Dealing with the Complicated Holiday Season During COVID-19

When we all look back at 2020 someday, will we reflect on all the tragic and seemingly unimaginable things that happened? Or will we wonder about everything that never was? For millions of people around the world, 2020 was a year of postponed weddings, virtual graduation ceremonies, and grandparents not getting to hold their new grandchild

As we head into the 2020 holiday season, COVID-19 cases across the country continue to rise, meaning that many of our usual traditions and gatherings may not happen. Since the holidays already tend to be stressful, adding a pandemic into the mix only makes it that much more difficult to navigate. 

This year has thrown many surprises and disappointments our way, and the holiday season is unlikely to be the exception. Here’s how to deal with the mental and emotional heft that this season may bring in the midst of the coronavirus crisis

Making Compromises with Compassion 

What happens if your mom wants you to come home for the holidays, but you don’t feel comfortable getting on a plane? Can you ask your guests to get COVID tests if you’re hosting Thanksgiving? Emotions run high when it comes to varying levels of comfort around the coronavirus, and the holidays will bring that out even more than usual. 

“The best thing to do in these tricky situations is to be direct and honest about your needs and concerns,” says Philadelphia-based counselor Rikki Ford, LPC, MFT. Whether your aunt feels lax about wearing a mask or you still want to go holiday shopping as normal but your spouse doesn’t, it’s all about being clear about your comfort levels and having empathy for their wants and needs as well. 

“Even if you don’t agree [with them] if others know you understand and are willing to take their concerns to heart, they will be more likely to try to find compromises,” Ford says. Therapist Nathaniel Flatt, LMFT, of Los Angeles says that empathy is the name of the game here, both with yourself and with the people in your life. After all, everyone is going through it right now. 

But even if compromises aren’t met or loved ones still don’t want to see your side of things, Ford reminds us, “it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong.” She adds, “Try not to get hung up on pleasing others at your own expense.” 

Flatt points out that a lot of familial drama isn’t necessarily from the holidays or COVID, rather, it may already be a part of your dynamic. “Family comes with baggage regardless [of COVID-19],”  he says, noting that a lot of the emotions that may come up over the holidays, like guilt or tension, aren’t necessarily new. So, rather than add on the pressures of 2020, try to deal with these situations in healthy ways like you would under even the most “normal” of circumstances. If your boundaries require being emotionally six feet apart, then stick to those rules as well. 

Creating New Memories and Traditions 

Whether your favorite thing to do around the holidays is throw a New Year’s bash with your besties or visit your favorite uncle’s house on Hanukkah, losing these traditions—even if just for a year—can feel pretty devastating. 

“It’s important to allow yourself to feel sad and grieve the loss of the typical holiday season,” says Ford. “It may also be useful to remember the reasons why you are willing to make these sacrifices and what’s at stake.” She also says that before the holidays arrive, you can identify what traditions and events you do feel safe participating in and focus on those to avoid potential disappointment. 

Austin-based psychotherapist Kristina Yarbrough, MA, LMFT, recommends that if your religion, spirituality, and/or culture are strongly tied to the holidays, it’s important to find ways to honor them, even if it’s from afar. Doing so “can be a reservoir of healing and connection,” she says. 

Yarbrough notes that there is no “right way” to do these things, as it can be as simple as lighting a candle or cooking a traditional dish. It’s simply doing whatever opens up that special place in your heart for you. 

This season also opens the door to create new memories, even if you’re apart from the ones you love. Ford suggests trying something that may feel especially meaningful, like writing letters to family members or arranging to play virtual games with friends. “You may have to get creative and think outside the box but you could end up with new traditions that stick around even after the worst of the pandemic is behind us,” she says. 

Coming to Terms with the Grief and Pain of 2020 

Every facet of our lives has been uprooted because of COVID-19, andit’s a hell of a lot to take in. Rather than bury that pain, it’s important to recognize it, especially as the holidays approach. 

“This year has forced many people to face the suffering that our attachments to traditions, rituals, and ‘normal’ can bring us,” says Yarbrough. “Recognizing our interconnectedness, we can move through the losses together, honestly and openly.” 

Flatt echoes this sentiment, saying that acknowledging our grief allows us to grow, as well as learn what our resilience is like in the face of trying times. “It’s about allowing these emotions to happen and setting yourself up for success, both internally and externally.”

So, as you allow these emotions around the end of the year to happen, Flatt says to continue to take care of yourself with things like good sleep, a proper diet, exercise, and staying connected with the people who support you the most, even if it’s just over Zoom. 

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