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An antidote to pandemic loneliness

Jennifer Marshall Patterson | Learning from one family’s choice to spread hope


Emily Colson and her son Max Facebook/Emily Colson

An antidote to pandemic loneliness
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As the COVID-19 contagion continues to circulate, researchers are sifting through emerging data on social isolation and loneliness experienced during the pandemic. Social isolation is considered an objective measure. Loneliness, on the other hand, is a person’s perception that his or her need for relationships is unfulfilled. Feelings of loneliness can plague even those who are not alone. Researchers want to know what built resilience against loneliness during lockdowns. Christians reflecting on the pandemic experience should ask a larger question: What turns a sense of missing out into a vision of stewardship?

That question is particularly important for parents leading households through cancellations and missed opportunities while facing their own struggles. One survey during the first wave of the pandemic detected a large jump in loneliness among middle-aged moms. In another survey, some parents reported increased loneliness affecting their parenting amid the pandemic.

The pandemic has put particular pressure on single mothers and parents of children with special needs. Lockdowns removed their support networks overnight.

That was the situation Emily Colson faced in the spring of 2020. Emily, who is the daughter of the late Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship, is a single mother living with her 31-year-old son Max, who has autism. For Max, a highly structured schedule—including a day program, jobs in the community, volunteer work, and behavioral therapy—makes all the difference. The COVID-19 lockdown abruptly cut those lines of support.

As everyone tried to cope with the sudden quarantine, Emily realized she and Max had something to share with others. Isolation had already been a part of their journey. When Max was young, “autism held us hostage, and we spent years isolated,” Emily recalled. That season had taught them how to find purpose and hope despite circumstances. Now, amid the pandemic, Emily and Max started praying about how they could bless others.

One day, while trying to fill an empty schedule during the lockdown, Emily suggested Max paint some hearts. The cheer those paintings brought to her home, Emily realized, was something they could pass on. She bought five yard signs for Max to paint, and they staked them—without warning or contact—in the front lawns of his teachers. The recipients were moved, even to tears, to receive this gesture of love.

The pandemic has put particular pressure on single mothers and parents of children with special needs. Lockdowns removed their support networks overnight.

Max continued painting and distributing heart signs to more homes, hospitals, and even the town dump. By the end of the summer, there was more demand than he could fill.

To share hope more widely, they decided to print notecards with Max’s heart designs. The first batch of 450 boxes of cards sold out immediately. Fifteen months later, more than 30,000 cards are now in circulation. Emily’s 90-year-old mother has packaged 4,000 boxes of the cards. They’ve donated $37,000 in proceeds to charity. And Max has given away more than 200 heart signs.

People asked for the designs on T-shirts, but Emily had another idea. Her work as an author and speaker on the dignity of each human life has focused on the unborn and those living with disabilities. She recognized that Max’s hearts could spread that message as well. She had the design printed on infant onesies with the word “loved” and packaged with a message of God’s love and the value He has placed in every life.

Spectrum Designs, an organization that hires only employees with autism, printed the onesies. The onesies are available in pairs: For each one ordered, a second onesie is donated to a life-affirming charity. The cards and onesies give others a chance to join in spreading hope and encouragement.

At a recent meeting, Emily wasn’t sure how to introduce herself anymore. Her previous work as a speaker has ground to a halt. She isn’t traveling and is very cautious with contacts out of concern for her mother and her son. With her activities largely homebound and often revolving around the “Heart by Max” project, her life has changed. And yet her mission remains the same.

The project began with a prayer to steward even this season of a pandemic well. That leaves Emily sure of this: “Through this heart ministry, God’s love and valuing of every life has extended further than my voice ever could have.”

Researchers investigating social isolation have identified hope and wisdom as protective factors against loneliness. Social science metrics can’t fully capture these spiritual characteristics. But their life-giving reality is unmistakable. Hope and encouragement, as Emily and Max have shown, can be contagious in their own right.


Jennifer Patterson

Jennifer Patterson is a lecturer in public theology and director of the Institute of Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary (Washington, D.C.).

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