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Embracing the Ambivalence this Holiday Season

Melany Forbes

In my family, November is always buzzing with holiday conversations. No matter how many years we have been doing the same thing, the conversations always seem similar.

“Have you booked a hotel for Christmas at Grandma’s?”

“I need your Christmas lists!”

“I’m making turkey and stuffing. Who wants to bring potatoes?”

“Anyone going Black Friday shopping?”

This year, however, the conversations are drastically different. 2020 has brought a slew of uncertainty and loss and it seems our holiday traditions will be no exception. The creation and continuation of family traditions are extremely important, especially around the holidays. Family traditions develop a sense of support and continuity during times of stress, allowing individuals to feel connected and healthy (Boss, 2019). Studies have indicated there is a greater sense of togetherness and belonging for individuals who are part of a unit that practices such family rituals (Sezer et. al, 2016). Symbolic meaning provides insider knowledge, keeping individuals connected and healthy

As we enter this unprecedented holiday season, it will undoubtedly be met with a slew of emotions for you and your family members. These traditions are more than just simple repeated acts; they are symbolic and represent who you are and where you belong in the world (Boss, 2019). You may feel disappointment, anger, isolation, and grief as some of your favorite holiday experiences are cancelled. You may even find yourself wanting to celebrate the holidays but wondering if it’s even worth it. These simultaneous and contradicting feelings are known as ambivalence.

Ambiguous loss, a term credited to Dr. Pauline Boss, is used to describe loss that is not straight forward but is filled with confusion and contradiction. In her book Loss, Trauma, and Resilience, Dr. Boss lays out six principles for navigating ambiguous loss. These principles can provide support for families and individuals navigating this 2020 holiday season.

Find Meaning: understand your experience.

Adjusting Mastery: know what you can control and what you cannot.

Reconstructing Identity: revise your identity to fit the ambiguity.

Normalizing Ambivalence: recognize your mixed emotions.

Revising Attachment: continue your connections

Discovering New Hope: use your imagination.

It is ok for this season to be both exciting and disappointing, magical and missing something.  Paradoxical thoughts like this are difficult for many, but it is in the acceptance of the ambiguity that you will begin to find comfort and stability this holiday season. To help cultivate Dr. Boss’s principles, try some of these suggestions over the next few months.

Journal about your holiday traditions. What do they mean to you? What is your usual role in the family over the holidays? What will it be like to not play that role this year?

Write a letter to some of the loved ones you won’t be able to spend time with this year.

Intentionally choose activities that give meaning to what you are missing or create new meanings for the season.

Use your imagination to create new experiences.

While nothing can replace those time-honored family traditions, I hope you and your family head into this holiday season ready to embrace the ambivalence with creativity and a commitment to connection.



Boss, P. (2006). Loss, Trauma, and Resilience: Therapeutic Work with Ambiguous Loss. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Boss, P. (2019). Loving Someone who has Dementia: How to Find Hope While Coping with Stress and Grief. (L. Howard, Narr.) [Audiobook]. Tantor Audio.

Imber, B. E. (2020). Rituals in the Time of COVID‐19: Imagination, Responsiveness, and the Human Spirit. Family Process, 59(3), 912–921. https://doi.org/10.1111/famp.12581

Sezer, O., Norton, M. I., Gino, F., & Vohs, K. D. (2016). Family Rituals Improve the Holidays. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 1(4), 509–526. https://doi.org/10.1086/688495

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