A Virtual Hand: Reaching out Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Caleb Robinson

Note: this essay was written in spring 2021, and reflects some hope about an imminent end to pandemic shutdowns that has not materialized. Rather than try to make edits that would change the character of the piece, we’ve opted to share it in its original form – the message is no less relevant now, even if the landscape has shifted.

There were a number of times I reached out to one of my old friends from August to December of 2020 who I hadn’t stayed in contact with for years. During the pandemic it seemed like there was an uptick in public transparency and what some may describe as “calls for help.” This particular friend had a handful of these cries; declaring they were at the end of their rope, speaking about their depression, admitting they were barely holding on. The messages I sent weren’t groundbreaking by anyone’s measures – “I saw your post and wanted to check in,” “I wanted to let you know you still have my support, how can I help?” One last “how are you feeling?” must have been the dealbreaker of extensions on my part, as they said they were having a rough time and a phone call might help. We made a plan to talk after I got off work.

These instances of reaching out are necessary regardless of the circumstances, but in times of collective isolation they become indispensable.

There’s a huge body of research detailing the negative effects of social isolation, from infant care to retirement homes, that emphasize the vitality that comes from offering empathy and solidarity. These moments can be as small as a gentle nudge that someone can open up if needed or as big as talking a friend off the proverbial ledge when their emotional exhaustion might lead to a drastic, or life altering, decision. There’s always someone you know who feels alone, whether they publicly declare it or if they hold it to their chest and guard it from eyesight.

I’ll admit that reaching out was never my strong suit. There’s a tendency to talk yourself out of checking in with your loved ones, much less strangers out of fear of rejection; someone could think you’re being weird, creepy, manipulative, disingenuous, or opportunistic. Once those thoughts start to set in, the likelihood that you make contact go from slim to none. This is typically where my thought process would go. I was happy to respond to someone else reaching out and never perceived the effort as underhanded by any means. As early as April 1st of 2020 a childhood friend sent me a message to apologize for the long years that had passed without any contact on either part, and we both admitted that when things went sour between us we were struggling with mental health.

I would argue this is where the majority of us sit when the conversation is approached in a meaningful, and importantly, tactful manner. Even for those who are inherently guarded like myself, the initial response when an individual extends an invitation of conversation is almost always positive; we feel good when someone says hi to us. Even if your default is to assume someone could be two-faced in a natural setting, if someone seems even remotely sincere we’re likely to give them the time of day in the hopes that it could be a meaningful moment. We don’t linger on the possibility that those who reach out to us are dishonest at best or frightening at worst.

This should suggest that the fear of being rejected is unfounded when we consider how we, as individuals, respond to others. However, we tend not to consider how we would feel ourselves, and we instead find ways to psych ourselves out before even making the initial attempt.

This all may seem somewhat inconsequential on face value, but when you think about just how critical social interaction is to well-being, then the weight of the conversation becomes much heavier. Think to yourself about the early shock of the pandemic lockdown in the early months of 2020 – we missed our family, we justified small interactions with friends, and those anxious moments at the grocery store lost some of the tension if we had the chance to have a passing interaction with the cashier. This is especially true for people with a more extroverted disposition who are fueled far more by the socialization opportunities compared to their introverted counterparts. Even for those who are more withdrawn, you may have started to wonder how long the momentum could last without passing social interactions. Is Netflix going to be our only comfort forever?

For better or worse, technology has become our best friend over the last decade or so when it comes to our ability to stay in contact with friends and relatives. When close friends move away we can always add them on Facebook and look at their posts, when we’re strapped for time and can’t visit family we can always default to a text message check-in, and romance feels like it is almost exclusively driven by dating applications. Our utilization of social media, online communication, and video chat applications became golden in a time in which our face-to-face interactions were virtually nonexistent on an average day. To our families dismay, we may have even Zoomed in for holidays last year.

We’re slowly stepping away from shutdowns, whether you are starting to feel comfortable taking your mask off around family or if people had to stop giving you dirty looks when you refused to put your mask on at Target. This doesn’t mean that our utilization of digital communication should completely fall away, though, now that we can recognize just how essential it has become for our daily socialization. Coming out of the pandemic-era of our lifetime (hopefully), viewing how much our online presence drove our ability to cope shouldn’t be entirely lost. Many family members and friends have become closer, and while they are still a long distance away, that doesn’t mean those relationships we’ve fostered should cease to exist. Even those we’ve come to appreciate in small bursts online can find their message pinned to the top of our apps.

Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it seems on the surface. There were many during the shutdown that were deemed “essential” whose schedules were even more hectic, and there were many who lost their jobs and faced crippling economic turmoil even with increased government assistance, and those individuals are likely still just trying to emotionally and financially catch up after the last year. However, if you were blessed with a job that could be completed from home like myself, a lot of the time consuming work requirements started to fall away. Preparing for the day may have been lighter, long commutes to work were eliminated, and some places of employment might have even given reduced hours due to a lack of necessary tasks. Many also had fewer social obligations; being encouraged to stay home, there were fewer events inundating our schedules, and most purchases were delivered straight to our door. If this was a period of time in which your life requirements started to thin out you likely went through the three stages of quarantine life: motivation, boredom, and desperation. After the thrill of picking up new hobbies and learning to bake bread lost their luster, many of us were seeking out alternative ways to keep ourselves busy. This might have been when we started to pick up the phone more to call our mom instead of browsing shopping sites.

As previously mentioned, shutdowns are diminishing, our socialization is entering back into the physical world and our obligations are picking back up in a way we’re having to readjust to. If you’re getting called back into your office I’m sure you’re already starting to miss doing your work from the comfort of your home – the sweatpants are back off, you’re back up in the early morning hours, and you’re having to commute to work again. Once you realize just how draining that process can be, and how much additional time is required to drive to work and, god forbid, shower every day, the reality sets in. Keeping up with loved ones starts naturally taking the back seat to what we see as mandatory. It’s likely one of the reasons we’re entering a new phase of younger individuals trying to find new career moves they are passionate about, rather than meandering in the same dead-end job for a lifetime.

As difficult as it may be to work up the mental fortitude to keep up our online relationships, regardless of who they may be, there’s good reason to at least try. Some people still aren’t at ease about being in a physical space, some have grown accustomed to the increased digital presence, and of course many are still hundreds or thousands of miles away. Some just desperately need it.

In January of this year an old friend of mine announced on social media that they would be killing themselves. They had been, for months, posting memes about emo music and depression with people sounding off their amusement with a lot of “hashtag me” responses. It’s hard to say how many of them took it as a siren going off. Without warning, they posted this:

“I am ending my life today. Take care of yourself if it feels like too much, reach out. I just don’t have the energy anymore, please seek help if you need it. I love you.”

Thankfully, a number of their close friends knew where they lived and what car they drove, so after some searching they were found and were taken to a hospital. They made it out okay and even posted a joke about what song they heard coming out of treatment days later (Switchfoot – Meant to Live).

On the lightest end of the spectrum, view reaching out to your loved ones as a way to maintain your small community and brighten someone’s day. At the heaviest, consider these measures as a form of preventative care for sucicide. There are a lot of clichés; you never know where someone might be emotionally, the saddest people on the inside are always the happiest on the outside, and so on. But the reality is that the pandemic was hard on all of us. For many, life didn’t just go back to normal, and for others a sense of meaninglessness creeps in as we escape the last year. Any person you could shoot a quick check-in message to right now is likely to still have lingering emotions after the collective trauma we all endured.

There are positives to be had from all this at the end. I’ve kept up with the friend who reached out in April, visited them in the summer and had the chance to meet their two daughters for the first time that year. Just a few days ago I got to talk to them on the phone and could hear their youngest daughter talking, which she wasn’t doing at all when I visited last year. The friend I started reaching out to in September still talks to me almost every day. I got to meet their son. I consider them, among others this year who I either remained in contact with or reconnected with, some of my most meaningful relationships today. There have been plenty of times in the past year where I felt at the end of my own personal rope, or completely devoid of energy to keep moving forward. Therapy definitely has helped work through these feelings at different points, but in the sappiest way possible I likely wouldn’t have manifested the energy without having the ability to reach out, or be reached out to, the last year. Ideally the stakes won’t always be high every time you ask someone how they’re feeling, but it’s best not to find out when it could have been preventative. 


Caleb Robinson (they/them) is a writer located in a small city outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. Robinson acquired their Masters degree in Cognitive and Social Processes from Ball State University, focusing on research related to language and digital communication.