How to navigate being alone for the holidays during COVID-19

While some people are opting to remain alone for the holidays due to COVID-19, breaking the news to family isn't always easy


Toronto publicist Danielle M’s holiday celebrations typically involve sleeping over at her parents’ place for a few days around Christmas and a few dinner-and-drinks outings with friends.

But this year, because of COVID-19, the holidays will be a little different – she’ll be alone in the city, cooking herself some food, watching a few movies, video calling with friends and family and sleeping whenever she wants.

“I’ll have a nice quiet Christmas,” she says. “I probably won’t have to put pants on. It’ll be fine.”

With the entire province heading into lockdown on Boxing Day, COVID-19 restrictions have changed many people’s holiday plans.

In Toronto, public health officials have advised residents to only celebrate the holidays with the people they live with or virtually to prevent a post-holiday surge that will overwhelm hospital capacity.

Danielle, who asked only to withhold her last name for privacy reasons, was already warning her parents in the fall that she likely would not be able to visit for Christmas.

“I’m safeguarding my ability to be with my family in the future by not putting them at risk this year, and not putting myself at risk this year,” she explains.

She notes that her dad works at a hospital and she herself is not completely isolated, and so it was about weighing the risks for her and her family.

“We’ve seen so many cases of asymptomatic people,” she says. “If I’m not getting tested a couple of times and quarantining completely before I go to my parents place, I can’t be safe.”

While her parents don’t love her choice, Danielle says they’ve come to respect her decision.

Breaking the news to family can be a challenge

Marlowe Granados, a Toronto writer and filmmaker, ran into a similar problem when she had to break the news to her family that she wouldn’t be with them for the holidays.

“I had already told my grandparents that I wouldn’t come for Christmas, but when I told my dad, he was kind of mad that I wasn’t coming,” she says.

Granados understands why it might be especially upsetting for families nine months into the pandemic. After all, she hasn’t seen her dad since February.

Steve Joordens, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, says it’s natural for people to want to turn to each other for comfort during something as terrifying as the pandemic – especially during the holidays.

“As humans, we are intensely social, and in fact, those social connections are especially important to us at times of any negative emotion – grief, anger, frustration, fear,” he notes. “COVID really kind of hit us deeply and left us scrambling to find ways of preserving our mental health, but not the conventional ways we would normally go to.”

Granados’s situation was complicated by the fact that her grandparents both tested positive for COVID-19 recently, which reinforced her choice to celebrate alone for the holidays.

“When my grandparents ended up testing positive, I think my dad felt really bad about giving me a hard time,” she says.

Short-term gain vs long-term consequences

Knowing her grandparents had COVID-19 compelled Granados to be more vocal about her alternative holiday plans when speaking with people who do not know someone who has tested positive.

“I’ve just been trying to tell people you don’t necessarily have to go home for Christmas,” she says. “If more people are saying, ‘Don’t go,’ it kind of normalizes it, because the whole pandemic has been like, I see my friends doing this so it must be okay.”

Danielle is frustrated by people who haven’t understood her reasoning for staying home this holiday season.

“There are a lot of people who are frontline workers who don’t have the privilege to be staying at home and playing it safe,” she says. “I have a responsibility, and so does everybody else who can work from home.

“We have a responsibility to help reduce the spread of this thing, to not put strain on our healthcare system and help protect our friends and family members and ourselves as much as possible.”

Joordens says people deciding to visit family are prioritizing short-term gain over potential long-term consequences.

“We have people that are saying, ‘family is so important to me and so necessary that I’m going to go be with them, despite the rules,'” he says.

Javier Campbell is a grocery store worker in Toronto who has no choice but to be away from his family for the holidays, since his family lives in Jamaica. He had planned on visiting in April when he finished college. But at that point, COVID-19 had limited all travel.

Campbell doesn’t have any family in Toronto, so he’ll be spending the holidays alone, calling his family instead and hoping COVID-19 restrictions lift soon.

“My daughter keeps calling me, she keeps asking me, ‘When are you coming home?'” he says. “She was saying last night, ‘If you were here, I would be playing with you, I miss you so much!'”

Looking on the bright side

Granados is trying to see the positive side of her solo Christmas celebrations. She’s bought decorations and lights and even set up a little Christmas tree to make her apartment more festive.

“I feel like I also wouldn’t have decorated my apartment if I was having Christmas somewhere else,” she says. “I’m just trying to put on some Christmas music, get into the holiday spirit, that kind of thing.”

Joordens recommends looking to the future for motivation while accepting that the holidays this year will just have to be different.

“We are now at a place, thanks to the vaccine, where we can safely start thinking about how next year is going to be kick-ass,” he says. “Those sorts of discussions are great for a family to have to start really thinking about next Christmas and acknowledging that this is going to be a weird Christmas.”

Granados, who is very close with her grandparents, says that’s been helpful for her to think about.

“I’d rather wait to hang out with my grandparents once they’re healthy and on the mend,” she says.

@juliajmastro

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