By Suzanne Grimmesey, MFT, Santa Barbara County, Behavioral Wellness Department

As if the holidays weren’t hard enough with the stress of cooking, entertaining, shopping and gift wrapping; this year’s holiday season is made even more difficult with the fact that we are all navigating a world-wide pandemic.

Experts including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention strongly recommend people not travel and not gather.  Here in California, nonessential travel outside of the state is strongly discouraged by Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent travel advisory, which asks people to self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving from another state or country.

But saying no to family and friends holiday invitation can be tricky and awkward.  Here are a few techniques you may wish to consider when letting your loved ones know that you will not be attending their holiday event this year.

  •  Lead with feelings but be firm.  Let your friends and family know that you are making this decision to reduce your family’s risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, and it’s your way of keeping them safe from harm. Being firm is also important so that the recipient does not interpret hesitation as a cause for hope that you haven’t really made up your mind. Be open and honest and even share that this is a hard decision.  Something like: “I really wish we could be with you and it’s very hard for us that can’t,” is honest and thoughtful.
  • Acknowledge that this is REALLY hard.  These last eight months have been very tough on a lot of fronts.  Acknowledging the pain your decisions about the holidays caused you, and how disappointed you feel, could be productive.  Instead of minimizing the impact of your decision, make it very clear that it is difficult.  Pretending it’s no big deal is not truthful; and, you are allowed to be sad and frustrated right now.
  • Remember that this is always your choice. Despite what others may think, your time, your personal space and your thoughts are your business and yours to direct as you see fit; even in a holiday season without a pandemic to consider.  You are well within your rights to ask for understanding from your loved ones.
  • Consider making your new plans clear to your loved ones.  By communicating your new holidays plans with friends and family, you are reinforcing your choices and making it clear that you are not changing your mind.  Sharing your new plans is also an opportunity to share how strange it feels not to be together around the holidays.  Try to keep it real, acknowledging the crazy time we are all in, and that you will miss them. And remember, you don’t have to convey that you’re thrilled with your new plans — only that you have them, and you’re sticking to them.

Keep in mind that where friends and family are concerned, it is important that you try to convey that you trust and respect them, but that you are declining their invitation out of an abundance of caution.  Be aware that some may infer moral judgments around socializing during the pandemic. They might think that you don’t feel comfortable gathering with them, because of how they’ve been behaving during the pandemic.  Being open and honest and sharing your sadness at missing holiday events is important. You may even suggest that you can’t celebrate in person, you would be open to meeting virtually or at a distance outside instead.

Remember that it is reckless to gather inside with people outside your immediate household. This year, we are all making a lot of sacrifices and it is important to keep in mind the bigger goal of staying well and not spreading the virus.

Stay safe Santa Barbara County!

Suzanne Grimmesey, MFT, is the County of Santa Barbara’s Chief Quality Care and Strategy Officer and is responsible for leadership of Quality Care and Strategy Management within the Department of Behavioral Wellness.