McFarland Maureen webIn his 1943 painting, Freedom from Want, Norman Rockwell captured what many people can only hope for their holiday gatherings. The painting shows whom we presume are Grandma and Grandpa, presenting a beautifully-roasted turkey. Gathered happily around the table are three generations of family members smiling at one another.

Today, the thought of such a harmonious scene is just a pipe dream for many families, says Maureen McFarland, CRNP of St. Luke’s Psychiatric Associates. Even so, there are things you can do to make your holidays a little brighter.
“These days, there seems to be a lot of division in families,” she says. “This can lead many people to be apprehensive, if not downright anxious, about seeing relatives with differing — and sometimes extreme — views. To make matters worse, some extended families haven’t been together for nearly two years because of the pandemic.
During this time, rather than bringing us together, the pandemic has driven families, and even our nation, apart, McFarland says. Division has been encouraged by some politicians and certain broadcast and social media platforms that have exploited differences for their own personal gain. Unscrupulous individuals have even knowingly spread untrue information that is harmful to believers and those around them.
McFarland, who works in the outpatient setting, says her patients often tell her about rifts in their families. They argue about such things as the need to vaccinate or mask, whether the number of COVID deaths is real, and even whether the entire pandemic is a hoax. Political differences — exasperated by the 2016 and 2020 elections — have heightened animosity.
“I’ve had patients say they had to stop gathering because of the infighting,” says McFarland. “Many families have parted ways and don’t speak with one another anymore.” She encourages patients to put differences aside, patch rifts, and remember what they share, such as common values and memories.
However, that doesn’t mean that you have to compromise your own beliefs, she says. For example, if you have young grandchildren and are concerned about them being exposed to people who are unvaccinated, you can restrict your invitations to only people who have been vaccinated. Or, if you fear that could cause hard feelings, you can limit your holiday festivities to only your immediate family. If you decide to proceed with gatherings of people with disparate views, set ground rules.
“Before they come or when they arrive, say, ‘I love you all and appreciate your beliefs, but while you’re in my house, we’re not going to discuss certain subjects,’” she advises. “If a family member brings up something controversial, respectfully change the subject. Talk about what’s good in your area or what your grandkids are doing.”
Another good way to steer the conversation is to reminisce about your childhood family get-togethers, or share memories about your grandmother or other beloved relatives. Most younger family members appreciate hearing about their ancestors and what life was like in the “olden days.” Play a board game, take a walk together, or anything that will bring you together.
“This has been a horrible past two years,” McFarland says. “Lives were lost. People were sick. We should feel grateful and blessed that we are alive. We should focus on making it better, not worse. Now is the time to come together and support one another.”
To make an appointment with a St. Luke’s Behavioral Health counselor, call 484-822-5700.

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