How To Tell Your Family You’re Not Coming Home for the Holidays

Coronavirus is going to make for a lonely Christmas for some this year. Here's how to have the talk with family. (Image via Shutterstock)

By Hannah Pitstick

December 7, 2020

Coronavirus is going to make the holidays awkward this year in NC. Here’s some advice on letting family down easy.

For all but two of her 57 years, Dr. Barbara Alexander has spent Christmas in southeastern North Carolina with her four older brothers and their families. 

This year is going to be different. 

Alexander, a specialist who sees patients at Duke Infectious Diseases Clinic in Durham, is opting out of large family gatherings this year because she believes it’s not worth the risk. She’s especially concerned for her 96-year-old mother who lives with her at home in Durham. 

“She’s 96, and has high blood pressure and diabetes,” Alexander said. “Let’s face it, if she were to get COVID, it probably would not go well.” 

Once Alexander decided she wouldn’t be joining her extended family for Christmas, she began reaching out to have the conversation that many across the country are dreading this year. 

Telling your friends and family that you won’t be coming home for the holidays can be tricky, depending on their temperaments and, sometimes, their political leanings. Alexander recommends starting those discussions as soon as possible.  

“Sometimes you need to start a conversation now, walk away, give the person time to process what you said, and then come back and finish the conversation later,” she said. “Getting an early start on a difficult conversation will let you and your family members process a little bit better, and also allow you to come together and determine alternative ways to celebrate or safely be together.”

How to Break the News 

If you’re worried that a family member won’t react well to the news, Julie Pike, a licensed psychologist based in Chapel Hill, recommends using “I” statements to make sure your loved ones don’t feel attacked. 

For example, instead of telling your family that they should cancel their holiday plans, tell them that if you come visit, you’re going to be too anxious to enjoy yourself. 

“I think a lot of the problems I’ve seen with families is around shaming other people for wanting to get together,” Pike said. “And I think at this point, we have to balance our physical and mental health because [the pandemic] has been going on for so long.” 

While it’s crucial to come at these conversations from a place of kindness and understanding, you also need to make sure you’re being clear and direct. 

Steven Petrow, a Hillsborough-based USA Today columnist and author who writes about civility and manners, made the mistake of being a bit too polite when responding to a relative’s Thanksgiving dinner invitation. They mistook his response as confirmation that he would be attending, and he had to call them and clarify that he unfortunately did not feel it was a good idea for him to join. 

“Make sure you’re direct, but of course, kind and empathetic, because there’s so much disappointment this year around missed holidays,” Petrow said. 

He added that everyone needs to know their own individual boundaries and stick to them, and remember that saying “no” to gatherings is actually more about caring.

“The reason most people are not traveling or being with family members is out of caring,” he said. “I think if we can all stay focused on that part it makes the message much easier to swallow.”

When having these conversations, Pike said it’s usually best to have them over the phone or video chat so your family can hear the sincerity in your voice, but an email can be a good option when reaching out to especially volatile loved ones. 

“An email can be appropriate so that person can have a little time to digest, and sometimes that’s a kindness,” she said. 

And sometimes, despite your best intentions, you still might end up hurting some feelings.  

“I think it’s natural when you have a difference in perception and desire that somebody is going to be disappointed, and that’s OK,” Pike said. “We don’t have to change it or make it better, we can just say what is true for us.”

If you find the conversation is going in circles, Pike recommends “dropping the rope,” or defusing the argument with a statement of understanding. 

“You can’t have a tug of war if one person drops their end of the rope,” she said. “If someone says ‘I think you should come,’ and I say ‘I can understand that,’ then there’s no more conversation.”

Regardless of how you decide to handle the conversation, the important thing is to have it now.

“People usually put off conversations because they’re trying to avoid conflict, but by doing so they create a bigger conflict,” Pike said.


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