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Navigating the Holiday Season During a Pandemic

Nov 25, 2020 | Covid, Holidays

*(The examples provided below are composite cases, synthesizing disguised information and not any patient in particular)*

This holiday season, I feel disappointment…relief… why?

While many are used to packing and heading on the road, or taking to the skies, to be with family throughout the next months, we all can attest to how different the holidays will look this year. Though 2020 has felt endless, and the exhaustion from functioning in a pandemic is not lost on us, one thing that has seemed to reinvigorate and bring joy is the festivity and community that comes from holidays like Diwali, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Pancha Ganapati, and Christmas. There may be an accompanying air of disappointment to these holidays due to the increase in confirmed cases of COVID-19, and having to temporarily pause in-person contacts with friends and family in indoor settings.

The grief around the losses of this year was something brought into session by *Chance. Although they live alone, Chance enjoys the travel back to their family home around the holiday season. Though the family has been through growing pains in understanding and accepting Chance’s identity, the way their family celebrates togetherness and love especially over the holiday season has brought a consistent and abundant sense of belonging. This year Chance has had to come to terms with their loneliness, and isolation felt in not being able to count on this time of year looking the same and bringing the same sensations. Chance found themself saying things like, “I feel like a piece of me is unfulfilled, or draining, because I want to assure my family’s safety” and “The guilt of wanting togetherness during a pandemic is sometimes too heavy to bear”. In giving space to their feelings around the immediate loss of their holiday travel, and family togetherness, we were able to identify other themes and evidence of broader grief. Through regular therapeutic sessions, Chance was able to address the disappointment and grief, over time transforming their thinking, and finding experiences akin to community and belonging, while acknowledging, as the holiday season, the challenges we are facing will pass.

For some, that disappointment is replaced with relief, which can lead to confusion and the potential for guilt. Challenging family dynamics, financial struggles, and the overwhelm that is ever-present this year may be contributing factors in having external permission to participate differently in their holidays.

Their experience may not historically have been as jovial and celebratory as we’re set up to expect, what with the way some mass-marketed holidays are advertised. They may have lost a job, or taken a pay cut, as a result of the pandemic, and cannot financially match how they’ve celebrated in past years. It may simply be that holidays have always created tremendous stress, and this year has simply put them past their threshold.

This was certainly the case for *Asim. I met *Asim at a time in his life when he was experiencing significant losses. His hours and pay at his job had been reduced since March, he had lost a family member to illness and was adrift in navigating the stress of being one of the patriarchs of his family while allowing his feelings of grief and pain. Additionally, he found himself with a lacking sense of identity and community that had typically been present this time of year. Despite the many misfortunes, Asim was relieved to have the pandemic to blame for his physical absence during the holidays. He found the feelings of relief were closely followed by guilt for not being present and available for his family. During our sessions, Asim would share ideas like, “I know my family needs me, I just cannot take on anyone else’s stress when I can barely handle my own” and ” I feel cheap, and shame because I cannot provide for my loved ones who are grieving”. Asim learned, through weekly therapy, to understand how his culture and family dynamics have contributed to his grief experience, and how they can also provide insight to accessing support. Asim was able to gain a sense of control, asking for what he needed from his family, as well as being able to contribute in other ways to offer help.

Author: Diana Smits, MSW

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