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Ditching holiday plans because of coronavirus? How to tell your loved ones

We see it in movies and hear it in songs: protagonists overcoming obstacles of all kinds to reach their goal of being home for the holidays.

The pressure to attend family events isn’t new. But during a global pandemic — with COVID-19 cases rising and public health officials urging against indoor gatherings — there’s a lot more risk attached to our normal traditions this year.

Telling loved ones we don’t want to attend holiday gatherings can be tricky — there might be hurt feelings on their end, and guilt on ours.

Read more: Ontarians should celebrate holidays with own household only, government says

But Dr. Nancy Hurst, an Edmonton-based psychologist, says those conversations are needed in the coming weeks as we deal with “the pandemic that stole Christmas.”

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“It’s already tough (to miss gatherings), but it’s especially tough at Christmas because we have so many expectations,” Hurst said.

“And if you have people with a different perspective on COVID — those who feel strongly that it’s not safe to gather, and others who feel it’s Christmas and we should make an exception — it’s going to be even tougher to say no.”

Hurst says it’s best to frame the conversation from a place of care, stressing safety precautions.

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Canadians overseas debate heading home for Christmas – Nov 24, 2020

More stubborn family members may require extra explanation, but Hurst says it’s best not to get defensive.

“You don’t need to justify your perspective,” she said. “If you say: ‘I don’t feel safe, I still care for you, I look forward to having that spring get-together,’ the relationship is likely strong enough to endure that.”

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Dr. Roger McIntyre, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Toronto, says a tough conversation about holiday plans may be easier to digest if it’s presented as a postponement rather than a cancellation.

Promising news of COVID vaccine trials this month could soften the blow by convincing people the pandemic is nearing an end, he said.

In the meantime though, this holiday season could present a “terrible dilemma.”

Read more: For Canadians living abroad, a COVID-19 Christmas means difficult decisions

“People have legitimate concerns about their physical safety, but they want to see their family, and they’re probably feeling quite lonely,” he said. “So you have a scenario where you need that social connection and you can’t have it.”

McIntyre says it will be easier to talk about altered holiday plans if it’s presented as a collective idea. And if the entire family lives in a COVID hotspot like Toronto, for example, it might be easier to convince everyone to adhere to local public health guidance.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford urged residents on Wednesday to celebrate the holidays only with those in their own households, while Quebec Premier Francois Legault announced last week a plan that would give his province a mini-reprieve from restrictions by allowing gatherings of 10 over four days.

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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister, meanwhile, encouraged residents on Tuesday to find alternatives to in-person gatherings.

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Christmas events put ‘on hold’ by pandemic – Nov 23, 2020

Regional differences in the levels of COVID risk only complicate the situation, McIntyre says. If the prevalence of the virus is low where the gathering is happening, some family members may not understand the hesitation of others to attend.

Dr. Vanessa Meier-Stephenson, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Calgary, says travel during the holiday season is what’s worrying her most.

“At this point in time, there are no safe (in-person) Christmas gatherings,” she said. “There is risk in being physically in the same room with family members who are not in your usual cohort. … And the bottom line is that it really takes one person to start an outbreak.”

While experts have been saying for months that indoor gatherings can be dangerous, Dr. Esther Greenglass, a psychology professor at York University, says it might be hard to remind family members of that when it comes to a significant holiday like Christmas.

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Read more: A Canadian coronavirus winter is looming — and it could ‘amplify loneliness’

Getting together to socialize and share a meal with loved ones can be an “emotional experience,” she said, and after eight months of pandemic-related restrictions, some are just tired of following the rules.

Hurt feelings can arise when families decide to go through with gatherings, leaving those who objected out of the mix, she added.

“If people don’t get it, you have no control over it, but you don’t have to take it personally,” Greenglass said. “And that’s the hardest part, not to see this as a personal rejection.”

While the holiday season can be tough for many people even without a pandemic, McIntyre says the added isolation of this year has him particularly worried.

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Coronavirus: Trudeau says a normal Christmas is ‘quite frankly right out of the question’ – Nov 20, 2020

He suggests we make more of an effort to keep connections open in order to fight off loneliness and “find our sense of human meaningfulness, which is being threatened like nothing else right now.”

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He also stressed that professional help is available during the pandemic to those struggling with serious mental health concerns.

Greenglass says those who can should embrace creative, virtual options for holiday gatherings, and suggested making Zoom dinners more personal by sharing food and drink recipes beforehand, or dropping off pre-made dinner portions on porch steps.

“That lets people know you’re not rejecting them, that you want to see them, and that you’ve thought enough about it to come up with alternatives,” she said.

“COVID doesn’t have to be the Grinch that stole Christmas.”