‘It’s everything’: Time to reconnect with loved ones over coffee, hugs and lunch

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“Four birthdays!” When friends Kate Ritchie and Hana Assafiri reunited after missing each other madly during Melbourne’s latest lockdown, they counted the cost in celebrations they had missed.

The pair marks every significant milestone with brunch at Spring Street institution, The European. Before Ms Assafiri arrived on Friday, Ms Ritchie said she was most looking forward to “a long, long, squeezy hug”.

Kate Ritchie and Hana Assafiri reunite at The European.Credit:Justin McManus

The friends met by chance 20 years ago when Ms Ritchie dined in Ms Assafiri’s restaurant, Moroccan Soup Bar.

“We just hit it off and we chatted for hours, and we haven’t stopped chatting since,” Ms Ritchie says.

The relationship has grown to be so vital, Ms Assafiri describes it as “absolutely everything. We’re one another’s tribe”. Being separated for months by lockdown restrictions was “excruciating”.

As Ms Ritchie prepared to reunite with Ms Assafiri at their special haunt on Friday morning, she said deep friendship was pandemic defying.

“We are very unconventional friends and have very different lives. I have young kids and she runs a busy restaurant, but it would take more than a pandemic to dent this friendship.”

For Ms Assafiri, when she’s separated from such close friends, “the world doesn’t make sense”.

“They reflect back at you your own normal, your own sensibility when you flounder, especially in a crisis.”

Lots of people are saying they feel pressure to go back to doing everything they were before … their willingness to do that has changed.

As the state takes soft steps out of hard lockdown, psychologists are stressing the importance of making the effort to reconnect with friends and family in real life – but with conditions.

First, understand you may be far more tired by far less social activity than before the pandemic, and second, dare to be fussy.

“It’s never been more important than now to reconnect with each other,” says Tamara Cavenett, CEO of the Australian Psychological Society.

“People have had a collective experience, so it’s a beautiful moment to connect and share that, but it’s also a real opportunity to redefine your friendships and relationships. I would encourage people to choose carefully who they surround themselves with.”

Many people have realised they didn’t need – or want – to be as busy as they were before the pandemic, nor to necessarily reboot every one of their pre-pandemic social connections.

“Lots of people are saying they feel a lot of pressure to just go back to doing everything they were before and their willingness to do that has changed,” Ms Cavenett says.

“They realise they are quite OK at home on their own at least a few nights a week.”

It is impossible to generalise how people are feeling about reuniting in person.

“There’s a bit of elation about being able to see other people and do activities people are used to. Then there’s a lot of anxiety around navigating what is a completely changed system compared to other lockdowns – not going back to a COVID-zero environment.”

Grant Blashki, clinical director at Beyond Blue, says clinicians are seeing mixed feelings.

“On the one hand, there is a lot of relief and excitement, while others are a bit nervous and apprehensive about the opening up,” he says.

“For those who feel ready, reconnecting with friends and family is a great way to support your mental health because the research is very clear that social support has strong mental health benefits.”

As Ms Ritchie and Ms Assafiri locked arms in the city, in Doncaster East Carolyn Paynting was preparing a lockdown-delayed 89th birthday lunch for her mother, Rose.

The mother and daughter had not seen each other since before the sixth lockdown, which started on Rose’s birthday, because Ms Paynting lives in Carrum Downs, outside their 15-kilometre travel limit.

Cake, candles and kisses: Carolyn Paynting kisses her Mum Rose as the family, including sister Lynette James, left, and Carolyn’s husband Salvatore Turco, reunite for Rose’s 89th birthday. Credit:Joe Armao

“We missed her birthday last year as well because we were in lockdown,” Paynting says. “It means everything to get together.”

Like the psychologists, Ms Paynting says she feels the lockdown has caused people to reconsider the importance of their relationships.

“I believe lockdown has shown us how precious our families and friends are. They mean more than money can buy,” she says.

“We spend so much time looking around in shopping centres when the real treasure was always at home with the family.”

Ms Paynting – whose mum said the party lunch was “worth waiting for” – agrees the pandemic has clarified for many people how and with whom they wish to spend their time.

“It has put a new perspective on our lives, I’m sure.”

If you or anyone you know needs support call Lifeline 131 114, or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.

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