During The COVID-19 Pandemic, Holiday Gatherings Have Become (Even More) Emotionally Complicated
With COVID-19 surging in most of the United States as the weather is getting colder, questions around travel and planning for Thanksgiving and the end-of-year holidays have become increasingly emotionally fraught. Our Founder and Clinical Director Matt Lundquist spoke to Slate on grief about missing out on 2020’s holiday plans and how to have difficult family conversations about risk, safety, and attending family gatherings.
Assessing The Safety and Risk Of Holiday Gatherings Is Both Rational And Emotional
While Matt addresses how to approach family negotiations about the holidays in “How to Cancel the Holidays Without Ruining Them,” it’s worth addressing upfront why decisions about 2020 holiday plans are so complex. First, there needs to be a rational assessment of risk related to travel and being with family. This assessment also exists on three levels: the risk to you and your partner (and kids), the risk to the people you’re visiting (which likely includes older people who are at higher risk), and the risk to people in transit at both ends of the trip (including upon return). Each of these things needs to be considered separately.
Beyond this rational assessment of safety (What does the science say? What precautions can we take? How safe do those keep us and others?), there should also be an understanding that these questions are emotional. The emotional here operates on two levels: complicated emotional feelings about risk and disease, and complicated emotional feelings about family, which includes being with them and being away from them.
When Communicating Your Decision About The 2020 Holidays, Be Resolved And Make Room For Disappointment
In Slate, Matt suggests approaching conversations about 2020 holiday plans with clarity and an understanding of what you want. If you’re partnered, it can help to come to a decision first before talking to parents, in-laws, or other extended family. Even write down your plan and email it to each other so there can be no surprises when talking to other households.
When you eventually speak to parents, siblings, relatives, or friends, it’s essential to, as Matt articulates, “be really resolved,” as well as direct. In some respects, Matt observes the pandemic is “forcing people to have more direct conversations with their partners, and their older parents, than they might usually have.”
It’s also key to recognize that even among people who rarely disagree, we’re in a moment of conflict for many about how to manage risk with the virus. In other words, we need to assume that relatives in another state may not have the same sentiment as our neighbors or those with whom we’ve been in closer conversation. This means family may have a hard time accepting your decision. However, Matt explains, “One of the things I think adult children need to learn, and sometimes need a lot of help to learn is, it’s not your job to please your parents, and they can be disappointed. Simply let them be disappointed, and you could be disappointed, and we need to make room to feel the sadness and grief of that disappointment, which is different for everyone.”
Allow Yourself To Feel Grief About Rapidly Changing Holiday Plans
Between our new post-election emotional moment and the second wave of the pandemic, planning for Thanksgiving and the holidays exists in a rapidly changing world. Part of the human condition is that we can’t control every sad and hard thing. Plans are likely to change and that will come with disappointment and sadness. One of the frequent questions patients ask is how to manage expectations to mitigate this pain. While being alert to the risks in front of us is an important part of not living in denial, the unexpected will come and it will often be disappointing (and it may not come with a silver lining).
With this disappointment comes grief and a lot of it–yours, your partner’s, your kid’s (or kids’), your parents’, your siblings’, and other extended family members’ grief. There are also, Matt notes, “so many different aspects of grief.” He continues, “Grief at a missed opportunity, grief relative to time that feels increasingly precious as parents get older, children get older, we get older.” Part of capitalism is that there should be a solution for these kinds of bad feelings (typically one you can purchase), but some aspects of grief, like about the 2020 holidays, just need to be felt.