By now, we should be used to it:
My roommate tested positive, so I’m out.
We apologize for the inconvenience, but daycare is closed for the next two weeks.
The following flight has been canceled. The cost of your ticket has been transferred to a credit that you can use at a later date.
Sorry we can’t do lunch anymore. I guess I’ll see you next year (???)
After months and even years of dashed plans, uncertainty, and isolation, it might seem like every new glitch or cancellation should come as no surprise. But despite the refunds, rescinded RSVPs, and reschedulings, it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier. If anything, the dull pain of familiarity with each “I guess we’ll take it to Zoom” seems to hurt more. So what can we do when the things we’re looking forward to are taken away and we have to cancel all of our plans?
Or angry or bitter or any other emotion you might be feeling.
“First and foremost, it's important to acknowledge your grief and disappointment around having to cancel plans,” said Daniel Sieber, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “We have all been on an emotional rollercoaster of uncertainty, panic, disappointment, and hope since this pandemic began, and it's impossible to not feel as though the rug is being pulled out from under us once again.”
Last holiday season, I never envisioned that this year’s plans would look exactly the same (sitting in my apartment or taking physically-distanced day trips in the cold, grey metro-NYC area). Even last week, my family was ready to fly in from all four corners of the USA and rent a huge house together to meet our new baby. With one eye on the news and the other on our family group chat, we convened for an emergency Zoom and canceled our Airbnb with thirty minutes to spare to get a full refund. The shock of cancelling our much-anticipated holiday plans so abruptly left most of us in tears over the next few days. I kept trying to snap myself out of it, but it was extremely hard to see a bright side.
“Let yourself feel sad!” said Lily Ostler, a therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Now that we are on what feels like our billionth round of Covid surges and plans canceling, there is a push to remain positive or be happy anyway. This comes from a desire to accept the reality of the world and anticipate that this may continue to happen.”
“However, in real life, we allow ourselves to be disappointed. We allow ourselves to feel sad. So the same stays true here. You are allowed to be sad, mad, disappointed, and frustrated. Sit in these feelings. They're normal! Of course you're feeling them. They won't hurt you or kill you. It is essential to feel them so that they don't grow bigger and bigger and more harmful. I am not saying to let them consume you but to acknowledge and accept them. Life can be painful and disappointing and frustrating. Covid brings that acutely to light. Once you let yourself accept these feelings, then you can begin to adjust accordingly and find the bright spots in your life.”
But don’t rush it. Putting things in perspective is not easy, especially when part of putting things in perspective last year may have included some version of “there’s always next year!” Here are a few things you can try:
The point is not to minimize your feelings—at all. Your feelings are totally valid.
“Many of my clients have been expressing guilt about feeling disappointed because there may be others around them who are worse off; particularly those who have lost loved ones or have strained relationships with family,” said Daniel.
“It's OK to be of two minds about our lives at this stage of the pandemic: feeling grateful about our health and everything else that is OK and somewhat normal, while feeling sadness and longing for social gatherings and interactions that we may have taken for granted two years ago.”
But after you’ve had a good cry (or two…or three) if it helps to find a little peace in perspective, give it a try.
“If you are locked inside with your partner or family then make an event of cooking dinner together or do a holiday movie night,” said Lily. “Sit in the gratitude of that connection and moment together. Bring awareness to the present moment and lean into making these moments big!”
“Perhaps your trip was canceled or you can't see your extended family or travel, but there is still goodness within these moments. If you need to get even smaller, do that—look at the light shining on your face when you step outside for a walk or the safety of being in your bed. Find the gratitude in each moment and stay really present.”
It might be hard to find energy these days, especially when we’ve already spent months and even years navigating and getting creative with new ways of living and connecting, but planning your pivot doesn’t have to drain you. It can be something small.
“Find something to genuinely look forward to that fits your new plans,” said Mariah Parker, MyWellbeing’s Head of Growth. “Whether it is watching your favorite sappy Christmas movie alone (no judgment!), dancing with your partner, playing with your pet, or anything else, create a new holiday tradition that is just for you (and potentially your closest loved ones).”
For example, my family had planned to elaborately decorate a gingerbread house together in our big, rented holiday house (sob), but when our full family gathering was canceled, I bought a package of candy at Target, a few gingerbread people from a local bakery, and my husband and I decorated three cookies to symbolize the two of us and our new baby girl. We did it while vegging out and watching TV and they looked…well, let’s just say we wouldn’t have won star baker in The Great British Bake Off’s cookie week. But I can see us doing it again next year, no matter what our plans end up being.
“Look at holiday traditions and try to reimagine them,” said Lily. “If you and your family have to be apart, what are the things you would've done if you were together? Try to do those separately while on Zoom or on the phone. Text pictures. Rely on the connection technology can give us during this time when it is needed. Remember to hug the people you safely can and get moments of physical connection!”
Instead of constantly feeling like life is on pause—this “new normal” everyone keeps talking about—and someday we’ll return to whatever “normal” was, realize that that might not necessarily be true. So many things have changed that returning to exactly the way things were probably isn’t possible. But that doesn’t mean you can’t integrate the new traditions you create now into whatever comes next.
“One year long ago, I found out on the day of Christmas that I would not be able to join the family festivities because I had a cold that my grandmother could catch,” said Mariah. “My sister skipped the family Christmas to be with me. We drove to see the holiday light display at a local park, ate a car picnic of Wawa hoagies, and online shopped for jewelry. We called it ‘Sistmas.’ That year was my best Christmas ever, and we still celebrate Sistmas every year.”
If your one and only plan for an upended holiday season is to just get through it, that’s fine too. There’s often lots of pressure to make the holidays “perfect,” but if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that no plans are set in stone and sometimes success just means making it from one day to the next.
What matters is that you do what nurtures, protects, and fulfills you while you stay safe and healthy. And that balance can be hard.
From daily risk calculations for the simplest of tasks to basically becoming amateur virologists, the last few years have been difficult, and the fact that our lives continue to churn around us while any sense of normalcy drifts further and further away can feel draining.
Prioritizing self-care and healthy coping strategies is important during this time and if you’re struggling to create those support systems for yourself or navigate uncertainty, a therapist or coach can help. No matter what life throws at you or what happens to your plans, taking care of yourself is what is most important, in this holiday season and beyond.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.