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Hard times forcing families apart on holidays

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For the first time in his life, Ryan Burns can’t afford to go home for the holidays. During Christmases past, he and his wife and two kids have traditionally spent much of the day in the car driving from their home in Orlando, Fla., to gatherings with their parents and grandparents, who live in various towns in Georgia.

But in October, Burns, 30, had to take a job that relocated the family to Bellingham, Wash., even though he’d been looking for one that would have kept them closer to home. Just a few weeks ago, it hit him that he couldn’t afford to travel for Christmas this year.

“I just had that kind of homesick feeling when I realized I’m not going to get to see my mom, my dad, my brothers and sisters this year,” says Burns, who works for a company marketing Bible study software.

“It was just kind of a somber moment realizing that, wow, I guess I’ve taken for granted how wonderful it was to be so close.”

As the financial crisis continues to bear down on the country, more families who can’t afford to travel for Christmas this year are facing being apart. The AAA expects holiday travel to drop 2.1 percent compared to last year — the first time it’s declined in the U.S. since 2002. Others are afraid to take time away from work, fearing that soon there may not be a job to return to.

”I’m hearing people talk about this a lot,” says Nancy Molitor, a clinical psychologist in Wilmette, Ill., and a spokeswoman for the American Psychological Association. “Our phones ring off the hook this time of year, anyway, but it’s especially poignant this year.”

A quieter holiday

Burns said he had a preview of how Christmas might feel this year when his family celebrated Thanksgiving without the Georgia relatives who’ve always surrounded them.

“With Thanksgiving, it was me, my wife and my two little kids,” Burns says. “We cooked this enormous Thanksgiving meal, and we looked at each other and realized, wow, it’s just the four of us.”

Often that despair is paired with guilt, as those who can’t afford to travel feel almost as if they are abandoning their families. Christian Hawley, who’s 41 and lives in Denver, has traveled to Dallas to see her big Texan family every year since she moved to Colorado in 1992. But this year, the finance industry is in trouble and layoffs are rumored at the investment firm where she works. Hawley was afraid to spend the $500 for a plane ticket because, she says, “I have to be realistic: The chances of my having a job after the first aren’t very high.”

Ever since she made the decision in November, she’s been agonizing over whether she made the right choice, especially since her mother has been giving her near-constant guilt trips (“But we’ll all miss you, and you live so far away…”)

While it's painful to disappoint family, psychologists say no one should be ashamed about being financially realistic.

“There’s no shame, especially this year, in admitting that you can’t afford $1,000 for plane tickets in your Christmas budget,” Molitor says. After getting over the initial feelings of loneliness or guilt, Molitor says that many of her patients have actually warmed to the idea of a very different Christmas this year.

“People are telling me they were upset a month ago, but now they’re telling me they’re almost relieved. All the extra pressure is gone,” Molitor says. “A lot of people are really telling me they’re looking forward to just kicking back and making it simpler this year.”

'A surge of independence'

Some young adults’ financial constraints have pushed them into a grown-up holiday season away from their parents before they're ready. When 26-year-old Christina Halper realized she wouldn’t be able to afford the plane ticket from New Jersey to visit her mom and brother in Sedona, Ariz., she was heartbroken at first.

“Do I miss them? Of course,” Halper says. “But it’s also this surge of independence, and it’s carving my own path.”

Parents feel ache of longing

But for parents, the absence of their adult children during the holidays can be especially hard. Many take it as a sign that their family has begun to fracture, experts say.

“Even though you know that they need to move on, when they actually do start moving on, it’s hard because it’s not just theoretical anymore; it’s real,” Molitor says. “We all know that, but each step of the way, as they start to separate from you, it tugs at your heart, because it reminds you that you’re not the only person that’s special to them. There’s a whole world opening up to your child, and you’re excited for them, but you’re sad because other people are going to be important to them besides you.”

Burns says every time he talks to his mother on the phone, she asks, “Are you sure you can’t come home this year?” before getting choked up all over again.

“Christmas has been kind of a bummer this year,” says Burns’ mom, Jeannie Edwards, who lives in Atlanta. “To hear that, even though I had prepared myself for it, it was sad. It was tough.”

Acknowledging such feelings is an important part of moving forward, says Molitor. “You have to recognize that it is sad; it’s going to change the nature of the holiday a little bit,” she says. “But if you can’t shift gears and focus on the people who are around your table it’s going to be tough for everybody.

“If you’re feeling bad or sad, try not to make them feel guilty; try not to make it worse,” Molitor says. “That will push them away and maybe make them not want to come home next time.”

Carole Disenhof, a clinical psychologist in Beverly Hills, Calif., says that parents and adult children who have to be apart will likely feel better if they seek comfort in others.

If you can’t be with your family during the holidays, “do not be alone under any condition,” she says. “When we’re alone, we tend to get depressed, even if it’s not a holiday. We’re not meant to be alone.”

Virtual Christmas

Experts recommend taking advantage of high-tech ways to be together, especially the real-time ways that Web cams and Skype, an Internet telephone and video service, offer. Last Christmas, 29-year-old Kris Lamb set up a special surprise for his mom who was upset over the absence of her daughter Katy, who was in China teaching English. On Christmas morning, he connected his laptop to his parents’ TV, logged on to Skype and there was Katy in the family’s living room, waiting for their mom when she came down the stairs.

“It was all tears; she was in absolute shock,” says Lamb, who lives in Raleigh, N.C. His parents live in Middlesborough, England, where the family regroups each year for the holidays. “At first she thought it was a recorded message; it took her about five minutes to realize she was really there.”

But a holiday apart from extended family can also be a chance to start new traditions, as Ryan Burns is going to do with his two kids, who are 2 and 4. He’s looking forward to a Christmas like the ones of his youth, when his parents would force him and his brothers and sisters to wait at the top of the stairs on Christmas morning until they gave the OK to run down to the tree.

“To some extent, that’s kind of cool,” Burns says. “We’ll actually get to be home and be together. We’ll get to do some of the traditions that I grew up with. I guess that’s kind of a way to bridge the fact that we’re not with family. There are these things that I’m able to bring to my kids and my family now.”