Written By Melissa Bean Sterzick
The fall and winter holidays are some of the brightest spots on the calendar.
This year, many people are considering how celebrations will be modified
in response to the pandemic. Decorating, displaying or hanging lights,
sending cards, giving gifts and preparing familiar dishes will be easy
to accomplish safely. However, large gatherings, trips and performing
events will most likely be altered or postponed.
Preparing for the holiday season will require flexibility and thoughtfulness.
Acknowledging the coming holidays – including Halloween, Thanksgiving,
Hanukkah and Christmas – will look different is a positive place to start.
The contrast between what is expected and what really occurs is what creates
feelings of loss and sadness, says Moe Gelbart, PhD, Executive Director
of the Thelma McMillen Recovery Center at Torrance Memorial Medical Center.
He recommends individuals and families approach the holidays with normalized
Knowing this is a temporary adjustment can help keep things in perspective.
Taking the time to focus on the fundamentals of the holiday itself can
also ease feelings of disappointment. “Expectations need to line
up with reality – not with wishes about how we’d like it to
be. The bottom line is to be creative in terms of ways you can remain
in your own sphere of safety and still reach out,” says Dr. Gelbart.
Social distancing is not the same as social isolation. A better approach
is to think of it as physical distancing. A normalized expectation is
socializing can continue, but at a distance. As the holidays arrive, it’s
important to focus on the meaning of the occasion – whether religious,
social or cultural – and consider it’s still possible to share
love for friends and family even if traditions are interrupted. The season
can still be memorable and enjoyable.
The pandemic could give some individuals a chance to form a new outlook
on the holidays. Many people will experience less stress with decreased
social obligations and more meaningful interactions in smaller groups.
“It’s not about the turkey or the fireworks. It’s about
spending time together. In the absence of passing around drinks or hors
d’oeuvres, time has to be filled up with interaction and communication,”
Dr. Gelbart adds. “We have choice in how we perceive things.”
When faced with the difficulty of adjusting to a reality that does not
match expectation, validating your own feelings is a good first step.
“It is import to acknowledge your own feelings and not judge yourself.
If you begin to feel sad or unhappy, you need to be able to say to yourself
‘I feel sad. What I feel is ok’ and do the same for those
close to you,” he says. “Whatever somebody feels is correct
for them. Don’t tell them they shouldn’t feel that way.”
Validating another person’s feelings is not the same as agreeing
with those feelings. It is offering respect for what they are experiencing
and honoring the trust they extend in sharing. Invalidating another person’s
feelings makes them feel unsupported and means they will likely go elsewhere
for help in the future.
Define What’s Safe
Within family and friend groups, there will be different approaches to
safety measures. Masks, sharing food and practicing physical distance
are all subjects that will come up during the holidays. Trying to dictate
others’ decisions and behavior, or judging and acting out that judgment,
will create conflict.
“Control the things you can and let go of the things you cannot,”
Dr. Gelbart says. “If you try to control things out of your control,
you will likely be disappointed and unhappy.” Individuals have to
decide what works for them before the situations arise. Establish parameters
based on the advice of medical professionals and be prepared to opt out
or leave if an occasion or activity infringes on those parameters.
“Everybody chooses what is right for them in terms of the risk/benefit
analysis. And this is one of those times where our behavior affects other
people, creating another layer to the issue,” Dr. Gelbart says.
“You have to stand firm with your own belief system even if it’s
different than your family’s or friends.”
As the holidays approach, it is important to decide on a mental strategy
that supports happiness. Dr. Gelbart says it’s not about looking
on the bright side so much as deciding to be realistic about the good and bad.
Dr. Gelbart recommends individuals ask themselves what they are trying
to accomplish and how can it be done within the confines of what is practical
and possible. From drive-by birthday parties to physically-distanced picnics
or Zoom cocktail hours, many have found new ways to connect.
People have already shown great resourcefulness in maintaining connections
during the pandemic. This holiday season will offer the opportunity to
create new traditions and a chance to focus on the simpler and more personal
aspects of the holidays.