Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Christmas Coping: Experts advise patience, compassion during this pandemic-infused holiday

Our writer finds hope in the winterberry bush, a species of holly abundant in our area that offers color during the depth of winter.

I lost it at work two weeks ago. Not a few tears running down my face, but an ugly, bawling meltdown.

The conversation that precipitated this scene was innocent enough. I was talking about my mother-in-law, who recently entered assisted living, and how I wrapped 12 Christmas packages for her—one to open each day, since we weren’t able to visit her. Then this wave of emotion that I’d been bottling up for months—well, it came out.

Thankfully, I work at a place where tears aren’t seen as unprofessional, but as a characteristic of being human.

Interestingly, a few days earlier, as I waited for my pictures to print at a local pharmacy chain kiosk, I witnessed a cashier, who has always demonstrated the highest in customer service, patience and kindness, completely lose patience with a customer. She dashed into an adjacent room, and, after she escaped through the door, yelled, “I can’t take this anymore.”

Realizing we could all use a little help through this, I contacted Diana Coulson-Brown, a psychologist with Upturn LLC, a counseling service in Camp Hill, and asked, “What’s happening here?”

Coulson-Brown explained that people are feeling powerless, alone, discouraged, confused and mistrustful as a result of the pandemic and politics, including the conflict surrounding them. When this soup of emotions happens, “It becomes more difficult to stay in control of our own thoughts and behavior,” she said.

“We have a more difficult time anchoring ourselves in our own value system…and we’re no longer kind, compassionate, gracious and loving,” she said. “Even though we would say we identify as those things, when we’re having such a crisis that we’re having now, where nothing is normal for anybody.”

This lack of normality affects children, as well, but in different ways.

“Stress in kids can come out in ways that it doesn’t in adults,” said Abby Mahone, Harrisburg Academy’s assistant head of school. “It can come out by extreme emotions, anger. It can come out in the struggling with emotional regulation. It can come out in stomach aches… not being able to sleep… and feeling really needy and needing all those extra hugs from mom, and a glass of water at nighttime.”

Children may not talk about what’s bothering them, but that doesn’t mean it’s not bothering them. Mahone had a firsthand encounter with this. Her 5-year-old daughter had a fever, and the family was isolating her and wearing masks until they were sure it wasn’t COVID. Mahone’s daughter said to her, “Mommy, do you think it’s COVID?” Mahone replied “No. I don’t think it is.” Her daughter responded “And then even if it is, not everyone who has COVID dies right?” Until that moment, Mahone’s daughter had never mentioned COVID-19.

Parents may misinterpret children’s actions as misbehavior, when actually it’s a result of stress.

And there’s plenty of stress. Coulson-Brown described our experience right now as “real life but magnified.” People are experiencing everyday life stresses at work, with relationships, finances and health, layered upon a pandemic, which compiles the health concerns and conflict. Add to that, COVID is making everything harder—getting school work done, visiting loved ones in the hospital, taking care of elderly relatives, and waiting five hours to get your groceries at the Walmart pick-up.

And let’s have a major holiday smack dab in the middle of it all.

“[Parents feel they] have to do all these things to make a fairy tale magical experience for [their] kids,” said Mahone.

She stressed that connection is what children need.

“We’re not going to be able to do all of the traditions we do every year, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still connect with each other,” she said.

Both adults and children can benefit from introspection—being in touch with what we are feeling, thinking and reacting to. We should ask ourselves, “What do I need right now?” said Coulson-Brown. It could be time to ourselves, even if it’s just a few minutes, to read, take a walk, listen to music, or take a nap.

“Be kind and gentle with yourself, have compassion for yourself. You’re definitely going through a difficult time right now,” said Coulson-Brown.

When adults do this, children benefit, as well.

“The best thing parents can do is to manage themselves, in order to help their children,” said Mahone.

After we interpret our emotions, there are a few other things we can do to help ourselves and our children.

Coulson-Brown said that, when reacting to situations, we should, “First and foremost, stay connected to your own character.”

Screaming at a cashier, while considering ourselves kind people, doesn’t match. Also, look for moments of gratitude and try not to allow fear to influence decisions, she said. That’s not to advice  to ignore COVID protocols. On the contrary, according to Coulson-Brown, we should give the virus a healthy respect.

Respecting a schedule will also help. Mahone suggests, especially during the holidays when schedules are even more out of whack, talking to children each morning about what the day holds, what the plan is.

Both Mahone and Coulson-Brown encourage outdoor time and maintaining a healthy diet. People should also consider avoiding social media.

“There is a lure to having information, having it quick, seeing what other people are doing,” Coulson-Brown said.

But, in fact, it can increase the sense of loneliness and doesn’t fill us up as we might hope.

How can you help someone else right now?

“I would not give advice,” Coulson-Brown said. “I would just full-on compassionately listen to that person’s narrative. You need to give yourself permission to grieve, and you need to give yourself permission to find joy.”

Joy in the midst of the pandemic can be hard to find. But we can become creators of it.

“There are beautiful moments of light even in the hardest times,” Mahone said. “So, helping the children find ways to contribute to that light and make more light may be encouraging.”

Joy is in short supply for me right now. My mother-in-law is in the hospital and will be moved to a rehabilitation facility today. I again cried. Cried because of how much she always loved Christmas, cried for how she always made it so special for the family, and cried that we can’t spend time with her.

But with the advice and tools given by Mahone and Coulson-Brown, my toolbox is full of healthy, meaningful ways to cope, and I hope yours is, too.

I think I’ll take a walk.

Support quality local journalism. Become a Friend of TheBurg!

Continue Reading