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On not losing your family around the Thanksgiving table

Between the pandemic and a lot of questions about society, this Thanksgiving could be eventful for a lot of families. Some family therapists say it might be inevitible, but that doesn't mean you can't work it out.
Adam Nieścioruk
Between the pandemic and a lot of questions about society, this Thanksgiving could be eventful for a lot of families. Some family therapists say it might be inevitible, but that doesn't mean you can't work it out.

Thanksgiving will be the first time some families will get together in just about two years.

It’s certainly been a long two years. Political lines over the coronavirus, vaccines, masks, mandates, racial justice, equity, police reform … all etched in deeper and deeper ground since the end of 2019.

South Carolinians like “Jessica” (not her real name, because she’s concerned about people recognizing her and about her concerns getting back to the brother she’s afraid of losing) say these kinds of lines have become too intractable to ignore. Jessica, who is on the pro-vaccine side, says it’s becoming too difficult to talk with her brother about getting vaccinated and what kinds of precautions to take around the family. He’s not listening, she says. And she worries that he never will.

For Tammy Weitzman, a licensed clinical social worker who usually counsels families on grief, loss, and mourning, that instinct to want to change someone’s mind is the least productive. Weitzman and I talk in a large, open room that’s clearly made for large gatherings, with a sweeping view of Downtown Charlotte. It feels emptier than it should be, and not just because only the two of us are in it.

It feels like it’s been emptier than it should be; like it’s waiting for company. And that, at least, feels fitting for the conversation we’re having.

To Weitzman, the topic of getting together in this particular holiday season is one that centers around loss and mourning. She says several families have physically lost members to COVID-19; and acknowledges that many more are on the brink of losing them emotionally.

What she recommends is not talking at, but listening with family. Use “I” statements, she says.

“An example of that would be, ‘I’m healthy, I’m young, and I feel strong,’” she says. “And a response to that could be as simple as, ‘I’m glad that you’re really healthy and I’m really glad that you’re strong, but I don’t feel so strong. I’m afraid of the virus. I’m afraid of getting sick.’”

Each of those statements, Weitzman says, conveys how you feel for you, not what you think about the issue in an overarching way.

She also says it’s important to actually listen to what’s being said – most problems in communication, after all, happen because someone needs to feel validated and heard, and that’s not what they feel is happening.

For Jessica, though, her entrenchment in where she stands on the virus and the vaccines is a tangible thing that has done something she never wanted to see happen. This pandemic, she says, has revealed people’s true character. She sees the subject of a communicable virus and the methods used to keep it in as much check as possible as a moral choice to do the right thing on behalf of our neighbors. Those who disagree seem to her not to take that responsibility on, and now that she’s seen that side of some people, including in her family, she’s worried she will never be able to un-see it.

Jay Little, a therapist based in Columbia, says he understands that worry. But he also says he’d rather see the bare truth of everyone’s character, rather than deal with lies and couched feelings. The snake you see is easier for him to process than the one that bites from nowhere.

For Little, though, holiday get-togethers soaked in politically divided perspectives on the pandemic are not so much the issue. Little, who is African-American, says many of his Black clients and families (and his own as well) are still reluctant to get together in large groups. COVID has hit the African-American community disproportionately hard, and he says many in that community are still leery enough of getting and passing the virus to feel safe getting together indoors.

What’s more noticeable for him are the social issues. He says high-profile, racially charged trials like those involving Ahmaud Arbery and Kyle Rittenhouse have exposed more differences to him than the coronavirus.

“You’ve got friends who [feel] this way, and you thought they [felt] this way because you never had that conversation,” Little says. “And now that people are extremely vocal about their views, there’s a lot that’s changed. I think the biggest thing we have to do is be honest.”

Both Little and Weitzman say that the ultimate goal is to remember that family bonds exist and that our instincts to want to preserve relationships should carry enough weight to make us want to try to keep them healthy – and that these conversation should be had well before the day you and your loved ones are all expecting to sit down with each other.

But Weitzman offers one more, particularly old-school way of communicating that she says still works magic: Write a handwritten letter.

“Letters can actually be a very powerful tool,” she says. “[It] should focus on the emotional connection that the two people have, not the rehashing of the argument. When it is written pen-to-paper, it’s much more meaningful than an email or a text.”

One other piece of advice from the therapists: Don’t try to force anything. You’re not likely to say and do all the right things the first time. Better, they say, to focus on the fact that while you might be sitting on opposite sides of the table, you’re still sitting at the same table for a reason – because you’re family.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.