Handling the Holidays during COVID: Five Ways to Find Joy in the Midst of a Pandemic

By: Gina Shuster, MSW, LMSW

The year 2020 has been difficult on all of us, for a variety of reasons. One of the largest difficulties of 2020 has been the ongoing spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the Coronavirus has claimed the lives of over 250,000 Americans. For many of us, this isn’t simply a number, this is the sobering reality of family members and friends who are no longer with us. This number represents the names and faces of those who will be missing from our holiday celebrations this year. This number also represents a collective grief in our nation and our need to mourn.

So then, how are we expected to celebrate and find joy this holiday season amongst all of our pain? How are we to enjoy the family and friends we have remaining, with so many restrictions on gathering in place? How, in a world filled with so much uncertainty and chaos can we manage to find peace? Is it even possible? The answer, my friends, is yes. Yes, peace is possible. Joy, laughter and celebration are still possible. Hope is possible. We may just need to dig a little deeper this year and tap into resources

that we haven’t used in a while. First, we must tap into our humanity. We must use our desire to connect to one another to reach outside of ourselves and our circumstances and lend a helping hand. Even if we are unable to do this face to face, we can show compassion, kindness and empathy in a variety of meaningful ways. Second, we need to tap deep down into our well of creativity. The following are five tips to help us do these very things.

Tip 1: Acknowledge that this year will be different

This may sound simple, but sometimes acknowledging is the hardest part. Once we acknowledge something it  becomes real, and  thus harder to hide from. For many of us,  this holiday season is going to look drastically different from years past. Vacations and travel may  have been canceled or  postponed.  For many of us, our normal family  gatherings will not be happening. For those of us who are gathering with family this year, there may be people missing from the celebration. Even work parties and holiday gift exchanges have been canceled. Coming to terms with these changes can be very difficult.  No matter how much we wish it wasn’t true, the reality is that this year will be different. Allowing ourselves to believe that nothing has changed only sets us up for more hurt and disappointment. It’s okay to acknowledge that we’re hurting. It’s okay to verbalize that things are different and that we’re not okay with them being that way. Just because we acknowledge our loss, does not mean that we have to be okay with it or “over it”. It’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to cry, and it’s okay to not feel like celebrating. Most importantly, it’s okay to grieve and mourn these losses! We need to be patient with ourselves. We need to give ourselves time to process these changes and the feelings we have about them.

However, acknowledging doesn’t mean we have to stay stuck in negativity. We can acknowledge and still move forward. We can choose to make the best of a bad situation by starting new traditions and new ways of celebrating, but first we must acknowledge.

Tip 2: Find Creative Ways to Connect with Family, Friends and Those Around You

Many of us have had our fare share of video conferencing this year and we’re either complete pros at it or we’re over it!  Even though we may be burned out on it, there is a    lot of value in being able to see family and friends as we talk to them. And who says we  have to stick to boring conference-style calls? No one! The field of video calls is wide open and there is so much more we can do than just chat! How about playing a game with    family and friends over video? How much fun would it be to make our family members on the other end of the screen follow silly instructions for a scavenger hunt? Or what about playing a  fun game of Charades or Win, Lose or Draw together? What about having a    group dance party or  sing along?  The  possibilities are endless! Sometimes we  have to think outside the box and get creative! Video conferencing can be a great way to connect with family and friends this season, but there are also a number of other ways as well.

One of the great things about having more time on our hands is that it allows us to slow down and take our time on things we may have breezed through before. Instead of  sending a quick text message, we actually have time to sit down and hand write a card or letter. How much would our family members love to get a piece of mail with such a personal touch?

Even better, we can drop off holiday gift baskets to people close to us. Maybe grab a few decks of cards, a puzzle and some snack foods to leave on a friend or neighbor’s porch. What a great surprise it would be to open our front door and find a special gift waiting for us. Another great idea is a car caroling parade. Gather up a group of friends and drive through neighborhoods with the windows down singing carols. This can be a safe, social- distancing way to spread some holiday cheer.

The main idea here is just to connect. Even when we can’t be in close proximity to our family and friends, we can still enjoy time together. We can’t let physical restraints get in our way! We need each other now more than ever!

Tip 3: Spend Time Doing Things You Enjoy

Being stuck inside has it’s  disadvantages, but it also has it’s perks. Instead of focusing on    all of things that we can’t do this holiday season, we need to start thinking about all of the things we CAN do. So many of us are non-stop busy throughout the year that we don’t   often take time to slow down and enjoy the simple pleasures in life. There are so many things to enjoy this time of year. Think of all of the recipes we see floating around social media that we never have the time to try. Well, how about now? What better way to     spend our down time than by cooking or baking something yummy. Trying new recipes can keep things from getting boring and mundane. We all need a little adventure in our lives, why not start with the food we eat? Think about it, we could be transported to Italy

simply by cracking open a bottle of wine, boiling up some pasta and baking ourselves a fresh loaf of bread, all without leaving the comfort of our home. Food has the power to connect us to times and places from our past simply be reawakening our tastebuds. The possibilities are limitless! We can also use this time to try a new craft, hobby or sport.

Sewing, knitting, painting, drawing, playing a musical instrument, reading, and writing are all great independent activities. We can also use this time to catch up on our favorite tv series or holiday movies.

We can all benefit from doing things that we enjoy, especially when those things require  our bodies to do physical activity. During times of stress, it  is even more important for us    to  pay  attention to what our bodies are telling us. Stress can cause our bodies to react   with physical symptoms of pain or discomfort, such as headaches or stomach aches. One way to combat these symptoms is through movement. Exercise or activities that require physical movement can help to reduce stress and clear our minds. Exercise also sets off  “feel good” hormones in our bodies. Even in the winter, there are many outdoor activities we can enjoy. Cross country skiing, downhill skiing, snowboarding, ice fishing and sledding can be done independently, in small groups or at a safe social distance from others. Even a nice walk or run on a cool, crisp day can be refreshing.

Tip 4: Spend Time Giving to Others

We may not be able to volunteer in person many places or work in our local soup kitchen this holiday, but there are other ways to serve our community. One of the fastest and    most effective ways of improving our outlook and mood is by doing something nice for someone else. It’s hard to remain bitter and angry when we’re busy meeting the needs of others. For some of us that may mean making a financial contribution to an organization that helps people in need. It could also look like providing canned goods or a meal to a  local family who is struggling to make ends meet. For someone else this might mean  sewing, knitting or crocheting in demand items such as face masks, scarves or blankets for  a nearby shelter or nursing home. This could even mean raking a neighbor’s leaves or shoveling and salting their driveway. There are several ways to serve and help others, we can each look around and see what needs are  in our area. Another great way to give back  is by fostering or adopting a pet. Just like us, animals need companionship. Shelters are becoming overwhelmed with animals who need to be rehomed due to illness or death of their owners as well as people who are financially unable to care for them. Adopting a pet can provide a great opportunity for those of us who live alone or are isolated from family and friends to be connected to another living being. Caring for someone else also has the added benefit of increasing our sense of purpose and self-worth.

Tip 5: Spend Time Reviewing Your Year and Preparing for a New One

The year 2020 will end, that is something we can count on. Although none of knows what lies ahead, there is always hope for better days. One thing is for certain, we have all   learned a lot this year! Major life changes have a way of making us view things differently.

They bring into focus how fragile life really is. The passing of a year  is a great time to   reflect on things that we’ve learned and things we want to continue working on. The end   of a year can bring with it closure; a new year can bring hope. This is an opportunity for us to take stock. We can start by asking ourselves these questions:

  • What skills have I learned this past year that have helped me to deal with the challenges I’ve faced?
  • What have I learned about myself this past year that I didn’t know before?
  • What are my hopes for next year?
  • What things from the past year do I want to leave behind?
  • What things from the past year do I want to carry forward?

These tips may help us to enjoy more of the holiday this year, but they won’t work if we don’t put them into practice. We have a choice as to how we will respond to this season in our lives. We can choose to shut ourselves off from the world around us, or we can choose to creatively embrace one another. We just need to remember to be patient, with ourselves and with others. We will get through this holiday season and we will get through this pandemic. And remember, self-care is one of the most valuable activities we can take part in. We each need to make our mental and emotional health a priority. In order for us to care for those around us, we must first care for ourselves. Remember, when life becomes a struggle, there is help available! We all need a little extra help sometimes, there is no shame in talking to someone about our issues. Many counseling services and support groups are available through video telehealth programs.

Here’s to a healthy and happy holiday season for all of us!

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