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A Tough Call for Families: How to Spend Thanksgiving

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Just as the country cannot seem to agree on whether to wear masks or stay six feet apart, there are also disagreements bubbling up over how to celebrate Thanksgiving. To gather or not to gather? Masks or no masks? Is everyone invited or only a select few?

Strong opinions can become a recipe for frustration and disappointment.

“We’re all grown-ups and we know it’s not personal, but I think everyone’s feelings are hurt,” said Michelle Shulklapper, who lives in Manhattan with her husband and 6-year-old son.

This year, her immediate family plans to spend the day in Massachusetts with her mother-in-law, who lives alone, and two other relatives who have been part of their social bubble.

But she won’t be attending any holiday gatherings with her parents, who sometimes travel back and forth from New Jersey to Florida.

“They don’t like it, but it just is the way it is. Period,” Shulklapper added.

Her priority, she said, is to protect her son and ensure that he can continue going to school in person — and also prevent her parents from getting sick.

“For now, in order for us to stay safe and to keep you safe, this unfortunately is what we have to do,” she said of her parents. “And I promise to do as many FaceTimes and as many Zoom calls as we all possibly can. What else can you do? It stinks for everybody.”

To help you navigate these tricky conversations with your own family, we spoke with two clinical psychologists, a family therapist and an expert in negotiation. Here are their tips on how to avoid long-term fallout over an annual turkey dinner that — even in normal times — can be emotionally overwhelming.

Before you speak with your relatives, decide what type of Thanksgiving would make the most sense for your immediate family.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a lower risk scenario might include celebrating with only those who live in your household, or connecting with extended family via video chat. A small outdoor gathering with friends and family who live in your community would constitute a more moderate risk, according to the agency (which has advice for making outdoor events safer). Higher risk activities would include attending large indoor gatherings with people from outside of your household or visiting a crowded parade.

“If you look around the country now, many of the infections are in small family and friend gatherings, such as dinner parties and small social gatherings,” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told the JAMA Network at the end of October. “You get one person who’s asymptomatic and infected, then all of a sudden four or five people in that gathering are infected. To me, that’s the exact scenario you’re going to see at Thanksgiving.”

That doesn’t mean that everybody should be calling Thanksgiving off, he added, but you might want to think twice about gathering with those who are at higher risk.

Jessica Mendiola, 40, decided that she would feel safest spending Thanksgiving at home with her immediate family in Livermore, Calif., instead of visiting extended family like she has in the past.

Two of her relatives died of Covid-19 this year. And she still struggles to help her 6-year-old daughter, who has special needs, practice social distancing. A Thanksgiving get-together felt out of the question.

“There are some things I’m willing to take a chance on. This isn’t one of them,” she said.

But her parents had different expectations.

Mendiola’s father, who lives in North Carolina and works in the airline industry, insisted that planes are still safe, she said, and became disappointed when her family refused to fly across the country.

Her mother, who lives in California, also wanted Mendiola and her family to come over, but Mendiola declined the invitation because she said her mother wasn’t likely to quarantine for two weeks beforehand.

At this point, her mother seems resigned to spending the holiday by herself.

I guess I’m going to be alone, she often tells her daughter.

“Yeah, it’s fun,” Mendiola said dryly.

Craig Sawchuk, a clinical psychologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., said he’s seeing similar dramas play out among his clients, some guilt prevents them from setting boundaries with their relatives.

If the feelings of guilt are strong enough, they can become “incredibly sticky and also overwhelming” to the point where some people may decide to violate their own values in order to avoid feeling like they’re disappointing someone, Dr. Sawchuk said.

“Anytime we make decisions in our life that are consistent with our values, in the end we’re always going to be in a better place,” he added. “You are not responsible for the emotions, the well-being, the choices, the behaviors of others. You may play a small role, but maybe not nearly as much as you feel.”

If your relatives are expecting a visit on Thanksgiving — or if they’re assuming you are going to host dinner like you normally do — it can be tough to tell them that it’s not happening. On the flip side, it can also be disappointing if a relative wants to stay home and is resistant to any sort of compromise.

The experts said that it’s better to talk it out now instead of waiting until the very last minute, like Thanksgiving week or the day of.

Claudia W. Allen, a clinical psychologist and the director of the Family Stress Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, recommended the following script to start things off: “This is a complicated year. I hope that we’ll be able to be together in some way, but I’m concerned about keeping us all safe. What are your thoughts about that?”

It’s important not to pass judgment, start lecturing or assume that your relatives have bad motives, the experts said. Right now, everyone is struggling with where to draw the line and there are many different ways to proceed, Dr. Allen said.

“The people who are willing to take more risks are usually doing it because they’re valuing connection. And the people who are less willing to take risks are usually less willing because they are prioritizing safety. Connection and safety are both good,” Dr. Allen said. The true enemy, she added, is “the uncertainty of this virus.”

Try writing out what you want to say in advance and think about what traditions — if any — might be open to negotiation.

Cindy Hall, 56, said that she and her extended family appointed a cohort of three relatives with medical expertise (two nurses and a physician assistant) to decide how best to handle Thanksgiving this year.

The trio suggested that all 20 relatives, ranging in age from 20 to 89, celebrate Thanksgiving three weeks early at Hall’s sister-in-law’s home in Ellicott City, Md., which has a large porch. So they gathered last Saturday to take advantage of the weekend’s unseasonably warm weather and spend the holiday outdoors.

“The leaves are beautiful and it couldn’t be a more perfect day,” Hall said during the festivities, delighted that she had successfully thawed and cooked her first frozen turkey.

The cohort also decreed that everyone had to wear masks when they weren’t eating, and sanitize their hands before and after touching the serving utensils. Instead of gathering indoors at one big table, members from each household were assigned to separate tables located six feet away from one another on the porch.

For other families, however, it won’t be quite so easy to find a solution. In that case, consider it a shared challenge, where everyone’s voice matters.

Look at their underlying interests,” said Daniel L. Shapiro, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and McLean Hospital and the author of “Negotiating the Nonnegotiable. How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.”

For example, if your relatives want to avoid masks and you don’t, are they worried about autonomy or personal liberty? Or are they exhausted by the pandemic and just want a normal family gathering without worrying about a bunch of rules?

The goal is to ask questions, listen and understand where each person is coming from.

What probably won’t work “is turning the issue of whether to wear a mask or not into a positional battle,” Dr. Shapiro said.

Avoid coming across as adversarial, self-righteous or insular. In other words, skip questions like: “Don’t you care about me?” or “Don’t you care about our family’s health?”

Try to focus instead on how to celebrate in a way that works for everybody.

If you can’t decide on a mutually agreed-upon plan that respects your values, the experts said, it might be best to agree to disagree and do what you feel is best, even if that means celebrating separately this year.

If the conversation starts to go south, tell your family that you’re going to get off the phone now and that you’ll talk later, so as not to engage in an argument that could potentially harm the relationship, said Angelle E. Richardson, a family therapist and assistant professor of community and trauma counseling at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

“You don’t want any argument or disagreement that’s going to outlive the pandemic,” she added.

Even if everyone agrees to stick to the safest possible plan, you might still feel disappointment or disconnected.

Don’t ignore those feelings, Dr. Richardson said. Instead, try to create new rituals.

For example, Grandma might not be there, but you can still make her macaroni and cheese. (And then joke about how your version doesn’t taste nearly as good.)

“Honor the fact that yes, this is different — but what are we going to put in that’s special so that we add fun to the day?” Dr. Richardson said.

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