How Do You Handle Holidays in a Pandemic?
Navigating the holidays under Covid has its own pressures. A season that should be marked by joy is being met with sadness and loss by so many. Lisa explains how taking time to mourn the temporary loss of our regular traditions can help us deal with, and move past, these emotions. Understanding that it won’t always feel this way can help children cope with uncertainty. The silver lining is that finding our way through intensely sad times helps to build resilience. For Children Everywhere - Feeding America is the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization. It has served over 40 million people through food banks and meal programs: www.feedingamerica.org
November 24, 2020 | 29 min
Transcript | How Do You Handle Holidays in a Pandemic?
Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 16: How Do You Handle the Holidays in a Pandemic?
The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.
REENA: I’m in charge of the mashed potatoes this holiday season, so I have been googling, talking through it with everyone, and it comes down to two things: cream and lots of butter.
LISA: Yes! And lots of butter on top of the lots of butter. So what are you doing, Reena, for Thanksgiving? What’s this going to look like?
REENA: So in Connecticut no more than 10 people allowed. So it’s just me and the little pod family that I’ve been isolating with all year. The two of us are going to get together the two families so it’s only eight people, and we’ve split up the duties including somebody’s doing the dishes and that’s how we’re going to do it.
LISA: That sounds pretty good.
REENA: Yeah, no I’m actually really excited. I know that everybody would rather be with their families but I’m really looking forward to it.
LISA: We did Thanksgiving on October 25th. We sort of rallied.
LISA: So my in-laws live nearby and my husband’s brother and sister and their families live nearby and we typically host Thanksgiving at our house. It’s 12 people and I thought, in Cleveland in November you cannot count on the weather so everybody was able to rally and we did an outdoor Thanksgiving and set up tables outside, one for each cohort. So people were with the people they lived with.
LISA: And the tables were far apart, actually easily more than 10 feet apart, and then we we have a fire pit which I’ve mentioned many times on the podcast, and we put that in the middle, and everybody brought what they usually bring and we just did the whole thing outdoors and it was actually really wonderful.
REENA: Move over, Martha Stewart. Lisa Damour has taken over in this pandemic. It sounds amazing, and you know what? That’s actually something to keep in mind with the holidays with Hanukkah and Christmas and maybe doing it early isn’t a bad idea?
LISA: We just jumped on the good weather and I’m glad we did. I’m glad we did.
REENA: Smart, but you know? Everyone’s struggling with this. How do you, this is not normal, this is not what we wanted it to be, but I’m still hopeful with all this great vaccine news. I’m so hopeful that next year this will not be the case, but it still leaves a lot of winter here that hasn’t even begun, and this great letter we got from someone. I want to read this to you. It says: ‘Dear Lisa. Thank you for your weekly podcasts on parenting during the pandemic. I find your podcast to be so relatable and leave each one with a new nugget of helpful parenting advice. I have a 10-year-old son and a 13-year-old daughter. My children’s schools are fully remote at least until January. I find myself periodically flooded with waves of sadness. Undoubtedly the realization of all they are missing right now, some things like the absence of my younger son’s final elementary school Halloween parade. I canceled the winter sing festival, and no final eighth grade musical. It feels so surprisingly upsetting. As the fall is progressing I’m finding myself increasingly filled with feelings of grief. All these tiny pieces of their childhood experience that will simply be missed this year. In addition, the typical joy of the upcoming holiday season feels dampened with the reality that we will likely be unable to celebrate in person with their grandparents and cousins. We will likely have to forego another family vacation. Although my children appear to be adjusting seemingly well to this new reality, I worry that I am not. Can you please share some parenting tips on how to manage these expectations and very strong emotions? I want to be strong for my children. I feel so grateful they’re healthy. I don’t want my feelings of loss to overwhelm these trivial aspects of life that impact them. Thank you so much.’
You know that that’s a great question. You know, what tips do you have, Lisa? How do you manage these unexpected and very strong emotions because they hit you sometimes like waves out of nowhere?
LISA: I know and and I think this mom speaks for so many around a lot of apprehension and a lot of uncertainty and a lot of mourning really about the holidays ahead, and when we talk in terms of mourning, that for me feels useful because mourning is work. Mourning is where we recognize a loss and we create time and space to actually be very sad about it and the beautiful thing about mourning is that the work gets done. And so the first thought I have in response to this is the anticipatory mourning. This this mom looking ahead and thinking, all right the holidays are not going to be what we want it to be. This is a sad time. I’m feeling the loss. I’m feeling the missing out. That sense of starting to do the work of mourning and allow oneself to, I see this all the time, have the right feeling at the right time. The process that usually happens from that is a sense of working through and getting to the other side of it, and so often when people have anticipatory mourning, when they start to worry about what’s going to be lost, they get a lot of that work done and then the day itself has more space for other things to come in. So I actually think, here’s where people sometimes get frightened and it’s not necessary from my experience, is they think if I feel this way now in November and so worried about say Christmas how am I going to feel by the time the day arrives, and usually what happens is you’re doing the work in November.
REENA: You’re processing it.
LISA: Yeah. You’re being sad. You’re doing the mourning, so that by the time Christmas arrives space is now available to have a different experience.
REENA: So taking this theme of mourning you know when I was a Middle East correspondent in Jerusalem I got to learn so much about Jewish tradition and this tradition of sitting shivah that you know you and your family are at home for a week and people come to visit and pay their respects. I really love that tradition because it allows you to grieve and share those memories and you feel supported, but we’re not burying somebody. It’s not a funeral. We’re not going to the wake and having a funeral service, so how do you process this?
LISA: Right. In fact, it’s the opposite. We have less contact, less support, less community in this grieving time , f we’re gonna talk about the loss of the holidays that we do want to have as a form of grief, and so we’re doing it alone and then what this letter speaks to so eloquently is that we’re having our own very powerful feelings as parents sometimes about the holiday and worried about how we’re gonna get our kids through it and how we’re going to help our kids in light of how crummy we ourselves may be feeling.
REENA: So what are your suggestions in how to cope? You’re saying we’re doing the work now, so what’s the work we should be doing?
LISA: I think for ourselves it is that shiva quality. That space-making for the sadness and one of the questions this mother poses is, should my kids see it? How much should I shield them from it? You know that’s sort of built into this question. And I’m not sure on that. That there’s probably some room for being very clear and open and forthcoming about really being bummed about the missing out and really sad about having to give up or the loss of things. There’s also probably some room for doing a bit of that on your own time maybe with friends or age mates and talking with people on the phone or digitally about how crummy this is. Because in the end, for better or for worse, parents often craft the holidays for their kids. Or have a heavy hand in
LISA: You know somehow weirdly Julie from the Love Boat just popped to mind. Like we’re kind of the cruise directors for Christmas and Hanukkah and New Years and all of that and so you know whether that’s a good idea or a bad idea I think there is the sense of, we still have to put on something, and wanting to find the energy and the creativity to do something so that it feels there was a holiday.
REENA: So how do you really ensure that these losses aren’t cumulatively overwhelming for everyone? Right? That they just add up and add up and you just, you know, you get Thanksgiving, you get to Hanukkah, you get to Christmas, you get to New Years and you don’t feel better. It doesn’t uplift you right?
LISA: It’s an interesting time because one of the places I’m watching people backed themselves into corners they don’t need to be in is the sense of all or nothing. That, ah man we can’t do Christmas how we wanted to do Christmas. Christmas is going to stink. And that actually isn’t true. So as we stomach each loss, and there is this reality that people are tired, and it’s one after another. Where we should try to find some energy is to say, okay so we can’t do this the way we normally do this. How can we do it in a different kind of way? And salvage pieces of it, and in fact, sometimes, I mean we had a great Thanksgiving. It was actually really wonderful. I don’t know exactly how we’re going to feel on Thanksgiving day itself, when we would have done what we normally did and we can’t. But Thanksgiving has not been a total bust already. And one thing I’ve taken a lot of comfort in as I see the holidays coming at us are the graduations the kids had this past spring, and how wildly creative and in many ways heartfelt and adorable the graduations were that nobody wanted to have. So I was working with the school in Miami at that time digitally, and they had a graduation, I love this, where they had a DJ on the front lawn of the school who was plugged into an AM radio station that all of the cars could tune into, and the DJ announced the graduates as their car came up.
REENA: That’s awesome.
LISA: It’s brilliant. It’s absolutely brilliant. And so the whole line of cars knew who was graduating in that moment. They’re all honking. They’re all yelling out their windows. They’re all safe. But it was this joyful wonderful Miami graduation very different from anything anyone would have ever planned if they had been given the option not to do it that way. So there’s two sides to this coin. There’s the sadness of what we’re not getting in that we have to give up. And then there is human creativity. And we have to hold those both together and when we do the losses are not quite as acute. They’re not quite as acute and there may even be some sense of a getting. It’s not all giving up, that there can be some getting, and that I think is how we have to get through this.
REENA: You know it’s so true about the ingenuity of people that has come out in the middle of this pandemic. You know one CEO I was talking to saying that during the Great Depression there was so many companies that closed and shut down, but there are so many companies that are here today that pivoted, reinvented, thought outside the box and are still standing decades later, and I guess that’s something we all have to hold on to but Lisa, what happens if your child isn’t really doing well with the disruptions? I know my kids talk about it often. They miss their cousins and grandparents they’re very vocal about it. You know they’re not sad and depressed but the way they express it to me, there’s a loss. There’s an absolute loss.
LISA: There is. And kids expressing it and talking about it and being vocal about it is probably a sign they’re doing okay with it actually.
LISA: Yeah. I think and I think in some ways you think, oh man my kid’s really upset, they’re talking about it. but as a psychologist I’m like, okay they’re talking about it. It’s already in a decent space because they are verbalizing it and they are looking to you for support and communication, and that’s often very leavening for them or helps them metabolize it. I think I’d almost worry more about the kiddo who is imploding or acting out where that distress is coming out in the form of bad behavior. What’s so hard, though, whether the kid’s misbehaving or just talking about feeling upset, we’re so tired. I think that’s where we all are as parents is like, oh come on. I am dragging myself through this pandemic like I need you to be in a better mood. And and there’s nothing to be done about that beyond hopefully knowing that everybody feels that way, and that we’re not alone when we’re feeling like we have to rally to support our kids when we ourselves are feeling really worn thin.
REENA: Yeah I think you finally have a moment, and there’s so much to do, I think we all feel like we’re drowning often because there’s so much to do at home and your parenting is just right there in your face because you’re with them 24 hours practically. But with the added pressure of the holidays and making it feel special I think it’s hard to pivot sometimes.
LISA: It is.
REENA: And you’re right. Parents really dictate how holidays are perceived, right?
LISA: Yeah. I mean I really do feel like we’re cruise directing our way through it and that’s really fun for us, and I think that’s a part also that’s hard is that we feel that we’re doing it for our kids, and often we are doing it for kids, but like I get such a kick, right? Out of the decorating and I get such a kick out of the advent calendars. I mean for me those are really fun and I take a lot of pleasure in those and pieces of that are definitely still happening. But there’s this other thing that I’ve been just turning over in my head. I don’t know what to do with it, but I think we should talk about it, which is that way in which part of why we have holiday traditions, like the way you always do the mantelpiece, or you know the music that you play or things like that is that it brings back all the pleasures of previous holidays. You know as soon as you start pulling that stuff out you’re like, oh remember when? And especially stuff, I know this sounds weird, but stuff that smells. You know smell and are best friends.
LISA: Yeah. They’re very closely nestled together in the brain and you know, you’ve had that experience for you smell something and then it all comes back. You know it brings back memories really powerfully.
LISA: So there’s like a lot of holiday smells. You know that’s there and one of the things I’ve been just you know wondering about is if we try to have as close to the same holiday as we usually have and we pull out all that stuff and all the smells and all the feels and all the things. How bittersweet is that going to be? Because this year’s so different and where I’m at is, I think we need to prepare ourselves and prepare our kids for the fact it’s going to be bittersweet.
REENA: And yet I do, I have to say personally, I feel the sense of optimism as we’re you know coming around the end of the year with all this news on great progress with vaccines. It’s not going to flip a switch overnight. This takes time even to implement and and get approval and and then distribute, but there is a sense that maybe we’re going to be turning a corner soon on this, but not soon enough with the holidays approaching, so what else do you feel, Lisa, that we should be focus in on to help us be better prepared for dealing with the sadness that could come around the holidays?
LISA: Well I do think the vaccines come into it. Very much so because there is suddenly, I’m with you, Reena, like the idea that I’m seeing things with them like by December this by April this, you know the idea that people are even putting dates and months on the beginning of an exit strategy. That’s new. Three weeks ago that was ambiguous and now we’re starting to get calendar sense of where we might be in this in this, and this sense of, okay this may be the one end of your holiday season. It’s really messed up and we can presumably look forward to something quite a bit you know more normal next year if not altogether normal. I think that helps because part of then what we can say to kids is this is a historic event. This is unlike anything. I’ve never had a holiday disrupted because of a global pandemic. This will be hopefully your one time we hunker down this year. This is a one time deal. It’s a hard thing to give up, but we make the sacrifice, and I think that’s the place where I would actually start to push kids a little bit if they’re having a hard time around why can’t we have what we want to realize that other family getting all the stuff they want and we’re not doing it. There’s room to say, we sacrifice what we want on behalf of a greater good sometimes, and that’s what we need to do this holiday. And we’re giving up stuff we want to be doing, you’re giving up stuff you want to be doing, and we’re doing that because it’s the right thing to do, and we can actually take pride in doing the right thing. You can take pride in being part of doing the right thing. That’s why we’re not doing the holiday that we typically do.
REENA: And it’s hard because while there is so much optimism around the vaccines, there’s also skyrocketing COVID rates all across the country, globally really but particularly in the U.S. and when you’re weighing both and you don’t want them to be overcome by the fear and the sadness of it all, when you’re dealing and trying to teach them resilience in this moment and trying to tell them to keep their chin up. What really gets through and is important in a moment like this?
LISA: Part of, I think, what we can do is articulate a tension that we’re all living with right now, which is this strange thing you mentioned, not strange but actually horrible thing you mentioned, about the outrageously high rates.
LISA: You know rates like we’ve never seen. I mean rates anyone ever wanted to see, happening when we simultaneously are so over it. You know that we’ve been doing this for so long and we’re used to the pandemic, and we’ve adapted in our way and we are tired of it. And I mean there’s no there’s no good way to say this like the novelty has worn off with this thing.
LISA: And so it’s hard, I think, cognitively to reconcile the tedium and the urgency of the situation at once. And I think that is part of what we need to talk out loud with kids about, which on the one hand like yes this feels like same old same old like what’s the big deal at this point? Like COVID is just COVID. And then also say and yet it’s never been more dangerous and so we actually have to be more careful now than we’ve ever been, and just to acknowledge that’s so weird, right? As this thing becomes old and familiar, it’s actually, we should treat it as new and frightening. And just to name that and to talk that through. Language is where it’s at, Reena, you know that’s the whole field I’m in is this idea of, it can be really bad and really hard, but if you can say it, if you can describe it, if you can actually describe it in exquisite detail, it somehow becomes manageable. And I think people worry if we talk about it too much or if we get into the detail it’s going to make it worse, but actually language has this extraordinary power of bringing the hard things down to size.
REENA: When you talk about language and particularly in dealing with grief, I know you counsel people who have dealt with grief and trying to come out of it. What’s really important, Lisa? When you are trying to come out of the depths of grief, what do you tell your patients is important to do right now in getting past this moment?
LISA: It’s interesting. I’ve been taking care, actually, of a few adolescents who’ve dealt with grief lately. Losses actually unrelated to the pandemic but really you know frightening and close to home losses. And one thing, when I’m trying to help them feel better, which is actually not often what I’m trying to do. Often what I’m trying to do is to help them feel, and sometimes you know if we help people feel they feel worse, but that actually we consider that to be productive, but when I feel like, okay it’s time for a little feeling better, one thing I will say and have found myself saying in recent months is it won’t always feel this way. It won’t feel this way forever. This will continue to grow and evolve for you. It won’t go away, but it won’t always feel as bad as it feels right now. And then, interestingly, in talking with teenagers in particular, what I will say is, this will also reset your yardstick for what is painful or hard to get through. What you are doing is so painful and so hard to get through that what comes at you now most of it will be quite a bit smaller than this and will bother you less because you’ve done this hard work. And it’s interesting because I’ve had teenagers actually on a few different occasions recently be like, I’m already seeing that. Stuff would have bothered me before doesn’t hold a candle to this and it actually bothers me less. So I’m not going to say, oh that’s wonderful, that’s great, grief is your best friend, but I do I hope that we remember there’s a calculation in here that sometimes when you deal with something really exquisitely difficult, the net effect is actually other things become less difficult. They seem less big, they seem less daunting. So it doesn’t cancel out but it recalibrates your sense of things in a way where the net effect can be you feel better about other stuff while feeling worse about this one thing.
REENA: That’s interesting so you’re really building a well of resilience in a way that getting through this dark side will truly make you stronger if you can get through this.
LISA: It does and I think that’s what we can say to kids. You know this will probably be the weirdest Christmas you’ll ever do, and after this, or the weirdest Hannakuh, or the weirdest you know whatever you celebrate, after this you will enjoy your say that much more. The other thing, Reena, I think we should do is so we’re you know we’re rolling in the grief, and I’m all for that because I do believe that helps, roll in it awhile and then when you feel like it’s time to take that turn, say, okay so what are we going to do instead? You know what is our Miami DJ version of this? And you know sort of what we did, we took Thanksgiving outside, so we can’t have what we want so what can we do instead? So are we gonna say you know we can’t have Thanksgiving, we are going to have a movie marathon and we’re gonna you know eat in the TV room, which you know I’m totally not cool with, and you know yeah how do we then make it fun, enjoy it? And I know I’m not alone also in thinking, oh there are some things I’m off the hook about which I’m actually okay with. What, Reena, are you not having to do this holiday season that you are pretty psyched about?
REENA: You know Christmas is my absolute favorite holiday of the year, but I think that there’s a lot of pressure on us to get the right gifts and I I spend a lot of time, I’m the woman who after putting up the Turkey on the table goes to the Black Friday sales, I got my Instant Pot, my fabulous $60 Instant Pot, I did get one Thanksgiving. I’m the woman in line, but I’m quite enjoying it for the first time in my life not having the pressure to plan everything. I’m just doing the mashed potatoes and I might not tell the other family that I’m going to put mascarpone in and I’m okay with that. You know like that’s the most of the pressure at this point. But I love what you say, Lisa, about comparing it to the Love Boat and being the cruise director, making it exciting and new. Finding some way to really pivot in all of this.
LISA: Yeah. We’ve got to pivot, and I know people are like, I am pivoted out. We hear you, we hear you. We’re just going to get creative. We’re going to rally. We’re going be grown ass women. We’re going to dig deep. We’re going to find it, and this will be memorable, but it doesn’t have to be memorable in an all sad.
REENA: I love that. This will be memorable. You’re absolutely right. Well happy holidays as we kick it off.
LISA: Same to you. Same to you.
REENA: You know, thinking about food and everything. I want to plug for our charity of week, For Children Everywhere, the organization called feeding america dot org. It’s the Feeding America network. They’ve been around for more than 40 years. They help 200 food banks and over 60,000 food pantries and meal programs across the country and Charity Navigator rates them as one of the top charities where your money really goes to the organization, and I think of as disrupted as we feel, there are so many people lining up to food lines and food banks that never in their lifetime thought they would. So I hope you might consider making a donation to them or bringing stuff to your local food pantry. It’s an easy Google to find out what’s nearby, and it could make such a difference for some people this holiday season.
LISA: Perfect. Perfect.
REENA: So tell me, what is your parenting to go?
LISA: So I’ve been thinking a lot about what we can say really really have to think with our kids about how to make the holidays work, and I think what we might do is to take time and say to them, okay what are the holidays for? What are they really about? And what they’re really about is gratitude and reflection and cherishing people who mean a lot to us, and that can happen this year even if nothing feels familiar. And so what I would say in some ways is let’s get these holidays down to the studs. What do holidays help us to remember to do? And now let’s just do this in a new way this year.
REENA: Comes down to some of the basics that you kind of forget each holiday season.
LISA: Yep. Let’s just do those.
REENA: Well happy holidays, Lisa, and I’ll see you next week.
LISA: Happy holidays, Reena. Bye.
REENA: I just remind everyone you get more details on the charity on our show notes, and be sure to follow us ask Lisa podcast on Instagram Facebook and Twitter.