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

Protestors at the Cloverdale Fairgrounds show their support for farmers in India Dec. 5, 2020. Hundreds gathered at the fairgrounds before driving in a convoy to the Indian consulate in Vancouver to protest three new laws they say will negatively impact farmers in India. (Photo: Jason Sveinson)
Protest in support of Indian farmers planned for Cloverdale

Surrey Challo event described as ‘a cultural awakening & lively protest’

The Anti-Racist Coalition Vancouver started a petition calling on B.C.’s education officials to make Black Shirt Day official. The inaugural event in solidarity with Black and racialized Canadians takes place on Friday, Jan. 15. (Screenshot/Change.org)
Surrey students, staff to take part in first-ever Black Shirt Day

Special day in ‘recognition of the struggle for civil rights fought by Black and racialized Canadians’

B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver. (File photo: Tom Zytaruk)
Surrey, Langley twin brothers who own companies together battle in court

Presiding judge described Surrey resident Kerry Hawley and Langley resident Kelly Petersen as ‘self-made successes’

16500-block of 24 Avenue. (Google image)
Council pushes forward applications for 400-plus dwellings in South Surrey

Loss of trees, pressure on schools cited by public, council members as areas of concern

Members of the community participate in the 7th annual Coldest Night of the Year event Feb. 22, 2020. This year’s event will have a virtual aspect to it because of COVID, says organizer Courtenay van den Boogaard. (Photo Submitted: Amanda Grewall)
Coldest Night of the Year fundraiser to support Cloverdale Community Kitchen

Annual events raises funds to help homeless community

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
536 COVID cases, 7 deaths reported as B.C. find its first case of South African variant

Henry said 69,746 people have received their first dose of the COVID vaccine.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a news conference outside Rideau cottage in Ottawa, Friday, January 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Trudeau says Canada’s COVID vaccine plan on track despite Pfizer cutting back deliveries

Canadian officials says it will still likely receive four million doses by the end of March

Alan Davidson was sentenced to almost six years for abusing seven boys in the late 1970s and early 1990s. (Canadian Press file)
Full parole granted to former Mountie, sports coach convicted of sex abuse of boys

Alan Davidson convicted of abusing boys in B.C. and Saskatchewan in late ’70s, early ’90s

Letisha Reimer died Nov. 1, 2016 after being stabbed at Abbotsford Senior Secondary.
No evidence that killer was in ‘psychotic state’ during Abbotsford school stabbing: Crown

Second day of closing arguments at ‘not criminally responsible’ hearing for Gabriel Klein

The first COVID-19 vaccine arrives in B.C. in temperature-controlled containers, Dec. 13, 2020. (B.C. government)
More vaccine arrives as B.C. struggles with remote COVID-19 cases

Long-term care homes remain focus for public health

The first Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine dose in Canada is prepared at The Michener Institute in Toronto on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Doses of COVID-19 vaccine expected in 60 B.C. First Nations by next week

B.C. has allocated 25,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to First Nations for distribution by the end of February

Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone questions the NDP government in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 25, 2020. (Hansard TV)
Todd Stone says he’s not running for B.C. Liberal leadership

Kamloops MLA was widely viewed as a front-runner

Wireless voice and data services are out for those on Telus as of Thursday (Jan. 14) afternoon across Western Canada, Telus Support said in a recent Tweet. (Black Press file photo)
UPDATE: Telus services restored across Western Canada

Telus said they are monitoring the situation to ensure connections remain stable

Most Read