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Empty Nest Take 2 — Easy Ways to Create and Sustain Friendship in the Age of COVID-19

Shari Bender

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has given us a lot to be stressed about. But when we look for silver linings, many of us would agree that the best moments have come from meaningful social interactions.

People often remark that I have “so many friends.” I’ll be the first to admit, I am very lucky. I live in a neighborhood where, when COVID-19 closed off the world, my social circle of neighbor-friends were within walking distance. I was able to enjoy socially distanced driveway happy hours and intimate (albeit six feet apart) conversations on front steps. It didn’t require much effort on my part — we were all craving companionship and keeping close to home.

As I ponder Empty Nest Take 2 , keeping connections will be even more valuable after my baby leaves home, again. I like to focus on four easy ways to create and sustain relationships, even in the age of COVID-19.

1. Take a chance on a new friend.

Reach out to someone the next time you're thinking about going for a hike or a walk, or enjoying a meal outdoors. Most likely a friend will jump at the opportunity to join you.

Don’t get discouraged by a “no” from one friend — continue down the list, and be sure to include people you've always wanted to get to know better. One of my favorite stories of friendship began with my "last choice." I attended a friend’s annual lobster party, complete with live music among the festivities. The musician asked the group who would come up and be backup singers (ahhh, pre-COVID memories). I asked each one of my friends at my table and the answer was no. To my right was a woman, Dana, a friend of a friend. She'd heard me ask every other person who declined my invitation. On a whim I decided, why not ask this stranger to sing backup with me?

To my utmost surprise Dana said yes! We spent the next 10 minutes as the best backup dancer-singers you’ve ever seen. This cemented our connection and now Dana is one of the first people I think of for social plans.

My point? Don’t give up if your regular group of friends can’t or don’t want to hang out during the pandemic. Broaden your circle and take a chance on a new friend.

2. Phone a friend or relative.

Often during my solo walks, I will reach out to a friend and talk on the phone to help pass the time. Sometimes I have a theme — today I’ll reach out to people from my circle of friends in the hemophilia community, and the next day I call my friends on the West coast.

I get my steps in for my physical health, and conversation boosts my mental health. Surprise a friend or relative with a call — my bet is they'll be happy to hear from you, and touched that you took time out of your day to check in.

3. Organize an in-person get together.

Zoom has its place but nothing beats an in-person get together. Consider inviting a select group of people over (whether that’s one or 10 for your comfort zone) and curate your socially responsible party list.

Of course you risk offending someone by leaving them out, but in times like these real friends will understand your desire for mini social circles. I have had wonderful varied experiences during the pandemic. Whether it be social distancing 10 feet apart masked with a friend with underlying conditions, or a six feet apart socially distant happy hour for four.

Recently I hosted a super fun Socially Distant Music Festival for 10 in my yard, with music, individual snacks and a dance floor with X’s drawn in chalk to mark dance spaces. Flexibility is key to enjoying the new normal.

4. Scale down instead of postponing or canceling a milestone event.

My own milestone this summer, 30 years with my partner, was originally going to be a beautiful romantic weekend nestled in the serene beauty of upstate New York, complete with couple's spa treatments and group exercise retreats.

The change of plans stung, but I created a backyard retreat dinner for two, with a live musician and my son as personal waitstaff. It was truly special, a pandemic highlight.

Even Princess Beatrice turned her planned spectacular royal summer wedding into an intimate affair for 20. The Queen of course was in attendance, and all those closest to the bride and groom. We can all take a lesson that true love, or anything deserving of a celebration, does not need a large guest count to be meaningful. While we may need to re-frame original expectations, smaller celebrations, at least for now, are the new norm as our social circles tighten.

Never underestimate the power of a human connection.

We all long for those pre-COVID days of unrestricted socializing. In the meantime, we can nurture real-life connections with friends. Even small efforts to reach out will undoubtedly reap large rewards.

Empty Nest Take 2 (even if your student will be living at home and studying online this fall) can still mean taking a little time for yourself to cultivate friendships.

Empty Nest Take 2. Sounds like a great theme for my next socially distant girls night. Cheers!

Writer Shari Bender, her husband and some socially distanced, empty nest friends

The author enjoying socially distanced friendship!

Shari earned her BA in Communication from Stanford University and freelances all things Communication and Marketing. She is a cat-loving spiritual vegan and former admissions interviewer. With two grown children, Shari is happily and sentimentally embracing her Empty Nest along with her husband of nearly 30 years. Her musings delight parents in numerous publications and online platforms, including CollegiateParent and Grown & Flown.
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