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Sharp Health News

The possibility of happy holidays during a pandemic

Oct. 21, 2020

Family eating holiday dinner while on video call
Like most events, activities and celebrations this year, the 2020 holidays are likely to be far different than your past Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa celebrations. Not only are we in the midst of a pandemic — severely limiting our ability to gather, and negatively affecting the health and finances of many — but COVID-19 infections continue to grow and the flu season is soon to take off.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the country is experiencing a resurgence of COVID-19 infections. Small, household gatherings are being named as one of the primary causes, and experts warn the increase in cases will continue as temperatures drop, people spend more time indoors and the holiday season approaches.

This leaves many wondering whether there’s a way to make the holidays celebratory or if we will have to settle for merely simple, even solitary.

Kim Eisenberg, LCSW, lead therapist of the Sharp Mesa Vista Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Trauma Recovery Program, understands that this can be a fearful, lonely and trying time for many. However, she advises that the best thing we can do is not resist the reality of the situation; instead, focus on accepting it, even if it is painful and disappointing.

Creating meaningful experiences, even during disappointment
“It is important to accept reality as it is and sit with the uncomfortable and potentially distressing thoughts and feelings,” she says. “Once we're able to do that, then we can simultaneously start to look at the ways we can still find meaning, purpose, joy and connection. The acceptance of a disappointing reality and having a meaningful and fulfilling life experience are not mutually exclusive.”

Eisenberg suggests you start to think about what might actually be tangible and realistic ways to have meaningful experiences this year, even though they're likely going to be completely different from anything previously experienced. Whether that’s scheduling a Zoom family call or volunteering, it’s about working within the constraints of the situation.

“We are lifted up and out of our own pain and suffering when we do things that are helpful to others,” she says. “So, even if you're physically isolated, that might look like volunteering to teach a class or host a group online. If you are politically active, it might be engaging in letter writing or phone banking. Look for ways to reach out to others and support causes and communities that you care about to provide some offset to the loneliness and isolation.”

Setting guidelines for gatherings with compassion
If your family is considering in-person holiday celebrations, Eisenberg notes that it is important to recognize there are different ways people are managing pandemic life. And the more you can keep that in mind and approach family members from a place of empathy and compassion, the better you all will be.

“We are all in the same storm,” Eisenberg says. “So, we're weathering the COVID storm together, but in different vessels — we come from different perspectives, core beliefs, values, and ways of processing and synthesizing information.”

Eisenberg offers the following tips:
  • Don’t assume that everyone's going to be on the same page in terms of behaving the same way and adhering to the same norms.
  • Talk explicitly about it ahead of time and come to some consensus around shared expectations of behavior.
  • Be in touch with your own values — identify the areas in which you have some flexibility and the things that you’re not going to compromise on in order to stay true to yourself.
  • Empathize with your loved ones who have differing perspectives, and try to see the underlying values and emotions that are driving their decisions.
  • Remember that consensus doesn't mean that you agree 100% about everything. It means that you are able to reach an agreement that everyone can live with moving forward.
Understanding the risks and following precautions
However, it’s important to note the CDC warns that in-person gatherings pose varying levels of risk based on the location and duration of the gathering, number of people in attendance, behaviors of attendees, and other important factors. In general, the more people from different households at a gathering, the closer the physical interactions are, and the longer the interactions last, the greater the risk that someone who has COVID-19 — with or without symptoms — may spread it to others.

If your family does decide to celebrate together, the agency offers several tips for hosting and attending holiday gatherings with a few key recommendations:
  • Host or attend outdoor (rather than indoor) activities.
  • Limit the size of gatherings — check local guidance about the number of households allowed to gather.
  • Encourage all in attendance to practice safety precautions — wear face coverings, maintain a distance of 6 feet or more from people you don’t live with, and wash hands or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol often — both during the gathering and in the 14 days prior to gathering.
  • Avoid shaking hands, hugging and other close contact.
  • Refrain from singing, loud talking or shouting.
  • Avoid potluck-style gatherings and instead encourage guests to bring their own food and drinks for members of their household.
The CDC also notes that people who are at high-risk of severe COVID-19 or flu illness, such as older adults or those with medical conditions, should not attend any in-person holiday celebrations. The same advice also applies to people who live with or spend time with high-risk individuals and people who feel sick; have been diagnosed with or are showing symptoms of COVID-19; or have recently been exposed to someone with COVID-19.

Making future plans can make everyone feel better
While coping with the disappointment about this year’s holiday season can be a challenge, Eisenberg says that looking forward to next year might help. While no one can guarantee what the future holds, medical experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci share that proven COVID-19 treatments, successful public health measures and a positive outlook for a potential vaccine should provide some hope.

“While we need to accept the reality that the world is never going to go back to exactly how it was for us pre-pandemic, it is going to continue to get better and we're going to continue to adapt and be resilient together,” Eisenberg says. “We can allow ourselves to feel hope about the future, look forward to more relaxed times, and start to plan for future holidays, trips, and the tangible milestones and goalposts we want to reach.”

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