8 Ways to Cope If You Can’t See Family and Friends This Holiday Season
Celebrating alone or with a smaller group than usual doesn’t mean you can’t still feel the holiday cheer.
The first year of this new decade has been full of anxiety, stress, frustration, confusion, fear, and disappointments. For many people, it’s meant losing a job—or a loved one. For others, it’s forced them to make difficult decisions about significant life events, like canceling their wedding or giving birth alone. No matter how the coronavirus pandemic has shaped and changed your life, it’s safe to say that everyone has had a lack of celebrations this year, with virtual birthday parties, vow exchanges, and graduations taking the place of in-person gatherings.
As we inch closer to a much-anticipated holiday season, many people may feel emotional. After all, what will the holidays be like if we can’t see our family face-to-face? Or if we can’t meet our friends for our annual holiday gift exchange or happy hour? With CDC guidelines encouraging people to avoid holiday travel and large gatherings, there’s a chance we’ll find out what small-scale, solitary holidays look like sooner rather than later.
It’s normal to feel disenchanted and flat-out sad about Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve when there’s a chance you won’t be able to spend it with the larger circle of people near and dear to you. While psychologists say those feelings are normal and expected, it’s also essential to find coping strategies. We spoke with experts on their best advice for feeling connected and remaining positive during the 2020 holiday season.
Traditions are a big part of what makes the holiday season memorable. You may look forward to hanging handmade ornaments on your tree, hearing the same stories from your grandmother, or having seconds of your aunt’s one-of-a-kind recipes. Every family has their own unique way of approaching these moments, but this year, consider a modern approach.
Certified holistic wellness coach Kama Hagar suggests putting innovative spins on traditional routines to help you feel closer to your loved ones. There are many ways to go about this: maybe it’s a cook-off competition where every household tries to recreate a classic dish and everyone votes on the presentation. Or perhaps it’s a cook-along where some of the family secret ingredients are revealed.
If you’re able to, put together a plan to safely deliver the final goods to the elder members in your family who can’t travel. “You could schedule a virtual cookie-making class with your mom or bake your grandparents goodies and drop them on their doorstep,” Hagar says. “I know, we’re all pretty sick of Zoom calls, but how incredible is it that we have this technology? Don’t give up on it. Get creative together.”
If states or oceans separate you and your family, you may need to look locally for ways to feel connected to others this holiday season. One of the most beneficial ways to feel hope and spread cheer is to volunteer. Particularly this year, there are more opportunities than ever, both from a safe social distance in person or virtually.
“You might deliver food to an elderly person who may not be able to get to the store due to the pandemic,” says Amy Cooper Hakim, PhD, an industrial-organizational psychology practitioner. “Or you might call someone who is alone and in need of some company. You could even make holiday cards or ‘thinking of you’ cards to deliver to nursing homes or hospitals.” Giving back in this way will improve your spirits, even if you can’t see your loved ones.
With record unemployment rates, budget might be top of mind this holiday season. While high-end gifts likely aren’t necessary or appropriate, small meaningful gifts and handwritten cards will go a long way in helping you and your favorite folks feel loved and valued. If money is extremely tight, it’s still worthwhile to schedule phone calls or events where you can virtually sing songs, talk about funny stories from the past, and stay in touch.
“Especially during the pandemic, when people may be experiencing increased levels of anxiety, stress, helplessness, depression, loneliness, and/or grief, having one’s support system to lean on and give emotional support back to can be very comforting and grounding for each other,” says psychologist Yvonne Thomas, PhD. “You can create new positive holiday memories can be very empowering and uplifting.”
For some people, the holidays may be extremely tough because they lost someone special to them this year. With more than 200,000 American deaths from COVID-19, many people will find the holidays extremely sad as they grieve a loss. Zlatin Ivanov, MD, a double board-certified psychiatrist, recommends joining efforts with others to process your feelings and find a way to honor the deceased instead of grieving alone. This might be a charitable donation or a physical representation of their life.
“Consider creating a memory box that contains reminders of the person who has died. You can include photos, quotes you associate with them, any mementos you may have,” Dr. Ivanov recommends. And if you can’t do this project in person, pick up the phone to share stories, talk about how much you miss them, and acknowledge your grief.
You don’t need oversized, expensive gestures to create a chain-reaction of kindness in your community, family, or friend group. In fact, the simple act of being present can help those around you feel supported and heard during a challenging season. And, by giving to others, you give to yourself. As Hagar puts it, feeling loved is vitally important to a human’s well-being. So take on the task of practicing a thoughtful gesture weekly from November until January (and beyond, because, why not?).
“Call someone you know that has no family, write a letter to your recently widowed family friend, or reach out to someone who was recently divorced or lost their job,” Hagar says. “The holidays are super hard on everyone, especially those in lonely or insecure situations. Make it a weekly practice to reach out to call or FaceTime to make others feel the holiday spirit.”
If you have double-digit cousins and aunts/uncles, siblings with young kiddos, and parents who aren’t so keen on technology, a Zoom dinner might be a complicated longshot. Someone’s internet is bound to go haywire, and grandma won’t figure out how to put herself on mute. Instead, Hakim suggests taking some of the pressure off by having an off-screen toast with wine, coffee, tea, or hot chocolate. If you can figure out videoconferencing, great. And if not, encourage everyone to send a selfie of their holiday set-up and beverage of choice in a group chat. The photos will make you grin—and hopefully get you through the day. For bonus points, send a bottle of bubbly (or another drink of choice) to everyone on your toast list so you’re all drinking the same thing.
Finding the silver lining during a time period that can only be categorized as chaotic and unprecedented is a tall order. Still, seeking, savoring, and honoring any and all wins—even just getting out of bed or sending a holiday card—is vital to mental and emotional health. In psychology terms, Thomas says this is called reframing, where a person sees something from a different or not solely negative perspective, so the whole picture is accurately viewed and represented.
Instead of saying, “I’m not celebrating Thanksgiving this year because I can’t be with my family,” you can rephrase the sentence to, “I won’t be able to be with my family this Thanksgiving because I’m prioritizing their health and safety.” Or try focusing on the ways you’ve improved your home this year during the lockdown so it’s Zoom-ready for the virtual holiday gatherings.
Every part of our bodies is connected, and if we spend the next three months loading up on junk food, sweets, and treats, our mental state will be cloudy at best. Though many people turn to cravings to process their emotions, Thomas recommends prioritizing your personal health this holiday season, especially if it’s already making you anxious or upset.
“Make a conscious effort to get enough sleep, eat right, exercise, laugh, and get emotional support from your loved ones to keep up your physical and emotional health,” she says. “The bottom line is, you may not be able to control this pandemic, but you still can find ways to broaden and add to your life and, as a consequence, grow emotionally stronger even during a pandemic when you cannot be in person with your family and friends during the holidays.”