The movie Knives Out hunts down the clues to the death of Harlan Thrombey, a renowned crime novelist, who invites his family to his mansion for his 85th birthday party. The next morning, he is found dead.

A hired detective learns that Harlan had alienated many members of the family: exposing a son-in-law for having an affair; discovering his daughter-in-law stealing money meant for his granddaughter’s tuition; firing his youngest son from his publishing company; and cutting his lazy grandson out of his will.

Does this sound like Christmas at your house? Well, maybe without the murder, the same stress levels exist. It’s especially true when gathering around the tree with mom or dad as they grow older and need extra care.

The family dinner, the obligations, the burden of family tradition – it’s enough to stress you out without the added guilt of knowing that mom or dad may not be at the table in years to come.

Know What You’re Getting Into

It’s important to understand the triggers that can make you go over the edge.

Are your memories of going home happy or sad? If you associate the holidays with a bad time in your life, this time of year will bring those memories back. And yet, mom’s or dad’s condition almost begs you to be in attendance.

There were toxic relatives I dreaded to see during the holidays. And literally, I had it compartmentalized that I only saw these people for less than 24 hours a year.

The holidays can highlight changes in your life – a divorce, a death in the family – and can unsettle a gathering and add holiday stress. Likewise, the monotonous sameness of holiday gatherings can be depressing.

You’re in a vulnerable state already. It’s cold and flu season. You’re worn out. It gets dark early.

You Have a Choice

Psychologists suggest you draw up a list of reasons why you participate in holiday traditions and then a list of reasons why you shouldn’t. They say it reminds you that you have a choice.

Just because you have hosted Christmas every year does not mean it has to stay that way. Perhaps a sibling can take over.

Don’t feel guilty about making other plans. Our extended family is growing with families of their own and plans of their own.

Celebrate if everyone can be together, but don’t use it as a bone of contention. And if you are the one who needs to run to California because your daughter needs help, plan your own Christmas with mom or dad before you leave or after you return.

Don’t confront the big issues and the elephants in the room. You can’t force big emotional breakthroughs. Focus on your own state of mind. Save the confrontations for a less volatile time of year.

Avoiding Confrontation Doesn’t Mean Avoiding Asking for Help

My colleague Barry Jacobs suggests that the holidays are the wrong time to accuse people of not helping out with mom or dad. Instead, say, “I’d appreciate it if you could help take care of mom during dinner.”

Family members who are not around a lot may deny what is apparent to you about the condition of a parent. Don’t wait for them to criticize you for being an exaggerator and complainer. Ask them, “What changes have you noticed with Mom’s walking, speaking and thinking since you were last here?”

In orderto engage unsupportive siblings in the caregiving effort, Barry says it is necessary to make it a gratifying experience for them. “Having a harmonious holiday dinner, full of laughs and free of acrimony, is an important step in that direction.”

After Mom or Dad Is Gone Carry on with What Makes Sense

My sister-in-law cooks Christmas Eve dinner every year. We honestly thought people would stop coming after my in-laws passed. In fact, it is just the opposite.

The nieces and nephews call her and want to know if she is hosting dinner. It is actually a way of honoring my deceased in-laws.

Here are some other suggestions:

  • Celebrate the person by honoring some of their traditions. In the case of my mom and sister, I make a combination of their recipe for Italian pizzelle cookies. My wife makes their meatball recipe.
  • Making a new routine, including taking a vacation before, during, or after the holidays, can help you feel better.
  • Shift the focus by doing something for someone else.

And now that you have finished taking care of others, focus on taking care of you.

Most people have less than perfect holiday gatherings. We all have our Clark Griswold moments. But even Clark and family ended their celebration on a high note that brought joy to the world of movie watchers.

How do you celebrate the holidays – alone or with family? Is it difficult for you to spend time with your relatives during holiday gatherings? How do you avoid confrontation? Please share with our community.

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