Family Reunions After Vaccination Are an Emotional Roller Coaster

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred

April 27, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The night before Lisa Hardesty's post-vaccination reunion with her 101-year-old grandmother felt like the night before going to an amusement park as a child.

"I cannot wait to hug her," Hardesty, 54, said a few days beforehand. "The excitement level is like if you're planning a vacation that's exciting and stressful until the night before, and then you're so excited you can't sleep. We haven't had that in the last year."

The day of the reunion, Hardesty and her 17-year-old daughter, Payton, waited outside a restaurant in the town of Holloway, MN, population 97, giddy with anticipation. When the mother and daughter finally caught a glimpse of 101-year-old Elaine through a car window, they started running toward her "like she was a celebrity," Hardesty says.

"They couldn't even stop the car before we were hugging her," says Hardesty, who is a licensed clinical psychologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato, MN. "Everyone was talking over everyone. We couldn't get our stories out quick enough. It was such joy."

With vaccinations proceeding at a much faster pace than expected, families and friends are safely reuniting after a year or more apart. Most reunions are filled with the joy, hugs, and laughter the Hardestys describe. But there's also concern and anxiety, especially leading up to the events — and that's also normal, psychologists and doctors say.

"The social isolation and increased loneliness that people experienced as a result of COVID-19 is one of the most devastating aspects of the pandemic," says Scott Kaiser, MD, a director of geriatric cognitive health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. Now that vaccines have paved the way for safe reunions, "there's a wide range of emotion. For the most part, it's relief and exuberance and joy of getting back together. But there's a lot of emotions contained in that."

Picture a new mother bringing home a baby for the first time, Kaiser says. "Of course, other people so badly want to meet the baby," he says. "And that can be great for Mom and Baby, but it can also be a double-edge sword." The new mom, who has just gone through a massive change, wants to protect the vulnerable newborn — plus, she's probably exhausted. Now that we've all undergone massive changes, "we're all kind of vulnerable still," Kaiser says. "We don't know what people are going through physically and emotionally."

Roller Coaster Highs

Before their reunion, Hardesty had seen her grandma only a couple of times during the pandemic through plexiglass or a window, conversing once with the help of AirPods. "She said that was the best day of her life," Hardesty remembers. But a completely in-person, post-vaccination visit seemed like double or triple the excitement level.

From a clinical standpoint, that makes sense, she says. The importance of social connection is well-established. In fact, hugging someone can produce the same chemicals — dopamine and oxytocin — that we experience at the top of a roller coaster ride, Hardesty says. It's not known if we produce those hormones when we connect online, she says, but it could explain why FaceTime just can't replace seeing people in person.

Of course, getting to the top of the roller coaster can also produce a lot of anxiety — and not everyone experiences that buildup in the same way, Kaiser says.

"I've seen it run the gamut," he says. "There are people who are extroverts and get together with reckless abandon, and then there are touchy situations where someone is struggling."

In one case, a woman he works with who had spent the pandemic taking care of her elderly mother became anxious when newly vaccinated family members descended on them. After a quiet year of reading and spending quality time with her mom, it seemed like people were trampling on the space they had created.

"It was really hard for her because she felt like people were invading her space, and she didn't feel like they were washing their hands and wearing their masks when they should," Kaiser says.

"And it was really hard because she loved the family members."

Setting boundaries ahead of reunions can help, he says, as can giving people a lot of leeway. "You might think it's crazy for a new mom to ask you to wash your hands 20,000 times, but just do it," he says. "For the most part, I've always seen it work out when people communicate and listen."

Sarah Breyette, 32, was relieved to hear that others also were feeling anxious about reuniting. She is planning on driving a 5-hour round trip from Minneapolis to Duluth, MN, on Mother's Day to see her 55-year-old mother, who is in a care facility for a mental health disorder.

"I'm nervous and excited," she says. "With her not understanding exactly what COVID is and the seriousness, I'll get 3-5 calls a day asking when I'm visiting and why I haven't been there."

Breyette helped her mother move into a new care facility in February 2020, and she is anxious to see what her mom's room looks like, since she hasn't been able to help with everyday tasks. And although her mom has made it through two COVID-19 outbreaks at the facility and is now fully vaccinated, Breyette still worries about variants making the vaccine less effective. But she's planning a day full of her mother's favorites — drives along Lake Superior, pizza, and ice cream — and hoping for the best.

Lessons From the "COVID Cave"

Most people dramatically narrowed down the group of friends they saw during the pandemic, Hardesty says, creating a "COVID cave" with "the friends who bring out the best in you and make you feel awesome." That forced redesign of relationships was a silver lining of the pandemic, she says.

"A lot of people have reflected on what's important to them," she says. "And most realize that it's family. It was the people part that mattered, not how nice of a car or purse or shoes you have."

Such narrowing of social networks naturally happens as people age, and past research has shown that traumatic events such as the 9/11 attacks can also prompt a similar phenomenon.

"The pandemic has come with a reprioritization of things and easing of social obligations and even cocooning, nesting, and owning your space," Kaiser says, including weeding out relationships that aren't meaningful and mutually satisfying.

"It becomes less about lots of relationships and more about close and meaningful relationships," he says.

Leaving that "COVID cave" that included only close friends and family can be stressful, especially for introverts who thrive on alone time, and for people with some types of anxiety who enjoyed the quiet and lack of competition.

Even Kaiser, who describes himself as an extrovert, hesitated when he got a text from a friend recently that read: "Dinner next week?" He had two competing thoughts: how much he'd enjoy dinner with his friend, and how much he's come to appreciate the consistency of being home with his wife and kids every night.

"This has been a year of something completely different, and we can't with a snap of our fingers go into a totally different mode," he says. "We should accommodate for a transition period. We should be able to dip a toe in."

And that means different things for different people. The extrovert who's raring to go needs to understand their more introverted friend who may be hesitant, he says.

For those nervous about branching out again, visualize yourself doing well in the situation, Hardesty suggests. And recognize that it won't be easy.

"Anticipating our anxiety and discomfort and labeling it is one of the biggest interventions," she says. "So know that we are going to be rusty with small talk, for example. I went to my daughter's dance competition and put my head down and stayed with my one friend … but then I looked around, and no one else was socializing, either."

Whether you're eager or anxious to bust out, it's important to reflect about what you've learned. Pause, Kaiser advises, before simply rushing back to what's familiar. Then you can move forward with just your "greatest hits."

And Hardesty offers a way for you to handle the things you're dreading about getting out again: Write down what's bothering you, and tell a few trusted friends who will remind you when necessary.

After all, the question shouldn't be how to get back to the way we were before right away, Kaiser says. The question should be: "How do we absorb everything we've learned over the year and come back to something even better?"

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