The COVID-19 pandemic has left many adults feeling isolated as they physically distance from friends, partners and family members. As time passes, some are finding that the hardest part is the separation from their parents.
“Many people are feeling a deep sense of sadness and loss from not being able to see their parents during the pandemic, and the uncertainty around when they will finally be able to see them is exacerbating their despair,” Becky Stuempfig, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Encinitas, California, told HuffPost.
It’s important to keep your distance from others, particularly vulnerable older people, but this practice takes an emotional toll when your parents fall into that category.
Still, there are ways to deal with this difficult experience and even forge a stronger bond with your loved ones. Below, Stuempfig and other mental health experts share their advice for coping with the fact that you may not see your parents for a long time.
Stay Connected Virtually
“For anyone who is missing a parent during these uncertain times, it is important to remain connected in any way possible,” said Nicole Bentley, a licensed therapist and intake coordinator at Cityscape Counseling in Chicago.
“Via phone or video, letters or emails, some form of contact will be important to maintain the relationship while being apart. Focus on meaningful conversation, and feel free to express that you miss them, your gratitude for them, or reminisce about your favorite memories together.”
You can acknowledge that the digital experience isn’t the same as seeing your parents in person and sharing warm hugs. Still, consider this an opportunity to get creative and start new family traditions.
“Ask for advice, ask about their life ― their childhood, their adolescence ― the parts before they had you,” suggested Zainab Delawalla, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta. “Think about how you might be helpful to them from a distance, perhaps by facilitating an online grocery or prescription order, so they don’t have to leave the house. Make them a playlist of popular songs from their youth. Write them a letter or send them a news article or a comic strip in the mail ― anything to show them that you think about them.”
Keeping up with each other’s social media accounts may also provide a way to stay updated on current happenings at their homes, share funny content or chat even more throughout the day.
“Focus on meaningful conversation, and feel free to express that you miss them, your gratitude for them, or reminisce about your favorite memories together.”
– Nicole Bentley, licensed therapist
Stuempfig noted that some parents may struggle with technology like Zoom, but you can help walk them through the process of setting up an account, using closed captions if they have difficulty hearing, or mailing simple instructions in large font.
“The idea is to have regular check-ins with parents while making it as user-friendly as possible,” she said. “If parents are resistant to using video technology to communicate, phone calls and letters are a great way to stay in contact. I recommend everyone talks to at least one person a day, either via phone or video, and particularly for those living alone.”
Look Through Photos Of Times You Were Together
It can be therapeutic to look through family photos and videos.
“It helps remind us of the good times we have had together and serves as a healthy escape to joyful moments in our lives,” Stuempfig said. “I encourage families to send each other pictures through text or email and reflect on how much those moments meant to them. This may seem like a small act, but it keeps those moments alive in our hearts and cultivates gratitude. As we increase gratitude, we decrease anxiety.”
Saniyyah Mayo, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, suggested framing and displaying photos of your parents and other loved ones.
“This allows you to have a part of home with you even when you are away,” she said.
Focus On What You Can Control
“I would encourage anyone to focus on what is in their control during these uncertain times,” Stuempfig said.
When it comes to missing your parents, she advised focusing on the ways you can remain connected, express what they mean to you and move your relationship forward through the means you have.
“This is truly a difficult time for people to be separated from their families, especially from elderly parents,” said Delawalla. “When you’re overcome with the anxiety of not being able to see your elderly parents in person, think about why you’ve made that deliberate choice ― in order to exert some sense of control over the uncertainty this virus poses. By maintaining physical distance, you are increasing the likelihood of a more positive outcome for your family.”
Remember That It’s Temporary
Although we do not have an exact end date, we do know that the present situation is not a permanent way of life.
“It may look differently when we initially can see each other again. For example, we may have to wear face coverings for a while and hold back on hugs and kisses,” said Stuempfig. “These gradual steps toward normalcy require us to dig deep with our patience and understand that by staying physically distant, we are keeping our loved ones safe.”
She compared this time of extreme distancing to saving money. Although it can be hard to cut back on spending on a daily basis, there’s a worthwhile reward in the end.
“This is a temporary sacrifice we can make to protect our future days together,” she said. ”I encourage people to consider this stage an investment in their future memories with their parents, similar to sacrifices you may make to save for a family trip.”
Bentley noted that it can be nice to talk to your parents about the things you can’t wait to do together when you’re reunited.
“Even if we don’t know exactly when that will be, having something to look forward to can help hold the hope during an uncertain time,” she said.
Take Stock Of Your Emotions
It’s normal and OK to feel sad, scared, angry, lonely, or really any difficult emotion right now. Acknowledging those feelings can be immensely helpful.
“Lean into the emotion,” Bentley said. “If you are sad and missing a parent, that likely means that you love them and have a great relationship with them. Feel free to observe all aspects of the emotion and why it is coming up. Decide if talking to them in a moment of sadness will be helpful or hurtful.”
Looking at these feelings through the lens of grief is also very useful and can help explain the physiological effects on sleep, appetite, energy level and motivation.
“The sadness and disappointment we feel when not being able to see our parents represents our grieving those losses,” Stuempfig explained. “We are grieving the loss of sharing birthdays together, cooking for one another, gathering at restaurants for family meals, sharing hugs and walking hand-in-hand. These are profound losses we are experiencing collectively as a society, and consequently, we are feeling the symptoms of grief.”
Ward recommended using mindfulness exercises to prevent toxic thoughts from exacerbating those difficult emotions.
“Our thoughts can drive our feelings and behaviors, and vice-versa,” she said. “The challenge is when we turn our unhelpful thoughts into facts. Catch, check and change thoughts that are not helpful. The ‘what ifs’ can start to feel like facts right now as we all try to process what is happening. Saying ‘I don’t know when I will see my parents’ may feel uncomfortable and scary, but that would be considered the helpful reform to ‘I am never going to see my parents again.’”
Share Those Feelings With Your Parents
“Grief needs a place to go ― it needs to be heard and expressed,” Stuempfig said.
She advised sharing your feelings with your parents by saying something like, “I’m having such a hard time with not seeing you, and I’m missing you so much. I feel worried about not knowing when all of this will end. How are you doing with it?”
Not only does that help you process your own feelings, but it also gives your parents a safe space to share their own worries or fears.
“We are grieving the loss of sharing birthdays together, cooking for one another, gathering at restaurants for family meals, sharing hugs and walking hand-in-hand.”
– Becky Stuempfig, licensed marriage and family therapist
“It can be especially important to check in with parents regarding their mental health during the pandemic,” said Stuempfig, who noted there is still a stigma among some older people around seeking mental health support.
“It may be viewed as a sign of weakness to need emotional support, and they may feel uncomfortable sharing with others how down they are feeling.”
Take It One Day At A Time
“Make a plan to get through each day. If the longing becomes too much, focus on one day at a time and make a plan for how you will support yourself during that day,” Bentley suggested. “This might include self-care activities, distraction, validation or affirmation, whatever you need to effectively make it through each day as it comes.”
Staying in the present moment helps reduce the amount of time spent worrying about the future ― particularly the uncertainty about when you might be able to see your parents again. Activities like cooking engage your senses (like smell, taste and touch) and help you remain in the present.
Delawalla noted that you can even involve your parents in these pursuits.
“When you reach out to your parents via text or phone, try not to let COVID-19 talk dominate the conversation,” she said. “Ask your mom to share recipes of your favorite childhood dishes, or tell them about the new TV show or podcast you’ve discovered.”
Reach Out To Others
If your painful emotions start to feel overwhelming, consider seeking mental health support from a professional through teletherapy. In addition to individual therapy, there are also online group options, and many providers are offering reduced rates.
You can also reach out to peers to vent your worries. You may even feel less alone if you connect with friends who are struggling with the same thing or have faced similar challenges in the past.
“Talk to others who have been separated from parents before,” Ward advised. “The pandemic is new territory, but there have been other circumstances within families that have separated adult children from their parents. Hearing how others have coped can help, so the person doesn’t feel so isolated.”
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