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Holiday on ice: How to say you won’t be home for Christmas

Published on Tuesday, December 1, 2020

By: Gary Pettus, gpettus@umc.edu

There are many good reasons to attend that holiday gathering with your family this year: love, devotion, respect, companionship, nostalgia and tradition.

There is also at least one good reason not to: fear - the kind of fear that may make you think twice about possibly exposing your kin to a disease that has spread to more than 12 million people in the U.S. so far.

If you decide that fear outweighs everything else, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tell how to limit the reach of COVID-19, but they don’t tell how to inform your parents that you won’t be around for the feasting, candle lighting, caroling or pick-up football game.

Experts at the University of Mississippi Medical Center can help with that. But with so much at stake, it won’t be easy, they warn.

Portrait of Dr. Danny Burgess
Burgess

“First and foremost, realize this is a no-win situation,” said Dr. Danny Burgess, associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior. “We are accustomed to wanting to say the right thing, or to accommodate the other person; but in this situation, that is not going to happen.

“So the first step is to be able to accept that your family will be disappointed; there may even be hurt feelings.”

No wonder; for many people, the value of these family celebrations defies exaggeration.

“Studies have shown that older folks will live through a holiday and then will sometimes die afterwards,” said Dr. David Elkin, professor of psychiatry, who specializes in child and adolescent psychiatry. “If they know that a holiday is coming, even if they’re at death’s door, they will make it through Thanksgiving or through Christmas or other holidays; even birthdays and wedding anniversaries. So something very intriguing is going on between the mind and the body.

“Those dates mean something to them, and they will find the strength. So, yes, it can be very depressing to cancel the holidays.”

Also depressing: the statistics in Mississippi, as tallied by the Mississippi State Department of Health. Nationwide, the surge in COVID-19 cases has been driven, in great part, by dinner parties, game nights and other private social scenes.

Canceling such occasions is hard enough; those who, more or less, cancel the holidays may have to cope with something very close to grief.

“There is definitely a feeling of loss, especially with families that have longstanding traditions, such as the football games you watch together or play out in the yard,” Burgess said. “Because these traditions won’t happen, or will happen in a less than ideal way, your family will be going through a grieving process.

“When they’re feeling that loss or hurt, it will be tempting to change your mind. And afterward, you may regret that.”

It’s important, then, for you and your spouse, partner or significant other to have this going for you: a united front. Otherwise, guilt can get in the way, Burgess said, and that guilt may make your decision for you.

“Be confident in your decision,” Burgess said, “and confident in the reasons behind it. You don’t want to get into a discussion with your family without that confidence, or else the conversation could become emotional.

“COVID has many layers, including politics; you have the mask-wearers and non-mask wearers. It’s almost gotten to the point where you can unintentionally insult someone.

“So you should say, ‘I feel or this is what I need to do,’ instead of putting it on your loved ones. Don’t say, ‘I’m not sure if you guys will be following the rules.’ Instead, say: ‘I don’t feel comfortable about this.’

“Be sure it’s always about what you feel is best for you. It’s not any blame on them.”

Elkin does recommend making it clear that you are concerned for them, though.

Portrait of David Elkin
Elkin

“Human beings are extremely good at living at-risk,” he said. “You drive to the grocery store knowing you might have a wreck on the way. You know if you get on a plane it might crash. But you accept those risks. That’s how we get through life in this world.

“But we must acknowledge that there is a heightened risk with this virus. So you can say, ‘We are so concerned about your health, granddad. We love you and don’t want to do anything that would hurt you. There’s no way I would drive you to the doctor and have you sit on the hood of my car on the way. So why would I do something that would hurt you just as well? Especially with this pandemic going on.’

“And your loved one may argue that there’s a chance that they won’t get it. Then it’s, ‘Yes, if I put you in the car and don’t buckle you up, there might not be an accident. But people are dying now and we don’t want to put you at risk of dying, too.’”

Still, relatively short-lived, outdoor reunions, especially for smaller groups, come with fewer risks than large indoor celebrations, according to the CDC. For get-togethers, the risk of spreading COVID-19 is at its highest at “large in-person gatherings where it is difficult for individuals to remain spaced at least six feet apart and attendees travel from outside the local area,” the CDC reports.

But even alfresco revelers should not forgo the anti-COVID trifecta: social distancing, handwashing and mask-wearing.

Even so, you don’t have to breathe the same air in order to be together, not in the age of Zoom, Skype and other video-conferencing  or chatting aids.

“You can watch the game or parade together, or play games together, virtually,” Burgess said. Of course, there are always the age-old rituals of texting and telephoning.

“Whatever your ideas, have them ready on the front end,” Burgess said. “This shows your family you have put some thought and effort into wanting to do something with them, even though you can’t be with them in person. That may lessen the hurt and disappointment.”

You could also hold out the hope of something special in the future, of better Christmases and other holidays to come.

“‘We didn’t travel this year, so we can make a bigger trip next year or do something to celebrate both Christmases.’ That’s something you could say,” Burgess said. “It could be: ‘Since we saved money this year, let’s go somewhere different or special next year – maybe all go to a cabin in the woods.’

“The event doesn’t matter. What matters is showing that you do want to celebrate with them. But remember: No matter how great you communicate all this, it’s still going to feel frustrating and disappointing.

“Those are temporary emotions, though, and they will go away. And you will feel better sticking with your decision in the long run.”


 The above article appears in CONSULT, UMMC’s monthly e-newsletter sharing news about cutting-edge clinical and health science education advances and innovative biomedical research at the Medical Center and giving you tips and suggestions on how you and the people you love can live a healthier life. Click here and enter your email address to receive CONSULT free of charge. You may cancel at any time.