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From the family caregiver’s perspective.
Ever since I assumed the role of caregiver, my husband, our two boys and I have opted out of my family’s traditional American Thanksgiving celebration. As caregivers, we are on call and in the middle of family situations 24/7 the rest of the year, so we need a break over that weekend to reconnect, just the four of us. And in the eight years that have passed since we made the choice to decline to celebrate this holiday with my family, we have heard every opinion about our decision.
This year, families around the world are going to be faced with a similar dilemma about participating in family traditions during the holidays they would otherwise typically celebrate. And because it’s 2020, I can predict with near 100% accuracy that everyone is going to feel some disappointment over this dilemma. In fact this year, disappointment could be the one major thing we all still have in common!
Given how high emotions are running, 2020 will be a great year to figure out how to stay close and connected during the holidays, even when you can’t do things the way you want. If you want to have a more peaceful and connected and less disappointing holiday season, below are five important things you can choose NOT to do this year.
1. Try to make the holidays “the same.” This is 2020. There are very few things that can happen the way they did in past years. If your family leans heavily on tradition, take a deep breath and hear this now: many traditions simply can’t and won’t be possible this year. This could be especially relevant if one or two family members are already known for insisting on adhering strictly to their view of the way things must be done. Caregivers especially will need to be prepared to say “no thank you” – kindly but firmly, and probably repeatedly – to invitations to participate in traditions that aren’t appropriate for them and their care receivers this year.
2. Visit unannounced or uninvited and expect to be welcome (or even allowed through the door). Most years, these visits would be quite fun for some families, others would think it’s simply inconvenient, while still others would consider it rude. But this year, the consequences – to health or relationships or both – could be serious and long-lasting.
3. Try to persuade people to act against their own best interests. If you call your mom to talk about holiday plans and she says “No, I don’t think it’s safe to visit,” you have an opportunity to respond like an emotional adult and say, “Okay.” If you find yourself getting upset, take a breath before you try to respond; give yourself a moment to remember that things are just different this year, and try to look at things from the perspective of the other people involved. Maybe this year is not a good year to push someone else to participate in your ideal holiday plans. Be self-aware enough to realize when you are tempted to try sneaking a little guilt into a conversation and see what it feels like to offer compassion and empathy instead.
4. Build a coalition against somebody who won’t participate in plans. It’s easy to fall into the pattern of trying to convince somebody to do what you want by building a group of like-minded people who will, one by one, nudge them in your desired direction. I know this from personal experience, working with caregivers, and from all my years coaching leaders and teams. And sometimes this is a helpful tactic. But when it comes to family dynamics, coalition-building can easily turn into hurtful behavior that could have a lasting impact, especially if it leads to gossip or mild bullying. Again, this is not the year to try to force someone to join in activities that make them uncomfortable. Many people are weary and on edge already, and this is a good year to behave with your family members in compassionate, non-judgmental ways.
5. Make assumptions about what anybody else thinks or feels about the holidays. Many people, caregivers or not, will be relieved this year – for a multitude of different reasons – because family gatherings are cancelled. Some people will be worried about the health risks, or will want to avoid arguing about politics, or maybe they’ve never enjoyed family gatherings in the first place, or are deeply grieving the loss of a loved one. These are all equally valid, and possibly very private, reasons. The next time you are tempted to make an offhand comment like, “You must be missing your family this year,” consider that you might be making an assumption and you could be pretty far from the truth for complex reasons. A more compassionate approach would be to ask, “Do you have holiday plans?” Asking a gentle open-ended question like this could lead to a meaningful conversation or even an offer to bring you a pie (which has actually happened to me).
What are your holidays going to look like this year? How do you want to react when you are faced with the inevitable changes and disappointments? For all of us, 2020 has been a good year to learn and practice new behaviors and the way we act toward our families.
Compassion could be the thing your family – especially the caregivers among you – needs most from you this year during the holidays.
Need some help with the emotional grind of caregiving, especially around the holidays?
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