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Family Life During the Pandemic (2/5): Absences

How might family systems be responding to enforced distance between members of the family? In the second instalment of her weekly blog series about family systems during the coronavirus crisis, psychotherapist and author Annette Byford observes feelings of abandonment, guilt and uselessness, reflects on the importance of therapeutic reframing, and anticipates shifts in generational power.


Current government guidelines encourage us all to practise social distancing strategies and to self-isolate under specific circumstances. Distance and isolation are not emotionally neutral terms. For families, these guidelines have meant a sudden rupture of contact between family members who do not live in the same household. The biggest impact has been on vulnerable groups in families, particularly the older generation and people who live on their own. We are supposed to stay at home, not visit each other, with no indication of how long this may last.

There is now plenty of practical advice out there about how to physically and emotionally survive this period of social distancing and self-isolation. However, as psychotherapists, we know there is more to it.

We will see clients who, as a result of social distancing, feel alone and abandoned. In this situation, old terrors may resurface of being cut off, alone with nobody who hears our distress and is practically and emotionally available to respond to us.

We will also see clients on the other side of the divide who feel guilty, because they have to stand back and do the ‘abandoning’. Here, old conflicts may be rekindled, a fear of loss and a sense of impotence. But there may also be resentment, supressed anger and a wish to break free from responsibility. As therapists, our task is to help our clients to distinguish what is really ‘out there’ and what layers we add to it internally.

It is interesting in this context to consider the language being used: ‘shielding’, versus ‘distancing’, is an attempt to reframe the current scenario into one of care rather than of isolation. Indeed, reframing may be one way in which we can help our clients: this is not their deepest fear of being left alone come true – those who are not physically around them anymore are still emotionally present and available. From practical help like doing the shopping to various remote connecting via the internet, what matters at the core of it is how a sense of still belonging to a family group can be fostered.

I have also observed how the language being used around the ‘elderly’ group is affecting people. Old age is not generally seen as something positive in our society. Now, many older people are struggling with finding themselves suddenly pushed into having to face their age, without yet knowing how to integrate this into their sense of self. They may feel useless, unable to provide the services they expected to for the next generation, particularly childcare for grandchildren. They may also feel they are losing control over their own life and becoming helplessly dependant on others, thereby bringing forward the aspect of ageing they have feared most.  

I wonder whether this situation will lead to a subtle shift in power and care between the generations, with adult children beginning to consider their parents’ needs in a way they may not have done before. At this time, psychotherapy can provide a space for clients to confront their own mortality and vulnerability, and that of the loved ones they are now distanced from.


Annette Byford

 Annette grew up in Germany where she taught at a secondary school, before going on to study psychology and train as a psychodynamic psychotherapist in the UK. For the past 25 years, she has worked as a psychologist and psychotherapist in private practice and as a lecturer and supervisor in various settings, including universities, the NHS and within the voluntary sector.

Annette is a chartered counselling psychologist and a senior practitioner on the Register of Psychologists Specialising in Psychotherapy. ​She is a contributor to a book edited by Anne-Marie Sclösser, A Psychoanalytic Exploration on Sameness and Otherness and the author of A Wedding in the Family, which looks at weddings as rites of passage in the family life cycle. Annette is married and has two adult children and a grandchild.

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