"The Holidays," as they are euphemistically called, conjure up notions of happy families gathered together sharing a bountiful meal and much merriment, à la Norman Rockwell. But even for the fortunate who do experience holiday joy, with Covid-19 in our midst, we are more likely to be experiencing losses big and small this season — loved ones lost to the coronavirus, financial insecurity, the inability to travel, no family football game, no Macy's parade.
Anticipating a break in tradition is weighing heavily on those who fear that, once broken, it may never be revived.
As a practicing psychologist, I find that November through March is the busiest time in the calendar, as it is for most therapists. Heightened expectations surrounding the holidays, the passage of another year and seasonal affective disorder can make the winter a particularly challenging time for many people, and inevitably my patients report more incidences of depression as the length of the days and the temperatures decrease. And for the many people who suffer annually through the holidays because of loneliness and fractured families, it is decidedly not the most wonderful time of the year.
This will all be worse because of the pandemic, as even members of close families face physical distance and isolation. For those for whom the highlight of the year is the once-a-year family gathering over the holidays, being deprived of that time together now is heart-wrenching: Babies have been born and family members have died all without a chance to come together. The grief is waiting, the celebrations are waiting, but the calendar is not waiting for an improvement in the pandemic risks.
My patients started talking to me about how to celebrate the holidays back in August. After canceling summer vacations, they held out hope that maybe they could see family members around the holidays; anticipating that now they won't has been a tipping point leading many to despair. They had been holding on, relinquishing less important get-togethers in hope that holiday gatherings would happen. Now, many of them envision a day like the one a patient of mine, whose family is on the other side of the country, voiced: "I imagine I will be eating a turkey Lean Cuisine in front of the TV and just waiting for the day to be over."
For those who already experience the holiday blues, the options look just as grim. Many alleviate the difficulty of the season by volunteering, but most of those opportunities are closed down. Other people travel to avoid dysfunctional family relationships or being alone, but those options are limited. In recent years, the popularity of having a "Friendsgiving" has grown, but those celebrations, too, are being canceled because of risks of Covid-19 spread.
Either way, uncertainty and change are antithetical to holiday celebrations that are typically defined by tradition. Anticipating a break in tradition is weighing heavily on those who fear that, once broken, it may never be revived. One host of a large Thanksgiving gathering said: "I know in my heart it can't happen, but I'm not ready to accept that yet. If people find other things to do this year, will they continue to make the effort to come back when it is safe?"
And while holidays usually help us mark the passage of time and provide a pause for reflection while we spend time with our loved ones, for many people, "home for the holidays" doesn't have quite the same ring when we've been stuck at home with one another for nine months and our worlds have gotten much smaller. Ironically, "any place but home" is the Christmas wish for some.
Compounding the depression, sadly, is a common response aimed at helping: urging people to find joy, count their blessings and be in a celebratory mood. If we want to increase the likelihood that people can find a meaningful way to participate in holiday events — and make good decisions rather than engage in risky behavior during the pandemic — we instead need to acknowledge how hard this has been and that everyone is struggling.
When we try to cheer others up by having them "look at the bright side" before really listening to their feelings, we are inadvertently faulting them for how they feel. Rarely do such efforts change people's true emotions; instead, they teach them to hide their feelings and retreat into themselves rather than have them dismissed. As one client said, "My friend keeps trying to cheer me up by telling me what's good for me, when truthfully she hasn't bothered to learn what is really bothering me."
Most people already feel ashamed for being "Debbie Downers," so the best antidote is to listen without judgment. Admittedly, this isn't easy. People fear being overwhelmed by someone else's feelings. They also confuse listening with agreement. But if you rush in with suggestions or brush off the depth of the feelings being conveyed, inevitably it backfires. It's not so much that misery loves company as that misery deserves understanding.
Time and again, I see that once people feel heard and understood, they are much more open to changes in behavior or perspective. And listening to their concerns not only is a more productive way of relating to them; it also facilitates another major path to alleviating their pain — by meaningfully connecting with them. By hearing one another and supporting one another, we can help build resilience, a key component of mental health.
Approaching the holidays with a willingness to adapt is essential to strengthening resilience, to crafting a satisfying holiday season however we can. After mourning the reality that everything is different, trying to reconfigure events safely is crucial to avoiding depression. If we can reframe our celebrations from a perspective of "right vs. wrong" to one of "both/and," we will no longer be forcing ourselves or those on our guest lists to choose between being happy and unsafe or sad but careful.
The holidays will be both different and potentially joyful. There will be less, but it can be enough. We can both be sad and hold out hope for things to improve. By drawing close and listening fully to one another, we deepen our connections — which will hopefully last long after the holiday season is over and stand us in good stead after the pandemic is finally over, too.