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"Life markers give us an indication that we have moved from one configuration or stage in our family lives to another," says Todd Martin, a family researcher and Dean and Associate Professor of Sociology at Trinity Western University.
Weddings, births and funerals are major, universal milestones signifying individual and family development. All of these life events "are being incredibly impacted by COVID-19 and by public health directives," Martin observes.
As the managing editor of the Journal of Comparative Family Studies, Martin has deep concerns for families during this pandemic. He also speaks from first-hand experience.
"I've had two children get married in the past month and a half," he said, "both of those events were incredibly difficult and challenging on the bride and groom, because they were forced to determine who could be there."
One wedding took place in September and was permitted to host 25 people. Another wedding took place in October and was allowed to host only 10 people.
"And you can imagine the stress and the anxiety of choosing the few people who are going to be allowed to be there," he said. "We can look forward to celebrations in the future, but we don't know how long this is going to continue."
The news is more shades of grey than black, white and bleak, however. The challenges faced because of COVID-19 are variations of phenomena that all families face. Now, they're experiencing it in new ways simultaneously around the world. The challenges will be better overcome by some families compared to others, Martin says, meaning they'll be a test of individual family health and resiliency rather than a catalyst for families to become unhealthy.
"The healthier we are as families, the better we are able to navigate through the crisis," Martin says.
"We know that families that are healthy are able to be resilient as they go through these crises. Such families often emerge on the other side of the crises as stronger and closer."
Research that Martin and other sociologists have conducted this year confirms this. In studies of cultures around the world, Martin and his colleagues witnessed family resiliency and determined that COVID-19 has actually brought many closer together. Global findings supporting those conclusions are available in a recent special issue of theJournal of Comparative Family Studies.
"This is important because when we're talking about COVID-19, we're really talking about a disruption in our normal pattern and way of doing things. And that's not going to create unhealthy families any more than it's going to create healthy families. What it's going to do is expose those who are healthy versus those who are not as healthy and not as resilient."
Martin's research should be a motive for governments and public health officials to make family health and resiliency part of the measure of the battle against COVID-19. When it comes to measuring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, after all, governments track the numbers of positive test results and the numbers of deaths reported. We chart the valleys and hills of our economic state. Yet the social costs are harder to count.
Separated from one another due to health and safety measures, people are feeling the cost whether the losses are measured or not. For Canadians particularly, the onset of winter can only add to that cost.
“As we enter winter, we are dealing with reduced daylight hours and increased inclement weather, all of which are going to create more isolation and more challenges of how we can behave as social beings," Martin says.
As provinces endure the second wave of the pandemic and reimpose increased restrictions, the prolonged isolation can grow more and more difficult to overcome, Martin foresees a ripple effect of potential harm: "You're going to see both an increase of mental health challenges that go undiagnosed and untreated—and you're also going to see how these issues play out in family and social circles."
Facing measures such as social bubbles and limited-number gatherings, people are now being placed in the difficult position of having to discriminate among loved ones.
"Individuals are now forced to choose the people that they're going to be able to socialize with, at least in a face-to-face format," Martin says. "We've gotten to the point now where the immediate family or household is the only protected group of people that you're not mandated to monitor."
Those outside our social bubble represent potential risk.
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"In B.C. we talk about the 'safe six,'" said Martin, referencing a term used by B.C.'s Provincial Health Officer, Bonnie Henry. "Now what you have to do—if you have any type of family structure that's bigger than six people—is you create a priority and a hierarchy."
Making these choices can be very difficult.
Martin's research focuses on the life course of the family, and how people transition from one stage to another over time—transitions that are typically marked by significant life events.
In particular, Martin has sympathy for couples who are getting married during the pandemic, because they have very difficult choices to make. In addition to quiet weddings, there are also unsung new arrivals.
"We have births, children who are being born who aren't able to see their grandparents, who aren't able to see their aunts and uncles," Martin says, noting he had a grandniece born more than a month ago.
"I've seen pictures. I can't go and see her yet."
Beyond embracing newborns and witnessing newlyweds, Martin laments the missed occasions to commemorate the passing of life.
"I'm most concerned about funerals," he said. "A funeral is the chance for a friend, family or close associate to say goodbye, and to bring some closure to a lifelong meaningful relationship. For many people, that opportunity has been removed. Remembrance now has to be done virtually. You have to go and say goodbye on a blog or leave a little video recording. That's not the same as being able to mourn together with your family in community."
In our disconnected world, these common rituals are perhaps some of the last remnants of a social structure that has, for millennia, held society together: family celebrations and family mourning.
The disruption to family events that have formed the bonds of our societies challenge the strength and resiliency of who we are as individuals—but maybe more so, who we are as families. Martin's research, then, provides hope for families even in midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Families can build on their strengths. In fact, they're doing so around the world. What's needed is focus on what those strengths are, and how to help families in difficulty adopt them.