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Giving space, being present for others during lockdown

The difficulties of maintaining friendships when you can't be physically there for them
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

During the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing friends in person has become difficult, if not altogether impossible. Video calls can help bridge the distance but aren’t quite the same. Seeing a familiar face on screen can be comforting yet completely awkward at the same time. 

During the pandemic, I have spent less time with real friends and more time with virtual company: television characters whose familiarity provides comfort. This summer, I finished watching Jason Katims’ Parenthood, which entertained and educated me with its evocative depiction of a multigenerational family doing their best to love and provide for one another. 

In one poignant episode, Sarah — portrayed by TV’s sweetheart Lauren Graham of Gilmore Girls fame — reveals her regret in letting her daughter Amber grow up prematurely. Sarah realizes that when Amber started pushing her away was precisely when Amber needed her more than ever. It was during her struggles that Amber needed her mom the most. 

This episode proved prescient for me as I was soon to encounter a similar situation in my own life when a friend began pushing me away. Over the summer, she had become increasingly withdrawn. Her replies to my messages were growing shorter and shorter until they were one-word answers followed by internet silence. 

She told me she needed space. I wanted to give her room to breathe, but my instincts told me she was suffering from ‘the COVIDian blues.’ It’s difficult to ride the line between honouring a friend’s request for space and giving them the support they can’t ask for. 

I distanced myself at first — until I remembered Sarah’s story.

I told my friend that while I wanted to respect her wishes, I also wanted to check in with her every couple of days. I knew I ran the risk of annoying her and succeeded in doing so, which she later told me in no uncertain terms. But she also, eventually, shared that she appreciated my messages, if only to know that someone was out there thinking of her. 

Eventually, she explained that she was unhappy because her medical issues made outings during the pandemic more dangerous for her than for the average person. Her need to physically isolate was affecting her psyche, and she was finding it hard to reach out. Gradually, her responses to my messages became more regular, and we were even able to speak on the phone. 

My friend isn’t out of the woods yet, but then again, none of us really are. If a friend becomes withdrawn, tell them you care. Tell them you’ll contact them regularly, and remind them you’re available no matter their mood or outlook on life. And if you find yourself becoming increasingly withdrawn, try telling at least one or two friends you can trust. 

When it comes to being there for our friends, we don’t need to fix things. We simply need to be present whether in person or virtually — because what do we have if not each other?