Life

How to tell your family you're not coming home for Thanksgiving

Vivian Manning-Schaffel
SteveMcsweeny | Getty Images

According to AAA's data from last year, more than 50 million Americans traveled at least 50 miles to be with their loved ones on Thanksgiving.

This year, however, paints a vastly different picture. Thanksgiving may be fast approaching but COVID-19 rates are at an all-time high — a combination that isn't exactly conducive to warm family gatherings and togetherness.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has advised American families that celebrating the holidays virtually this year poses the lowest risk for spread, while small family gatherings pose what they call "varying levels of risk."

Unfortunately, that means the safest holiday celebration is the kind spent at home with those in your immediate family or pod. And if this means opting out of family gatherings, the time to have the conversation about the holidays is now.

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Kristin A. Meekhof, a therapist and author based in Royal Oak, MI, recently told her mother, who lives 3 hours away, she'd be spending this Thanksgiving at home.

"I knew, obviously, that the conversation was going to come up since it's the fall," Meekhof explained. "I've been very, very careful and I think that I've taken more precautions than she has for social distancing."

Jenna Mahoney, a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY, always takes her 5-year old twins to see her parents in Massachusetts on Thanksgiving, but a letter from her children's school validated her gut decision to sit this year out.

"Our kids' school sent out an email reminding everyone that if you choose to leave the state and go to a high-risk area, you're going to have to quarantine for 14 days," Mahoney said. "Right now, the social-emotional learning with their (her children's) peers is a priority for us."

Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of "The Book of No: 365 Ways to Say it and Mean it―and Stop People-Pleasing Forever", acknowledges, no matter how old you are, it can be hard to say "no" to your parents.

"As children, we've learned to say yes to what our parents asked. 'No' seems harsh," she said. "You don't want to revert back to your 10-year old self and wanting to please your parents and relatives because this is just too dangerous at a time."

Anne Marie Albano, Ph.D., professor of medical psychology in psychiatry and founder of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders, had to say "no" to her parents and in-laws and was also told "no" by her children, who are healthcare workers.

"We worry about the feelings of those who are dependent on us in a lot of ways," she said. "We're going to feel deprived. We've lost milestone celebrations. But we have to talk about what makes sense so that the whole family, whoever we might have gone to visit, stays safe."

So, what's the best way to go about it?

Accept the blame

Newman says taking the blame for the decision might ultimately relieve the people you're worried you're letting down.

"You can say, 'I understand you don't feel it's risky, but I don't want it on my conscience. I'm going to be 100% responsible, and you can be upset with me. But I'm going to feel terrible if something happens to you,'" she suggested.

Validate their feelings

Albano explained, once you say you're staying home, you should prepare to listen and validate any feelings that might be expressed.

"Let the relatives you're saying no to be aware of the fact that we're all tired. We've all had enough of being isolated, and this is particularly hard for you, too. Tell them how much you care about them," she said.

State your case directly

Mahoney took the matter-of-fact approach when telling her parents they were staying home during a weekly Facetime call.

"I said your state is in an uptick," Mahoney explained. "We had to choose what was more important. And we didn't want to risk bringing the virus to my mom, who is high-risk."

As it turns out, the governor of Massachusetts restricted travel in and out of the state the day after she told them.

Use facts

Newman advised using as many facts as possible in stating your case — this guide to holiday celebrations from the CDC might help.

Let them down with love

"When you explain why you're saying 'no' and you underscore how much you want to be there and how much you love them, your relatives will be much more accepting of your refusal," said Albano.

Accept this year as an anomaly

Meekhof said adjusting to this new holiday normal was a little easier for her because she'd already wrapped her mind around it.

"I have a completely different mindset about the holidays this year than I think most people do because I've adjusted to the idea that it's not going to look like any other holiday I've ever had before," Meekhof said.

Modify the traditions (distance permitting)

Albano said families who live within driving distance can use this opportunity to tweak some traditions (dropping off food instead of cooking it together, for example), as long as they adhere to safety standards.

"It also helps to have the kids try to design some of what you do so that they feel they're really a part of it," she added.

Offer something to look forward to

A future celebration plan can help to alleviate some of the loneliness of a quiet holiday, Newman advised. "Having something to look forward to softens the edges of not having Thanksgiving this year," she said.

"For example, you could say we'll have Thanksgiving next July. That way you're not just taking something away. You're actually replacing it with something else."

If you decide to forge ahead with an outdoor celebration or something of the like, be sure and check COVID-19 transmission rates and carefully consider your level of risk — as well as the level of risk of those you try to visit.

The CDC suggests these low-risk ways to celebrate:

  • Prepare a small feast with the people you live with.
  • Make your traditional family recipes and share them with family and neighbors, who might be at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and arrange for no-contact delivery.
  • Have a Zoom Thanksgiving dinner.
  • Do your Black Friday shopping online.
  • Watching sports events, parades, and movies from home.

If we stay safe, hopefully next year, we'll be reporting about frenetic travel trends again.

The article "How to Tell Your Family You're Not Coming Home for Thanksgiving" originally published on TODAY.

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