Handle family gatherings with grace

Counselors advise people to practice patience at family gatherings over the holidays. (Photo by Krakenimages/Unsplash)

The holidays are finally here and for many that means getting the chance to spend quality time with extended relatives.

While families may go nearly all year without seeing some of their relatives, it becomes highly anticipated when they finally get together for meals and camaraderie over the holidays.

Except that sometimes, “highly anticipated” means highly dreading it.

It’s actually a common dilemma around the holidays. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported that 64% of people with current mental illness say that the holidays make their condition worse.

The report from NAMI states that sometimes it is due to grief or the pressure to be joyful, but over half of respondents reported that remembering happier times with family — compared to their present dynamics — gave them the most stress.

Dorothy Whalen is a social worker and counselor with the Caritas Counseling Services at St. Mary Church in Greenville. She said that she is busiest during the holidays and the late fall leading up to it.

“Many people want to talk about strategies and perspective before going into these situations,” she said.

She noted that when it comes to families, everyone has different histories — even different histories within the same family. She said that there will be good memories and bad memories of holidays spent together in the past and that it is important to set realistic expectations.

“There is always that hope that things will be different this year,” Whalen said. “Be open to that and stay in the present. Don’t focus on the past, and it is just as important to not worry about the future.”

Of course, staying away from certain “touchy” subjects is important as well.

“You know what to talk about and what not to talk about,” she said. “You can only control yourself in situations like that, so be sure to monitor your own actions.”

She advised that there are three ways to keep an “open attitude”: be patient, be thankful, and be charitable.

Perhaps there was a recent divorce or death in the family that has left a void. Maybe there is a toxic relationship that, Whalen said, “may not be reconciled on this side of heaven.”

Her advice is to remember to move forward.

As for the coronavirus pandemic, there might be a sense of relief for many who are not gathering this year. But for others who are still facing potentially awkward gatherings, Whalen emphasized, “Pray on it. Make sure you go through the process of discernment. In the story of Martha and Mary, channel Mary when she knelt down at the Lord’s feet and was truly in the present.”