Saying No to the Holidays During COVID-19? How to Break It to Family (or Friends)

Dreading telling your family you won't be coming home for Thanksgiving this year? We have advice. (Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels)

Updated Dec. 1 at 11:30 a.m.

Traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic raises a person's risk of contracting — or spreading — the coronavirus. Gathering in groups with other households, especially indoors, does just the same.

Put these two facts together and it's clear: Even when following all advised precautions, traveling to visit your family for the holidays carries undeniable risk factors.

Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly recommended that people stay home for Thanksgiving last month.  In California, nonessential travel outside of the state was already strongly discouraged by Gov. Gavin Newsom's travel advisory issued before Thanksgiving, which continues to ask people to self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving from another state or country.

This state guidance comes on the heels of recommendations that were recently released by the nine Bay Area counties plus the city of Berkeley around travel, with the holidays specifically in mind. The guidance states that "nonessential travel, including holiday travel, is not recommended. Traveling outside the Bay Area will increase your chance of getting infected and spreading the virus to others after your return."

So it's no surprise that many people chose to forgo Thanksgiving with their families and friends altogether, and are planning on doing the same for Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa during the pandemic. But how can you have that tricky conversation with loved ones without creating a rift, or unduly hurting someone's feelings?

Remember: This Is Always Your Choice

Let’s get this out of the way: Even in a holiday season without a pandemic to consider, your movements and actions regarding an event like Thanksgiving are always yours to decide. Regardless of what others — family, friends, strangers — may think, your time and your personal space are completely and utterly your business and yours to direct as you see fit.

There are many reasons why a person might not welcome visiting with family over the holidays. Money issues around travel, scarcity of vacation time, simmering family drama, tension with relatives over core beliefs or their failure to respect your identity, your lifestyle or your boundaries, a lack of desire to mark certain holidays or just wanting to sit your behind at home instead; these are all 100% valid reasons to forgo a family gathering — pandemic or no pandemic.

Yet in the most communicative of family dynamics, telling loved ones that you won’t be joining their gathering is still no picnic. As a teacher and sex educator in the Bay Area, Julia Feldman advises on navigating delicate, difficult conversations when it comes to health and harm reduction. She's previously shared her advice for clear, respectful communication around socializing and dating during the pandemic, and "COVID Thanksgiving" was a subject particularly close to Feldman's heart.

That's because she herself made the decision to decline a wider family Thanksgiving this year because of the pandemic and the need to preserve her own family's "pod."

"We kept trying to find a way to make it work," Feldman said. "And at a certain point realized that like a lot of things this year, we just need to approach things differently."

Why does it feel so much tougher declining an invitation to a family holiday gathering than, say, a party or a birthday?

"There's a lot of sentimentality, and a lot of history and a lot of tradition there," Feldman explains. "And so it's a lot for people to let go of."

Be Firm, But Lead With Feelings

When navigating a difficult conversation, or delivering "bad news," there can sometimes be a temptation to stay extra-firm and resolute in your communication — in case the recipient interprets any hesitation as a cause for hope that you haven't really made up your mind. Being firm in what we can and cannot do is great, Feldman says, but don't let that stop you from "expressing [your] sadness and regret," she says.

Many of us are taught that to effectively traverse tough talks, we need to be "very decisive, and and maybe even kind of emotionless or unemotional about it," Feldman says. But rather than shying away from emotion in such a discussion, it's actually better to embrace it, and in this case, "express our genuine sadness."

Of her own Thanksgiving situation, Feldman says, "I needed to be able to tell my family 'I really wish we could be with you, and it's really hard for us that we can't.' " Being honest about the difficulty of the decision and the pain it's causing — for you and for your family — is the best way to ask for and hopefully achieve some understanding.

Ultimately, you're making this decision to reduce your family's risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, and it's your way of keeping them safe from harm. "That is an ultimate act of care and we need to focus on that," Feldman says.

Acknowledge That This Sucks ...

Addressing the pain your decision may cause can be productive — and so can acknowledging the magnitude of it, and how disappointing it is. Over these last eight months, the pandemic has forced many people to cancel dearly anticipated plans and forgo contact with loved ones. Rather than minimizing the impact of your decision and the disruption caused by the virus that led you to make it, make it clear, advises Feldman, that this is nobody's ideal, and, frankly, it sucks.

It perhaps becomes even harder to make and stick to a decision like this because of a collective fatigue with the pandemic and its pernicious ability to alter seemingly every plan in our lives. And yes, it's tempting to throw your hands up in the air and soften those boundaries you might have firmly held at the beginning of shelter-in-place.

Staying strong is tough, but you know why you're doing this: to keep your loved ones safe. Pretending it's not a big deal isn't being truthful, and you — and your family — are allowed to be saddened, frustrated or downright pissed off about it.

"If we deny that," Feldman says, "there's going to be a lot of pent-up resentment and sadness and miscommunication later on."

Changing plans for the holidays because of the COVID-19 pandemic can result in difficult conversations with loved ones. (Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels)

... But Make Your New Plans Clear

During difficult discussions, you might find that family members are holding out hope you'll change your mind — whether they articulate that or not.

Communicating that you have new plans for the holidays can greatly aid your kind-but-clear efforts to let folks know you're not changing your mind.

For Feldman, ordering her own turkey for her different Thanksgiving this year was a big deal.

"For me, that was kind of like a decisive move," she says, and one which she actually found helpful to communicate to her family. To introduce this conversation, Feldman says a helpful phrase might be: "I've decided to make other plans so that I can feel like I'm celebrating this holiday."

Again, you can keep it real with your family, and convey the strangeness or jarring nature of your new plans to sustain that crucial emotional honesty: "This is what I'm going to do this year, and it feels right in the context of this crazy world that's going on right now," suggests Feldman. You don't have to convey that you're thrilled with your new plans — only that you have them, and you're sticking to them.

What if Your Family Downplays COVID-19?

If your family — incorrectly — believes that the pandemic isn't "that big a deal," or doesn't think it's enough reason to forgo the usual holiday gatherings, that's undeniably a tough situation to navigate.

Trying to "convince" your loved ones of the pandemic's devastating seriousness by sending them statistics and literature probably isn't going to change their minds at this point, Feldman says. So, what can you do?

"You just really have to come from an emotional place of being honest," Feldman says.

Be clear with your family that the travel process alone puts both you and them at a heightened risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 — and that regardless of their feelings about that, you're personally committed to your responsibility to keep your family safe. Be honest that you know the decision could cause some hurt, but because your priority is their safety, "you're still acting from a place of love, and that's going to have to guide you," Feldman says.

This is, after all, your way of showing your care for the people you love.

What if It's Friends, Not Family?

Because of the variance between family dynamic and friend/peer dynamics, declining to gather with friends for a holiday celebration will be quite a different conversation to have. In some cases, it might feel even harder to inform your best friend than your family.

Our friendships can be complex in origin, form and dynamics, so emotions between peers can be highly mixed — and can quickly get fraught. Friends can also have very different expectations from each other, Feldman says: "So I could imagine that a friend could feel like you have a sense of loyalty, or maybe a sense of responsibility, or maybe that you respect them and trust them," in a way that you don't necessarily trust your relatives. Which might make hearing your decision even tougher for a pal.

Feldman recommends that you navigate holiday discussions with the same honesty, frankness and emotional openness that you'd bring to your family. If it's breaking your heart that you can't celebrate with your friend, tell them that — and propose any ideas you might have for how to meet virtually or at a distance outside instead.

One extra element to remember where friends are concerned: Make sure that they know that you trust and respect them, especially when it comes to their conduct around COVID-19. When you decline a holiday gathering, bear in mind that many folks can — even unconsciously — infer moral judgments around socializing during the pandemic. They might think that you don't feel comfortable gathering with them, because of how they've been behaving during the pandemic.

"There's a lot of reading into this that people can do," Feldman says, "that somehow you're suggesting that people aren't being careful, or being safe, because you're not going to celebrate with them."

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If you sense that a friend suspects you're declining their holiday gathering because you don't trust them, be sure to reassure them — and bring it back to the big picture.

"It has nothing to do about someone being 'safe' or 'careful,' " Feldman says. "Our priority is to make sure that everyone that we want to celebrate with next year is going to be alive, and healthy, and well, and able to do that. And this year, we're making a lot of sacrifices. We've got bigger goals here."

"[L]et's really focus on being thankful for what we have and thankful for the future that we can have," Feldman says. "And not be reckless now, at the expense of of all the things we're thankful for, or at the expense of loved ones."

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