I Haven’t Seen My Family in a Year—This Is the One Rule We Follow to Stay Close From 3,000 Miles Away

updated Nov 24, 2020
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As the only member of my immediate family who lives on the East Coast, I’m no stranger to going long stretches without seeing family in person. Under normal circumstances, that was usually a matter of several months.

Then the pandemic hit, and I made the decision not to travel unless it was absolutely necessary. While seeing my family is certainly good for my mental health, the process of flying from New York City to Los Angeles and back seemed like too much of a risk. As weeks stretched into months, I soon realized that Thanksgiving would mark a year exactly since I saw my family in person last.

No matter the tactics we’ve established to keep one another updated with our lives, the rule we now abide by is simple: We’ve promised one another to prioritize people over platforms. In other words, we honor the fact that different methods of communication work best for different people—and that’s okay. Scheduling a call or a FaceTime session with your loved ones can certainly help with that pain. Here are the different formats of communication my family has leaned into over the past few months:

Credit: Minette Hand

For family members of few words, video calls like FaceTime or Zoom may be best

My dad isn’t really a talker, which is usually fine. Some of my favorite memories involve sitting in the same room with him, each of us doing our own thing. But that isn’t possible these days, so rather than struggle through a 58-second phone call in which we hit the perfunctory notes like we’re ticking off boxes on a to-do list—”How are you?,” “What’s new?,” and “What did you do this weekend?” are some of the greatest hits—we FaceTime several times a week for a few minutes at a time.

Somehow the conversation always stretches to at least five minutes instead, and I get the benefit of seeing his reactions, which online therapist Danielle Wayne tells Apartment Therapy benefits everyone in the conversation. “When we do video calls, we can see the other person’s facial expressions and body language, and all of this communicates to the overall message we receive,” she said.

While you can certainly FaceTime on the fly, not every family member has an Apple product. You can also use apps like Skype or Facebook Messenger to make calls, if both people have accounts on those platforms and the apps downloaded onto their devices. You can also set up a Zoom call for a similar effect, though those take more scheduling and might not be best for busy family members.

For busy family members, stick to a weekly call

Because I live in a time zone that’s three hours ahead of the rest of my family, trying to catch up during the week can be a hassle. Instead, we made a promise to catch up every Saturday, and really focus on our phone call. Our unspoken rules: You must be at home, and not be overly distracted by anything that might take you out of the conversation.

We started this tradition before the pandemic, when my mom got tired of hearing a backdrop of New York City street sounds whenever she called me. We tried following a specific time, too, but life gets in the way—and keeping things loose makes the tradition feel less like an obligation or chore. We also keep each other updated as things happen via text, and can obviously call each other between our weekly appointments, but knowing we have one big catch-up planned always feels like a nice way to end the week and not miss out on anything.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Apartment Therapy

Sometimes, family members need you to not overthink it

My sister and I follow each other on Twitter and Instagram, and my brother is constantly sharing memes on Facebook. We grew up with this kind of technology at our fingertips, so creating a group chat felt like second nature. There, we talk what each of us is getting our parents for Christmas so there’s no overlap, and my brother fills us in on how his girlfriend’s pregnancy is coming along. (Thanks to the power of iMessage, we even created a chat name, which makes the space feel special and almost sacred.)

There’s nothing particularly “special” about texting people all day long—one survey found that the average American sends 94 texts per day—but I appreciate the fact that my siblings and I are still conversing in a way that is normal to us. This, as psychotherapist Allison Ward told Apartment Therapy, is important in a year of so much upheaval. “In our current world of social distancing, and required separation, perhaps you will find the space to ask yourself what really matters to you,” she said.

Don’t underestimate the ease of a group message for everyone else

You might be spending more time at home these days, but you’re still plenty busy… which means making time for each member of your extended family one by one can be overwhelming and stressful on its own. That’s why sending a group email with everyone on CC, creating a group text chat for big family announcements, or scheduling a family event on Zoom is key. Not only can you fill everyone in on your life updates in one go, but you also respect everyone else’s time accordingly.

There’s little downside to a mass email—though if your great-aunt is personally aggrieved that you did not tell her your news directly, you can always sort it out with her on the side. Family members who want to chime in can, while others can read your message, send you their well wishes, and continue about their day. Just be sure to double-check that everyone who needs to be on your send list is there (there’s nothing worse than someone feeling as if they were left out!) and that you only send the details of a local event to those who need to know. Everyone’s inboxes will thank you.