Pandemic holidays: Planning for difficult conversations and emotions


by Grace Glausier

Nov 5, 2020

Since we are still smack-dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to know what this holiday season will look like. Even if you’re someone who has hosted the same holiday party for the last 10 years, this year might be an exception.  

As special as the holiday season is for many of us, that change can be hard. But if celebrating a little differently this year means we can better care for ourselves, our family members and our neighbors, it’s worth it. 

And if we start setting our own expectations now, we might be able to offset unnecessary disappointment and enjoy the season for what it is.

And if we start setting our own expectations now, we might be able to offset unnecessary disappointment and enjoy the season for what it is.  

With my own looming uncertainty of how to celebrate this year, I turned to the expert. As a licensed clinical social worker at Baylor University Medical Center, Eli Mandel is my go-to for how to navigate all the emotional thought bubbles that have surfaced over the past several months. His realistic advice has seen me through many an “awkward pandemic conversation.” 

Spoiler alert: Preparation is key for difficult conversations in any context. I hope this Q&A will give you the head start you need to make the next couple of months your own and enjoy the holiday time — however it’s spent! 

How do I start the conversation about holiday plans? 

Celebrations are going to vary widely, so it’s a good idea to start planning early. One way to do this is by thinking about what you truly value about the holidays — maybe it’s being with family, or having fun making food with your kids, or partaking in a meaningful religious experience. 

Figuring out what is most important to you about the holidays will help you navigate the rest of the details, like how many people you feel safe around, if you’ll be indoors or outdoors, or if you’d rather participate virtually.

Be sure to consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for holiday safety recommendations and guidelines to keep in mind when planning for holiday gatherings.

Once you have a general idea of how you’d like to celebrate, start talking with others to see how your ideas align.

What is the best way to deal with (well-intentioned) pushy relatives? 

We all know the stereotype of the “pushy” relative, especially around the holidays. We often feel dread even thinking about celebrating with them, and it can put a damper on the whole holiday experience. 

The thing is, though, we can’t control them. While I would love to give you the golden advice that will turn the entire situation around, it’s not going to happen.

Even though you can’t change how they act, you can control how you respond. In a situation when someone is trying to convince you to do something you aren’t comfortable doing, here are a few suggestions to help maintain your boundaries and keep the mood light: 

  • If you’re in person, invite someone else into the conversation. This buffer will help change the dynamic and take away from that one-on-one tension we might feel in difficult conversations.
  • Ask about them. If you can shift the focus of the conversation off yourself, it’s easier to sit back and listen.
  • Assume positive intentions. Most likely, the person isn’t trying to get under your skin. If you can remember that they want the best for you (and that we’re all facing new challenges this year), it might reduce some frustration.
  • Come prepared. Chances are you’ve dealt with this person before and know their communication style, or where they’ll try to take a conversation. Think about how you want to engage before you speak with them. Maintain those boundaries the best that you can when you do.

I’m nervous I’m going to be overwhelmed by social gatherings. Do you have any advice?

For nearly a year now, we’ve been living in a world that likely involved more social isolation than you were experiencing before COVID-19 came around. If you’re going to be in a social situation for the holidays, this might bring up some strong or unexpected emotions. After all, you’ve gotten used to a pretty different way of life. 

If this does happen, try to remember that emotions aren’t the enemy — they exist, you can’t control them and they usually deliver some pretty valuable insight into how we’re doing. 

Consider it a recalibration, of sorts. If you are really nervous about showing big emotions, though, try reaching out to some people who will be there beforehand. 

For instance, if your aunt is going to be there and you haven’t seen her since the pandemic started, give her a quick 5-minute call a few days before the celebration. It doesn’t replace seeing her, but it may soften the experience if you were able to speak recently.

Is it normal to be sad or disappointed about this holiday season?

While the holidays are often associated with joyful celebrations, the reality is that the unique circumstances of this year may bring about some harder emotions. 

Depending on how you celebrate, you might be dealing with a lot of loss — loss of holiday traditions, loss of hugs from family and friends, loss of spiritual gatherings or perhaps the loss of a loved one. 

Know that with loss of any kind, it’s common to go through some form of grief, resulting in emotions such as anger or sadness. Even though these aren’t fun things to feel, they do exist, and the harder we try not to feel them, the deeper they dig into us. 

The good thing, though, is that we can experience more than one emotion at once. You might be feeling angry that you can’t be with everyone in your family during a celebration, but you can also feel gratitude for getting to build a deeper connection with the few people who are there. 

Whatever the circumstance, try to find the glimmers of joy and appreciation in the situation. If you can’t, that’s okay. Honor your feelings and know others will come eventually.

As we all do our part to keep each other safe and healthy this year, let’s view the holidays as an opportunity to discover how to weave old traditions into new experiences. Whatever your circumstances are this year, we wish you the best, brightest and healthiest! 

About the Author

Grace Glausier is the manager of digital content strategy for Baylor Scott and White Health. A graduate of Baylor University, she is passionate about connecting people through powerful stories and empowering individuals toward better health.

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