Submitted by Dr. Allison Allen, Chief Behavioral Health Officer, NorthLakes Community Clinic
Question – is it too soon to start talking about…the holidays?? I know, it’s early, despite the serious chill (and snow!) in the air. Winter is long enough, so let’s not rush past fall, right? Still, the holiday season is on the horizon, and the fact is, no matter how tired we all are of hearing about it, this is not a normal year and for many of us it won’t be a normal holiday season, either.
We are rapidly approaching the Big Ones – for many of us in northern Wisconsin that means Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. But also, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice! So many special, important, meaning-filled celebrations. And for us humans, meaning is shared- shared time, shared celebrations, shared memories. Enter the ultimate Grinch, coronavirus.
Now I know, for some families, the ones who, in their secret heart of hearts just want to celebrate at home, not hitting the road, trying to see all the relatives, cover all the bases, the need to stay put may be a relief, permission to hunker down and celebrate more quietly. But for many others it means weighing risks against family traditions, fearing for aging relatives who desperately want to see the kids, but who we know need to stay safe. Fearing for ourselves too, our kids and spouses. We will make a range of decisions about this, but the fact is, many people this year will not be having the holidays they dream of and treasure, and that’s hard.
So, what to do? How to make the best of a bad situation? Here are a few suggestions. First, make your decisions about any changes you need to make as early as possible, and then let everyone know. Agonizing over decisions or avoiding them is really stressful and draining, and until you make your decisions you can’t make a plan. So make the call.
Second, if there are people you can’t see, gatherings you love that aren’t going to happen, traditions that mean a lot that will go undone this year, give yourself some time to grieve that. All too often we jump way too quickly to the philosophical shrug. “It is what it is” we say and that’s that. Which is fine, and true, but trust me, acceptance works best after giving sadness its due. As part of that, maybe make a list of all the things you will be missing this year. Why?
Because third, looking at that list, think about what you CAN do this year to reach out to those folks you won’t be seeing, to fill in behind those activities you aren’t doing, and even to fulfill beloved traditions, just in some creative, pandemic-friendly way. How can you make a great connection with someone, even at a distance? What can you do to make things special? To surprise someone? Aim to create some memories, so that after this stupid pandemic is in the rearview mirror you can feel satisfaction at how you handled these holidays and even have some new, funny, happy or touching stories to tell in holiday gatherings to come.
You can see why making some decisions early, now even, can help. It’s called “coping ahead” and it can really help reduce stress. Handling change in ways that feel good takes extra time and attention, so start now! As you do, be kind to yourself, making space for the emotional ups and downs that show up during the holidays even in years not ending in 20. And reserve some kindness and patience for others – we are all having to make these decisions and the fact is we are all balancing different risks, different priorities, and as a result we will end up approaching things in different ways. A little understanding can go a long ways.
So, make a plan, talk it through with those affected, cry if and when you need to, and get creative. Put your heads together (in totally safe, socially distanced ways of course!) and come up with some new, adaptive, creative ways to connect and to celebrate. And be safe, everyone, so we can ALL get together next year and reminisce about this crazy year.
If you find yourself struggling this holiday season, please consider talking to someone as well. NLCC offers affordable Behavioral Health Therapy both in-person and on-line throughout the region. Learn more at nlccwi.org.
Allison Allen is NorthLakes Chief Behavioral Health Officer