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How to Navigate the Holidays if You Can’t Go Home

By Tim Chester

Nov 23, 2020

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London’s calling—but COVID’s calling the shots.

Photo by Sven Hansche / Shutterstock

London’s calling—but COVID’s calling the shots.

One expat writer reflects on life far away from home when travel is not an option.

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“The safest way to celebrate Thanksgiving is . . . at home with the people you live with.” That advice, recently issued by the CDC to a nation that’s been living in lockdown, canceling trips, distant from friends and family, and looking forward to some festive slivers of joy, is a bitter pill to swallow. An absolutely necessary one, but a sting nonetheless.

Maybe you live close enough to see family, with testing and masks and distancing and the rest of the new normal rigmarole. Maybe that family is a flight away and out of reach. I know how it feels to be far from home during the holidays. I emigrated from the U.K. to California in 2016 with my American wife and then one-year-old boy (we’ve since been joined by twin boys). Four years later and we’ve been home to London as a family . . . once.

When my son was two-and-a-half we flew back for Christmas. On the one hand, it was wonderful to revisit London during its season of LED-filled cheer—diving in and out of pubs with old friends from Regent Street to the Thames, immersing ourselves in British banter and gorging on mince pies. And of course, celebrating the season and making memories with aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

On the other hand, the flight was 11 hours of hell (both ways). My boy was slowly going mad on a diet of mixed nuts and back-to-back Octonauts, rolling in circles on the floor where the attendants were trying to take a break, before falling asleep just as the wheels came out for landing. Jet lag then woke him promptly at 3 a.m. for a week.

All of which is to say, we weren’t in a hurry to return. Since then I’ve been back alone and grandparents came to see us instead. That hasn’t happened this year. And we’re facing yet another holiday far from my home.

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We will (hopefully) get to spend the season with some of my wife’s family. But while I’m looking forward to time with them and my party of five, I’m juggling feelings of disappointment and guilt at not being able to share it with the extended British brood. 

How to navigate the holiday period if you can’t go home

So how best to deal with dismay if your travel plans have been curtailed and you can’t see your family this year? “Instead of focusing on the things you won’t be able to do, try focusing on what steps you can take to make sure you still mark this holiday in a way that feels special to you,” says Dr. Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and cofounder/co-CEO of My Online Therapy.

If the lack of in-person human contact engenders feelings of loneliness, Touroni recommends regular video chats, video games, or a virtual pub quiz. A phone call is better than a text, she says. And keeping busy is important. “We may find loneliness more pervasive when we’re bored so be sure to keep yourself busy. Schedule fun activities and things to look forward to.”

And if you have to let down some relatives when you make that difficult cancellation call? “I would begin the conversation by making it clear that it’s not because you don’t want to be there,” Touroni says. “Explain that in any other circumstances, you would make the journey to be with them. If it’s because you’re worried about endangering a relative, make it clear that you’re taking this decision primarily because you love and care for them, and you want them to be well.”

I often feel guilty that I moved so far away from my parents, just when we gave them grandkids. But Touroni insists the pandemic shouldn’t exacerbate those kinds of feelings. “As an emotion, guilt can serve a purpose in showing us where we went wrong. But it loses that purpose when the situation is ultimately out of our control. This kind of thinking can cause a lot of anxiety and be damaging. Growing up and moving away is healthy and natural, and it’s not something to feel guilty about. None of us could have predicted that we’d find ourselves in this situation.”

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Focus on problem-solving, she adds. Consider what you’ve learned from the pandemic: “Perhaps this time apart has made you realize how much you appreciate your family. How can you make sure that you hold onto this appreciation in the future when you are able to see each other again?”

Browsing Shutterstock is as close as I’ll get to London lights this year.

“Reaching in” to loved ones

Mental health researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently discussed the concept of “reaching in”—connecting with loved ones to maintain mental and emotional health when face-to-face contact isn’t an option.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all for what people need or want during this time,” said clinical psychologist and senior scientist in mental health Laura K. Murray. “Just like we all have different ‘love languages,’ we encourage people to reach out to their loved ones to ask what would help them feel connected, or suggest ideas if they know the person well.”

“For example, setting up a pen pal or being a pen pal may work better for the elderly rather than using digital technology. There may be ways to connect with other people in the area if family cannot fly in. Some people like surprise gifts, others like talking, and would rather have help setting up safe house cleaning in order to ‘feel better.’ It’s good to think out of the box.”

I’ve just set up a Google Meet for my parents and siblings on Christmas Day—something I wouldn’t have made so formal in normal years. We’re planning charades, costumes, and Pictionary. It’ll be at 4 p.m. their time and 8 a.m. ours. They might be on the mulled wine by that point in the day; we’ll still be sipping Buck’s Fizz (basically mimosas)—a long-standing tradition. They’ll be postnap, long past present opening, and not far off bed. We’ll still be buzzing from early morning excitement. Five thousand miles will still separate us. But it’s better than nothing.

Even the most pragmatic (or pessimistic) experts think things should be normal by this time next year. And one of the many parenting clichés I’ve learnt to be most true is that days last forever but the years fly by. The 2021 holiday season will be here before we know it. In the meantime, let’s try to enjoy it—and make limoncello out of lemons.

>>Next: Should I Go Home for the Holidays?

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