Social distance in a spinning world

On May 12, our second-born turned 10. Her birthday was the third quarantine party we’ve had in our family since March. To help make the day special, I had an idea to put a birthday box on our porch for people to put cards and other well-wishes inside. It felt like a risky move because for the last four years, I’ve felt increasingly isolated, unsure of where I stand within the community. Thankfully, my fear of an empty box went unrealized and it ended up being fairly magical–serving to put a smile on the birthday girl’s face and even restoring a little hope in my heart. This month I want to share about my isolation with a piece I originally published on my blog. I hope as you read you will keep this question in mind: How much social distancing was already happening before it was a public-health recommendation?

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In my experience, one of the hardest parts of grief is when your world stops spinning and for everyone else, life keeps going. The first time I realized this, my brother had just died. I was in the middle of my sophomore year of high school and a basketball game was scheduled for the evening of the funeral. I went and played. I’m certain no one forced me to, but I felt obligated to my team. I went back to school right away, too, playing catch-up with the work I had missed.

Our family as we knew it was shattered yet our schedules kept right on going. So did everyone else’s. Pretty soon our family was still grieving in a world that simply moved on.

It’s a strange feeling, to grieve in that world. To wonder if anyone out there even cares, even sees the pain and sadness in your eyes.

I was again faced with the phenomenon a few years ago as a first wave of grief hit the summer of 2016 after a sin against one of my children. Then, a tsunami hit in the fall of 2017, destroying and crushing as it went, leaving a wake of devastation. During this period, I’ve wished time and again that the biblical practice of tearing a robe in grief was still a thing. I’d have done it long ago, physically wearing the grief already in my heart. Instead my garment of grief has been invisible and I’ve mostly plastered on a smile when I enter the public sphere. I’ve hidden myself away. Sometimes physically, definitely emotionally. My heart has been nearly numb from loss. I’ve found it hard to want to even stay in the community because of the fallout. If not for our new house currently in reno-mode, it’s possible we might not have. That’s how deep the pain runs. I often think it would have been easier to start over instead of trying to gather broken shards and somehow piece life back together.

I’ve lost friendships, acquaintances, a church family, even a base of support for my writing ministry. I can’t go to a community function without some degree of uncertainty at what people think they know about me. I’ve been operating out of stay-home orders without even knowing it–working from home, leaving for the essentials. COVID-19 hasn’t changed my world much, except now my kids are home with me 24/7. My running joke in the last weeks has been that I have more social interaction during social distancing than I do normally.

When I stop to think beyond the humor, there’s much to grieve in that little joke.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a few friends who have stuck by me and I’m grateful for them. I’m not wallowing in the pit of despair, but I am still grieving. For me, nothing looks or feels the same. Where I once felt accepted, I now feel like an outsider. The loss of community is no joke as the ripples have touched, shifted and removed so much of my old life with the undertow.

You might say I’ve been at this social distancing thing for nearly four years. I just didn’t know the term until the global pandemic. I’ve watched people who once struck up conversations with me at church, change their course in the grocery store to avoid me, ducking into the next aisle or behind the banana tree. I’ve wanted to scream, “I’m still here, I’m still me,” after a former friend refuses to meet my gaze for even a quick hello across the Pizza Hut salad bar. I’ve wondered more than once if human dignity means nothing between believers? And yet, after being treated with contempt enough times, I sometimes get hit by the temptation to simply treat others the way I’ve been treated. Silence. Dropped gazes. Wide berths. It’s easier after all.

Reconciliation would be ideal. I still pray for it. But since there’s no such thing as one-sided reconciliation, I’ve done my best to move into something new even though I never wanted to. That’s another oddity of grief. The new normal you never asked for.

Now with COVID-19, people around me have an idea of the grief that comes with a loss of community. Everyone is weathering the same storm. This communal grief is a little different, though, because for once the world stopped its relentless spin…not the days, but the grind, the schedules. We’re collectively grieving. I just happen to be a few years ahead now, not behind.

But now stay-home orders are being lifted. Social distancing, too. People will return to business as normal, falling back into whatever community they had in place prior to the pandemic. My normal will resume too, me knowing full-well that without significant change, I’ll still feel isolated, uncertain of where I stand. In that way, I expect my social distancing to continue as I work to shed my garment of grief as the rest of the world spins.

Malinda Just has been writing Lipstick & Pearls for the Free Press since 2008. To read more of her writing, visit her blog, www.malindajust.com, or find her on social media @MalindaDJust.