People wear face masks as they pose next to a Christmas display in Montreal, Sunday, November 22, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

People wear face masks as they pose next to a Christmas display in Montreal, Sunday, November 22, 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

How to tell family their Christmas gathering is too risky and you’re not going

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

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.

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.”

“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 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.

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.”

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.”

“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.

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

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.

READ MORE: Christmas will be different even if Santa is ‘probably’ immune to COVID, says B.C. top doctor

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.

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.”

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.”

READ MORE: Top doctor urges Canadians to plan safe holidays as new COVID cases continue to rise

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

ChristmasCoronavirusHolidays

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Rogers Creek Trail main trailhead is located on the Redford Extension in Port Alberni. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
Hiker rescued after cold few hours in the bush outside Port Alberni

Alberni Valley Rescue Squad said they receive frequent calls for people lost on this trail

Helma Swinkels, left, from Bibi J’s is all smiles as she makes her first donation under the new business name to Ellen Frood from Alberni Community and Women’s Services (ACAWS). In 18 sales days, Swinkels was able to donate $3,000 to the transition house. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
Bibi J’s in Port Alberni makes first donation to non-profit

Alberni Women and Community Services to benefit

Alberta premier Jason Kenney announced that Red Deer and other rural locations would soon be getting doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. (photography by Paul Taillon/Office of the Premier)
EDITORIAL: Leading by example

Those in leadership roles need to follow the restrictions they impose on others

Melissa Martin from the Rollin Art Centre holds two paintings from the Rollin Art Centre’s permanent collection: an original portrait painted by the late Robert Aller, and a mixed media piece called ‘House’ from Peggy Larson that was part of Aller’s private collection. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
ARTS AROUND: Rollin Art Centre to re-open February 2

Newest exhibit will feature some pieces from permanent collection

Rik Abel has opened Rik’s Picks, a vintage record shop on Johnston Road. (TERESA BIRD / ALBERNI VALLEY NEWS)
BIZ BEAT: Port Alberni businesses get innovative during pandemic

See what’s new in the Port Alberni business community

Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin, vice-president of logistics and operations at the Public Health Agency of Canada, speaks at a news conference on the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa, on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
B.C. records 500 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, 14 deaths

Outbreak at Surrey Pretrial jail, two more in health care

A suspect has been arrested in connection with fires at Drinkwater Elementary (pictured) and École Mount Prevost. (Kevin Rothbauer/Citizen)
Arson suspect arrested after fires at Cowichan Valley schools

Drinkwater Elementary and Mount Prevost schools hit within a week

A woman writes a message on a memorial mural wall by street artist James “Smokey Devil” Hardy during a memorial to remember victims of illicit drug overdose deaths on International Overdose Awareness Day, in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, on Monday, August 31, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. paramedics respond to record-breaking number of overdose calls in 2020

On the front lines, COVID-19 has not only led to more calls, but increased the complexity

Nanaimo RCMP are seeking the public’s help after a man allegedly assaulted a clerk at James General Store on Victoria Road on Jan. 18. (Submitted photo)
Suspect screams at customer then assaults store clerk in Nanaimo

RCMP asking for information about Jan. 18 incident at James General Store

Chartwell Malaspina Care Residence in Nanaimo. (News Bulletin file photo)
Two Nanaimo care-home residents have died during COVID-19 outbreak

Death reported Monday was the second related to Chartwell Malaspina outbreak, says Island Health

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Rod Bitten of Union Bay won $500,000 in the Lotto Max draw on Jan. 15. Photo supplied
Vancouver Island electrician gets shocking surprise with $500K Extra win

Rod Bitten has been hard at work with home renovations, which is… Continue reading

Eighteen-year-old Aidan Webber died in a marine accident in 2019. He was a Canadian Junior BMX champion from Nanaimo. (Submitted)
Inadequate safety training a factor in teen BMX star’s workplace death in 2019

Aidan Webber was crushed by a barge at a fish farm near Port Hardy

Oyster River Fire Rescue members were called out to a suspicious fire in Black Creek. Two vehicles parked at a private residence were destroyed by fire. Photo courtesy Oyster River Fire Rescue
Suspicious fire destroys two vehicles at Vancouver Island residence

Oyster River Fire Rescue personnel were dispatched to a fire at a… Continue reading

Most Read