I have visited my family in Spain every summer since I was born. These visits became even more critical when my mother passed away, and the line to half of my cultural identity was severed. This year COVID-19 made that visit impossible. I feel the tug of my city in Spain as strongly as I did when my mom passed away. I’m not meant to be apart from that place for so long. The naive but necessary whisper to myself this summer was “you’ll see them at Christmas. You’ll visit at Christmas.”

I’ve watched the COVID-19 numbers in Spain rise and fall then rise again since March. It seems like the numbers are slowly improving from minor lockdowns across the country. I also think everyone is wary of getting too comfortable. I’ll continue to check the New York Times updates regularly. 

Love in tiny chat boxes

My grandparents are both one-of-eight siblings, so I have around 14 great aunts and uncles plus their spouses whom I love from across the ocean; nearly twenty-eight beloveds.  In the last few years, they’ve all mostly graduated to octogenarian status (the old-olds, as psychologists would put it). I am lucky because they’ve all stayed fairly active in a very European, old-person way. None of them are showing their 8 decades on Earth as much as I might expect.

Enter a pandemic: suddenly, the old folks who stay young by walking and loving their grandkids, doing their own errands, refusing to retire until their 70s, are shut indoors with nowhere to go. Watching their restlessness–their careful puzzling over Zoom and Whatsapp, their attempts to put love into chat boxes– has been beautiful and excruciating. They waited and waited this summer, and I think they too whispered to themselves “it’ll be better at Christmas, we’ll visit at Christmas.” Now the holidays are here, and none of us are getting the fruits of our summer consolations. 

It’s not just Christmas

There have been countless important holidays around the world since the start of this pandemic. With each one, we feel a deeper twinge of longing. A couple of weeks ago, my best friend called many of her aunts and uncles, grandparents, and dear ones in India to wish them a happy Diwali. Each one told her of diminished celebrations, wishing for a different Diwali the following year. It’s a wish my friend and I have repeated to each other many times since March. 

Death is the vivid, unspoken future in my phone calls with too many people.

I don’t know how to feel better about not seeing my aging loved ones in more than a year. I don’t know how to console myself about how much longer it might be, or if I will get to visit them again at all. Death is the vivid, unspoken future in my phone calls with too many people. I wish I had some solution, something I could whisper to myself now that would make me feel better as Christmas marches its way into my life.

Shifting our expectations to a more realistic view of the holidays

The holidays are “supposed” to be a joyful time. Many of us know that that joy is often a fantasy we leave behind in childhood. The reality of the holidays is often more painful than that. Still, year after year there is a pressure to enjoy ourselves, to be our happiest, most beaming, effervescent selves with our loved ones. I have no doubt that this year we will all put on our best Zoom outfits and try to do the same thing. But if I can offer anything to those of us who are dreading the international, ocean-spanning calls, it’s this:

Give yourself permission to be sad

Give yourself permission to be sad, and don’t feel like you have to find the “silver lining” in all of this. Yes, coach your grandparents on how to unmute themselves on Zoom and explore the myriad of online games to play with people in different time zones. We are safer apart, and I will not visit my tías and tíos abuelos for as long as I need to to keep them safe. But I don’t think I can pretend to be happy about it.

Breathe through the grief

The holidays are also a time for grief; this year more than ever. If I know one thing about grief from losing my mother when I was 13, it’s that everybody does it differently, and no one does it the same way two years in a row. I don’t know what to expect this December. How will I feel? Angry, sad, or fearful? Will the days pass by normally? Will I put on my best Zoom outfit and smile at my twenty-eight elderly relatives through a screen? 

Give yourself permission to feel however you feel, and to do it differently than everyone else, with the important caveat of not hurting yourself or others along the way. Sometimes, when the FaceTime calls are too much, I excuse myself to take a moment to breathe. I breathe in with the words “I miss my mom, I miss Spain” and breathe out with the words “THIS SUCKS.” Breathe in with the words “this is so painful,” and out with the words “respira cariño.” Sometimes, I cycle through this twice. Sometimes it takes longer to get to a place where breathing and being gentle with myself feels like enough. Take your time. 

Read also:
Gender and Holiday Labour
Gratitude During Thanksgiving
Can Our Relationships Survive This Pandemic?