Thanksgiving Is Going to Be Weird This Year. Here’s How to Cope.

Solo Thanksgiving

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By Page Leggett

November 23, 2020

Despite COVID restrictions, a good, safe time can still be had this Thanksgiving. A behavioral psychologist says the first step is acknowledging the strangeness of the times.


Trying to decide how to spend your first (and for the love of all that is holy, let’s hope only) pandemic Thanksgiving? Aren’t we all?  

While the obvious answer is to gather only with the people already in your pod, it just feels strange not to be sharing a meal with extended family and then taking a nap in front of a football game. 

And that’s OK, said Larry Kubiak, Ph.D., a psychologist with Tallahassee Memorial Behavioral Health Center in Florida.  

“Any time we experience a loss, there’s a grieving process,” he said. “Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the idea of the five stages of grief [denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance]. They apply to any loss—the death of a loved one, a job loss, a divorce. So, recognize that grieving is normal. There’s no right or wrong; there’s nothing that says it’s going to take a day, a month, a year, whatever. Give yourself permission to process the loss.” 

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“Recognize that these holidays will not be like any you’ve ever had,” he added. So, the first step in dealing with Bizarro Thanksgiving is acknowledging just how bizarro it is. 

Here are other tips on navigating these strange waters: 

  • Let people make their own decisions about whether to gather or not. “Give everyone space,” he said. “Don’t force it. Give family members the freedom to make a decision, and respect their decision. Don’t lay a guilt trip on anyone.” If you’re hosting an in-person Thanksgiving but have some relatives—maybe in a high-risk group—who make the public health expert-recommended choice not to attend, let them know you understand. And then do what you can to make them feel included. 
  • Plan ahead. “Send a little gift, a card, cookies, a child’s artwork—something tangible to let them know you’re thinking of them,” Kubiak said about family members you won’t see in person. “Maybe tell them to wait until you’re together on Zoom to open your gift or card.” Share recipes in advance. Take photos of your feast and share them with family. 
  • Stave off conflict. Advance planning can help alleviate another problem—opposing political views. “The more you can anticipate and prevent [conflict], the better off you are,” Kubiak said. “The worst thing to do is to not say anything ahead of time and then have the Trumpian and the liberal Democrat at odds. If you’re hosting a virtual get-together, you can say, ‘This has been a challenging year for everybody. I’d like for us to agree to put politics aside and focus on gratitude.’” It’ll do everyone good to avoid talking about the election for one day. 
  • Reach out. “Social distancing does not mean social isolation,” Kubiak said. “In times of crisis, human beings need each other. We have to be creative in finding ways to be together and fortunately, our technology gives us some avenues that wouldn’t have been available before. The important thing is that you make an effort.”
    “This has been accelerated by COVID, but I think we really have—and have had for some time—a pandemic of loneliness,” he said. “Technology can help in that regard. Anything we can do to reach out and let people know we’re thinking about them … is important.” 
  • Listen. No, really listen. “Our thoughts are so heated now,” Kubiak said. “People are not truly listening to each other. They’re waiting till the other person catches their breath so they can get their argument in. But active listening is when you truly want to understand that person and where they’re coming from. You might say, ‘It sounds like you’re really angry about such-and-such. Tell me some more about that.’ The more we truly listen to someone, the more we can find common ground.”  
  • Look for (and celebrate) signs of hope. There are now multiple coronavirus vaccine candidates with convincing evidence that they’re effective, and that’s something to be thankful for, Kubiak said. “Dr. [Anthony] Fauci’s excited, and that gets me excited.”  
  • Remind yourself: You’ve survived other crises. “People need to remember this is not the only challenge they’ve ever faced,” Kubiak said. “As a counselor, I remind people of the coping abilities they’ve used in the past. I’ll ask patients to examine how they got through other tough times. What have you learned, through experience, that can help you now?” 
    “One of the watchwords for Alcoholics Anonymous is ‘One day at a time.’ You can’t control what’s going to happen a month from now, a year from now, but you have some control over what happens today. So, today, vow to wear a mask, eat properly, practice healthy sleep habits, meditate, exercise.” Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. 

RELATED: Coronavirus FAQ: Holiday Travel, Stay-At-Home Orders, and Vaccine Questions, Answered


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