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The Meaning of Family During the Pandemic

Family matters, but it isn’t always about genes or legal ties.

Lucy Blake
Source: Lucy Blake

As a global family, the COVID-19 pandemic provides us with a great challenge: How do we remain calm and connected to those we love during this crisis? How do we ensure that those who are vulnerable and isolated are seen, heard, and cared for?

The “imagined” family — the dream-like family we assume everyone has, in which family members have kind, supportive, and enduring relationships, is now all around us. Our headlines tell us that family members are sharing time together before isolation. They tell us that family will or should be dropping groceries on one each other’s doorsteps and phoning and Facetiming one another during periods of isolation and distancing. Without a doubt, these headlines will ring true for many. The family of genes or legal ties, when it works, can be a source of support, strength, and joy.

But at the same time, the opposite is true. Our genetic or adoptive family homes can be a place of disconnection, rejection, and abandonment. These times of extreme hardship, which require extraordinary measures of kindness and love, amplify and draw attention to the emotional deficit.

Although the “imagined” family is widely assumed to be the norm, family relationships look and function in different ways. Whilst the majority are characterised by contact and support, there are those which are distant, unsupportive, disappointing and dangerous (Blake, 2017).

We know that ...:

  • When parents, children, and siblings are under one roof, many will experience psychological, emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse, with child maltreatment being a global, widespread phenomenon.
  • At a time when University students are being told to leave their college accommodation, there will be thousands for whom ‘going home’ is not an available option (Bland, 2018).
  • There will be many who do not have a family member who will be calling them every day or leaving food parcels on their doors, of all ages, genders, and walks of life. There will be questions as to why not and where these family members are.

So how can we talk about "family" during this crisis in a way which is both inclusive and more reflective of real families than those we imagine?

  • We can be mindful of assumptions. Families and homes are not safe havens of love, warmth, and acceptance for all.
  • For those estranged from a family member, listening can be a great help, as can offering emotional and practical support (Blake et al., 2015).
  • We can acknowledge the idea that "family" doesn’t always refer to people who are related by blood or genes or shared residency. We can embrace the idea that family is about love, which doesn’t have to be limited to a rare few but can be extended broadly and expansively to many.
  • Those actions or reactions which are less likely to be helpful include blame and judgment, dismissal, disbelief, and avoidance (Blake et al., 2015).

Now is a time to extend compassion to ourselves and to others as we navigate this challenge together. It is a time for kindness in the form of listening and connecting. It is a time for action in the form of giving and receiving practical support. Let us leave judgment behind as we focus on connection and moving forward together as a human family.

As the philosopher and spiritual writer Ram Dass said: "Show me someone who isn’t family."

Sources of support

  • For research reports and information guides about family estrangement: standalone.org.uk
  • For support in your local community during the COVID-19 (UK): covidmutualaid.org
  • Please share knowledge of other support groups and organisations in the comments below.

By Lucy Blake and Becca Bland

References

Blake, L. (2017). Parents and children who are estranged in adulthood: A review and discussion of the literature. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 9(4), 521–536. https://doi.org/10.1111/jftr.12216

Blake, L., Bland, B., & Golombok, S. (2015). Hidden Voices: Family estrangement in adulthood. https://www.standalone.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/HiddenVoices.F…

Bland, B. (2018). It’s All About The Money: The Influence Of Family Estrangement, Accommodation Struggles and Homelessness On Student Success in UK Higher Education. Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 20(3), 68–89. https://doi.org/10.5456/wpll.20.3.68

Dass, R. Paths to God. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Paths-God-Living-Bhagavad-Gita/dp/1400054036BB

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