Navigating the Holidays with Grace and Compassion

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Family with computer and Christmas tree


This holiday season, choosing self-reflection and compassion with family members, friends and ourselves may be the best gift we give each other. It can lead the way to navigating the final weeks of this year in a manner that allows us all to stay safe and well.

Many of us may be grappling with the decision of what to do during the holidays.

  • Is it safe to gather with your extended family? To see close friends?
  • Do you hug one another as you normally would?
  • What about managing family members with differing views on what is true or not about the pandemic?

These are hard questions to answer. It’s fair to say the majority of us are looking for a feeling of normalcy. We want to be safe and make the “right” decision.

We must keep in mind the safety protocols put forth by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH). While we may crave normalcy, these are unusual times as we navigate how to safely survive this pandemic. And, our resiliency to muster through can also be tied to being connected to one another and finding comfort in the routines and traditions we love.

Many of us may be debating deviating from tradition in order to have a holiday season that feels the best for each of us and our families. And, in doing so, we may face conflict, opposition or resistance from friends or family who have different ideas than we do.


2020 calls us to find new ways of being

The level of uncertainty in 2020 has left many of us with a level of fatigue we never knew possible. The past eight months have been, at the very least, challenging — filled with uncertainty, disappointment and, for some, despair. We have been pushed to tap deep reserves within ourselves to self-reflect, advocate and find patience. Many of us are still digging deep looking for ways to show up for ourselves, our jobs, kids, families, neighbors and friends.

This time of year is traditionally filled with intense emotions: chaos, joy, anguish, just to name a few. This year has the potential to be uniquely stressful as we face the uncertainty of living with a pandemic, figuring out how to manage differing views on mask wearing, guidelines limiting gatherings and the political climate.

Consider some ideas that may help us navigate these challenging decisions:


Tip #1: Listen to hear instead of to respond

What if we listened to our loved ones with the intent to hear them instead of the intent to respond or react to them? When we listen to respond, we do not really hear what the other person is saying. We stop listening in order to form our response to them. When we listen to hear, we work to have understanding and are often able to respond with compassion instead of frustration or anger.


Tip #2: Be clear about your expectations

Talk about what the holiday get-togethers might look like with your family, friends and children. Let everyone know what your plans (or your family’s plans) are. This can help take away some of the uncertainty everyone is experiencing, especially for kids. Once you figure out your plan, communicate your expectations or boundaries to those you may be spending time with, even if it is virtual.

Perhaps you schedule more regular phone calls or video chats with people you would normally see more often during this time of year.

Although these can be hard conversations to navigate, it’s important to set clear expectations and stick with them. You can say, “I can’t wait for a time to give you a hug again, but for now let’s stay safe.”

Standing firm with our boundaries is oftentimes a challenge, especially if family and friends do not feel the same way we do. It’s important to remember that we each are entitled to set boundaries with our loved ones that allow us to feel comfortable, safe and healthy.


Tip #3: Make the effort to connect with family and friends, even if it is virtually

Though many of us would love dearly to see extended family and friends this holiday season — or may find ourselves spending it alone — there are still many ways to connect with others.  

  • Connect virtually: This year has forced many of us to get comfortable with technology. There are many different platforms that allow you to connect virtually with your loved ones. Sharing a cup of coffee, eating dessert together, and even praying over your food together while connecting virtually, are creative ways to connect throughout the holiday season. Seeing the faces of those we love, even on a phone or computer screen, can be a great comfort when we cannot be together physically.
  • Share your baking or cooking skills with neighbors, friends or family members. This is a fun way to stay connected and give back to others during the holiday season.
  • Make an effort to have one-on-one conversations with the people in your life. While family Zoom calls are fun, individual phone calls give us the opportunity to connect more intimately with one another and can go a long way towards helping us know we are not alone.


Tip #4: Keep some semblance of traditions that mean something to you

The holidays may be celebrated differently this year, but that doesn’t mean they are cancelled. Here are a few things that can help keep a sense of normalcy:

  • Put up a Christmas tree, put out your Menorah and light it each night, or put up whatever decorations or symbols that signify the significance of this time of year for you.
  • Watch your traditional movies.
  • Drive around and look at holiday lights.

It will be important for each of us — individually and collectively — to find ways to create a sense of community and do our best to find normalcy in both new and old traditions.


Tip #5: Make a plan for gift giving

Many of us have been facing other struggles related to job security. Between gift exchanges, holiday meals and travel costs, this time of year traditionally adds more financial stress.

Not only may we be saying no to spending the holidays with someone, we may also need to say no to gift exchanges. We may find ourselves leaning into avoidance in order to not disappoint anyone, which often leads to more stress. Communication is the key.

Consider asking to start a new tradition of a secret Santa or setting a limit on how much everyone spends.

If you are exchanging gifts with someone outside your immediate household, be sure to let your gift receiver know how you will deliver it. Some ideas include:

  • You can order it online and have it delivered.
  • You can mail it to them.
  • You can drop it off outside their door and then let them know it is there, while you safely stand apart to watch them pick it up.

Be sure to let them know how you want to receive gifts they may have for you.


Tip #6: Deal with grief and pain during the holidays

2020 has ensured that each of us have faced loss in one form or another. It may be a physical loss of a loved one through death or divorce, financial loss, emotional loss of connection or purpose, or the loss of what “was.”

Holidays or milestones are hard in the face of grief. They can often intensify feelings of disappointment, despair and loss. Sometimes this causes us to want to turn away from celebrating or tradition. Sometimes it causes us to hold tighter to what we remember them to be. Grief can be compared to a current in a river: our instinct is to fight against it and to try to swim towards shore (safety). When we go against instinct and focus instead on keeping ourselves afloat, eventually the current will break. This is true with grief. If we focus on keeping our head above the water versus fighting against it, eventually we will have a break where we can breathe again.

During the holidays, our instinct can become extra strong to fight the current of grief.  But that can wear out our already fatigued bodies.

As humans, we have the tendency to try to fix or solve uncomfortable emotions, especially in others. During this season and in all the seasons to come, recognize the desire to fix. Try this instead:

  • Acknowledge and validate the emotions you have or someone you know is having. Be gentle with yourself and with them. Practicing compassion and grace, allowing ourselves to see and be seen, can help us find a way through the grief.
  • Recognize your child is disappointed and that it is okay for them to be disappointed. It doesn’t take away disappointment but acknowledging it for them allows them to feel it. And, it builds a deeper connection when they know you understand.


Tip # 7: Find joy in the little things

Find pockets of joy. It can be in the little things like the shade of a beautiful sunset or a simple holiday decoration, a friendly greeting from a neighbor or a phone call with a loved one. Letting ourselves get lost, even for a moment, in the joy and gratitude of a simple thing can help build our resilience and see us through each day.

As we all strive to accept others’ decisions about how we all navigate this holiday during a pandemic, be present in each moment. It may not be what we hoped or expected things to be, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.


New ways of being

These are some tips that might help center us and fill our reserves this season.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a high level of stress and fatigue and caused us to miss out on many different things. It has also created a space for us to connect and reconnect with family, friends and loved ones in new ways. We can choose to use this time to create new habits of togetherness with those whom we hold dear.

One of the best things we may be able to do to cope with the rampant emotions throughout this season is to lean into self-compassion and giving grace — to ourselves and to others.  All of us are doing the best we can to navigate these times for ourselves and our loved ones. It is what is right for us, for right now.



This has been a challenging year. If you or someone you know needs support, LSS Behavioral Health is here for you. Visit our website or call 888.881.8261.


Author Markie Gohman is a licensed clinical counselor with LSS Behavioral Health.