Jan Risher

Jan Risher

Friendship in the time of COVID-19 presents challenges.

Judging from a conversation I had last week with our younger daughter, Piper, I struggle to imagine the difficulties one’s freshman year in college holds in these times. For Piper and her generation, balancing safety while laying the groundwork for new relationships in a time of virtual-only classes and little to no school-sanctioned/organized activities can be tricky and isolating.

How does one make new friends or even maintain existing relationships in the time of COVID?

I did not need to read the new academic study, released in September in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,” to know that friendships are vital to happiness. But the recent study went even further, saying that participants “reported the highest levels of experiential well-being in the company of their friends, followed by their romantic partners, and then children.”

Let’s review.

The study says most of us are happiest when we are with our friends.

Followed by being with our romantic partners.

Followed by being with our children.

The thing about keeping connections alive is the same now as it always was — being thoughtful. Those who are spending much of their work days on video calls may be exhausted from them, but stepping those calls up a notch or two with some planning and thoughtfulness can make them the perfect vehicle for connection during these times.

One friend’s family gets together monthly. They live in four different states. They take turns hosting and block out three hours of time and focus on each other. The family’s thoughtfulness in planning the gatherings is inspiring.

For example, in July when it was the dad’s birthday, his wife sent everyone else fresh cherries to make their own pie (the dad’s favorite), crazy candles and self-inflating balloons. The birthday boy knew his wife was making a cherry pie, but when everyone else pulled out theirs (all decorated similarly), he was shocked and touched.

In September, the host sent each household a box that included an array of craft items — Popsicle sticks, glue gun, dowel rods, googly eyes, tiny pompoms, etc. As the family all gathered virtually, they each worked on a sculpture made with the items in the box.

“The gatherings are life-sustaining for us,” my friend, Kathleen Batchelder said. “Sometimes afterward, we smile for hours, and sometimes we weep because we miss actual hugs so much.”

More ideas include:

• Host a virtual friends or family talent show. Each person has three to four minutes to display their known or hidden talents.

• Virtual show and tell.

• For the little ones, send each a copy of the same book and read it together.

• Have a riddle contest.

• Play Jackbox Games (https://www.jackboxgames.com/). The company has an array of games designed to be played virtually. My family has played them with friends near and far. We’ve especially enjoyed playing one of the games called “Trivia Murder Party.”

• Try a virtual tour of museums or national parks.

• Host a virtual dinner party or wine/cheese tasting. Decide on the menu. Everybody gathers and or cooks the planned items and sets an appropriate a table. Then, eat together and enjoy each other’s company.

• Have a mini-concert. Organize a little show to cheer on a family or friend musician.

• Discuss a book together virtually. I recommend someone hosting and doing the work of finding a related short video to go with the book — perhaps an interview with the author or a video about the place the book was set. Find something to watch together and then discuss. One of my book clubs delivered boxes to each participant with food and we all ate together. The extra effort goes a long way.

• Another, non-virtual means of staying connected, is to mail handwritten notes to friends.

By now, chances are that you get the idea.

When I entertain in my home, I have work to do to make it an enjoyable time for others. I have to plan and clean and cook. Making virtual gatherings more enjoyable requires work too, but it’s a different kind of work. We are in the transition period of figuring all of this out. One day, we’ll look back and remember how we floundered during this time.

Maintaining connections to others right now requires a bit of a pioneer spirit. We have to rethink things and figure out new ways to keep those connections strong and make sure that others know we are here for them and that they matter.

Email Jan Risher at janrisher@gmail.com.