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'What Real Friends Do': How to Navigate Tough Conversations About COVID-19

Dec 16, 2020
Originally published on December 16, 2020 7:49 pm

As it gets colder, and harder to gather outdoors, some of Kenzie Billings' conversations with her loved ones are feeling a bit more fraught.

"It's felt frustrating at times. You know, you can feel energy from people in terms of wanting to be together," the 29-year-old from Portland, Ore., says.

Her sister, who is pregnant, has been taking social distancing rules very seriously, she says, but others in the family are more eager to get together indoors. And she has found it especially hard to navigate these negotiations without being face-to-face.

"So there's a lot of push and pull there in terms of, 'OK, where are my boundaries?' And then exerting those boundaries is actually really hard, with the people that you love," Billings says.

Hospitals in many parts of the country are reporting another surge in coronavirus patients. That follows the Thanksgiving holiday when many families gathered despite public health recommendations.

The spike in COVID-19 numbers, coinciding with the holidays, is forcing many people to have difficult conversations with friends and family about whether and how to gather.

Communicating through misinformation

For Desiree Middleton, 50, in Los Angeles, the pandemic has also been hard on some relationships. Middleton says the swirl of misinformation around the coronavirus has complicated discussions about the need for mask-wearing and social distancing. She's even lost some friends.

"I have people that don't believe the virus is real; they feel like it's a government conspiracy," Middleton says. "These are friends that I've known since middle school. One friend, I was in her wedding."

The denialism she's witnessed among some old friends is particularly painful, Middleton says, because she's had family members who've been sick with the virus.

Connecting, creatively and safely

Even for a physician, asking loved ones to wear masks and stay distant from each other can be difficult, says Dr. Tista Ghosh, an epidemiologist in Colorado and the state's former chief medical officer. Ghosh says she's had difficult conversations in her own family, and she advises keeping the focus on the desire to keep everyone safe and healthy.

"One of the things that I think is important to acknowledge upfront is that you care about them and you don't want anything to happen to them, and it's not just about you," Ghosh says. "I think putting that out there upfront, especially with older parents, is important."

Ghosh advises looking for safer ways to connect, such as eating a holiday meal separately and then going for a walk together, or even meeting up in different cars for a tailgate party.

Offering creative alternatives can help soften the impact of conversations about social distancing, says Alise Bartley, a counseling professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.

"Is it about saying 'no'? Or, is it about trying to figure out what to say 'yes' to?" Bartley says. "Based on each person's level of comfortability, how do we discern, 'Yes, I can do this, but I can't do this?' "

"We're actually sharing the deep, painful parts of our lives"

The pandemic, and the social distancing it's necessitated, have strained some social connections. But they've forced others to become deeper and more genuine.

"In this specific time, it feels so much more important that we have those conversations," says Thomas Davidson, 18, who lives near Philadelphia with his parents and two siblings. "When we see the political headlines, when we see the news about COVID, it feels like these are conversations we can't just push to the side and focus on our family dynamic. It feels like these are conversations that need to be had."

Davidson says it's been frustrating to witness some of his family members' skepticism about the need for social distancing, but the stress of the pandemic also made him appreciate them more.

"It can be hard, but at the end of the day, they're still family," he says.

For Middleton, in Los Angeles, it's also been a time to communicate more honestly with some of her friends.

"I think before the pandemic, a lot of us were just on surface-level friendships," she says. "And now we're actually sharing the deep, painful parts of our lives with each other, and saying things that last year I was like, 'Oh, I never would have told you this because I'd never want you to think this about me.' "

Middleton recently had to turn down an invitation to visit another close friend because she didn't feel safe getting on a plane – and her friend's response made her feel closer, she says.

"She was like, 'OK, when that vaccine comes, you're gonna be here,' and I'm like, 'Absolutely,' " Middleton says. "Because that's what friends do – we understand each other – that's what real friends do."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Hospitals in many parts of the country are reporting another surge in coronavirus patients. That follows a Thanksgiving holiday when many Americans gathered despite public health recommendations. The spike in COVID-19 numbers is colliding with colder weather and the holidays. And as NPR's Sarah McCammon reports, many Americans are facing difficult conversations with friends and family about whether and how to gather.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: It's getting colder and harder to gather outdoors. And Kenzie Billings says some of her conversations with loved ones are feeling a bit fraught.

KENZIE BILLINGS: It's felt frustrating at times. You know, you can feel energy from people in terms of wanting to be together.

MCCAMMON: Billings is 29 and lives in Portland, Ore. Her pregnant sister has been taking social distancing rules very seriously, but she says others in the family are more eager to get together indoors.

BILLINGS: There's a lot of push and pull there in terms of, OK, where are my boundaries? And then exerting those boundaries is really hard.

MCCAMMON: Billings says it's especially hard to navigate these negotiations without being face-to-face. For Desiree Middleton, who's 50 and lives in Los Angeles, the pandemic has also been hard on some relationships.

DESIREE MIDDLETON: You know, I've lost friends.

MCCAMMON: Middleton says the swirl of misinformation around the coronavirus has complicated discussions about the need for mask-wearing and social distancing.

MIDDLETON: I have people that don't believe the virus is real. They feel like it's a government conspiracy. These are friends that I've known since middle school. One friend - I was in her wedding.

MCCAMMON: It's particularly painful, Middleton says, because she's had family members get sick with the virus. Even for a physician, asking loved ones to wear masks and stay distant from each other can be difficult.

TISTA GHOSH: For me, I've had to do this quite a bit with my own family.

MCCAMMON: Dr. Tista Ghosh is an epidemiologist in Colorado and the state's former chief medical officer. She says to keep the focus on wanting everyone to stay safe and healthy.

GHOSH: One of the things that I think is important to acknowledge upfront is that you care about them and you don't want anything to happen to them, and it's not just about you. I think putting that out there upfront, especially with older parents, is important.

MCCAMMON: Ghosh advises looking for creative ways to safely meet up, like eating a holiday meal separately and then going for a walk together or even meeting up in different cars for a tailgate party. Alise Bartley, a counseling professor at Florida Gulf Coast University, says offering alternatives can help soften the impact of conversations about social distancing.

ALISE BARTLEY: Is it about saying no, or is it about trying to figure out what to say yes to? How do we discern, yes, I can do this, but I can't do this?

MCCAMMON: The pandemic has strained some social connections. But Desiree Middleton in Los Angeles says for others, it's been a time to go deeper and communicate more honestly.

MIDDLETON: I think before the pandemic, we were - a lot of us were just on surface-level friendships. And now we're actually sharing the deep, painful parts of our lives with each other and saying things that - last year I was like, oh, I never would've told you this 'cause I would never want you to think this about me.

MCCAMMON: Middleton says she recently had to turn down an invitation to visit another close friend because she didn't feel safe getting on a plane.

MIDDLETON: She was like, OK, when that vaccine comes, you're going to be here (laughter). I'm like, absolutely - because that's what friends do. We understand each other. That's what real friends do. You understand each other.

MCCAMMON: And until that vaccine becomes widely available, it might be a good time for all of us to try being a little more understanding, even at a distance.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News.

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