of me just stopping by to visit for a few hours rather than visiting and staying over, as a way to ease back into the groove a bit but from a safe distance. We’re going to try that next month, and we’re praying it goes well. I don’t want to get them sick, they don’t want to get me sick, but all three of us know that we can’t stay apart forever.

I know I’m not alone in this. There are millions more out there with their own stories to tell about how this has taken an emotional toll on them and their families. While our thoughts and prayers should first and foremost be with those suffering from the virus and those who have lost loved ones to the virus, please say a prayer for those who are being impacted in other ways that are emotionally difficult to handle.

They’re struggling, too – just in a different way.