The conversations are intense, some of which end with a lost "that's okay" or a vague promise to gather in the New Year. Others close in frustration or even in tears.
Weeks after the coronavirus pandemic hit the Thanksgiving celebrations, the winter holidays ushered in another round of emotionally charged exchanges between families who want to be together but are forced to listen to health professionals tell them to do something else .
For many, the very thought of addressing the topic triggers feelings of fear.
Zachariah Robinson, a junior at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, said he was trying to figure out how to tell his mother that he intended to stay on campus this Christmas. Mr. Robinson, 20, came to Antioch for Thanksgiving but said he was becoming increasingly concerned about passing the virus on to them.
"I don't know how she'll take it," he said. "We'll try to use some of our tactics to get her to understand a little better – talk sweetly, just use basic logic against her, and make her realize that there is no other option for me."
Carolyn Cohn, 71, knew it would be difficult to convince her daughter Kristin Kiely to visit her and her husband Marty for Hanukkah and Christmas in Florida. Ms. Kiely, a Spanish professor in Florence, S.C., is the administrator of the Dr. Anthony Fauci Fan Club and gave a talk to her mom because she has friends over for dinner.
But Ms. Cohn, a retired computer programmer, said she still spent three months coaxing and negotiating with her only child.
"I always thought she might change her mind," she said. "Kristin is now 41 and this will be the first time in her life that I haven't seen her for Christmas and I think 'it's all because of this Covid'."
"A lost year above all"
The loneliness caused by the pandemic and the temptation to maintain the rituals of the holiday season has led some people to take more risks.
More than half of parents said it was "very important" for their child to see an extended family during the holidays. This is what a survey by the C.S. Mott University of Michigan Children's Hospital last month. One in three parents said the benefits of having a Thanksgiving gathering outweigh the risk of spreading or getting Covid-19, according to the survey.
For Thanksgiving, Denise Herrick, 66, and her husband Stan gathered at their farm in Iowa with three of their grown children and five of their grandchildren. Her fourth child, Annie Boyd, who lives in California with her husband and five children, had planned to visit for Christmas but the airline canceled their flight. They are planning to visit in January if they hope it will be safer, Ms. Boyd said.
"The anticipation of a vacation, this special meal, is so wonderful," said Ms. Herrick. "We need it this year more than ever."
She added, “What are you doing? Do we just sit back for months and months and then get back together? "
Health professionals would say yes, but the holidays can make it difficult for many to enforce their guilt and fear of hurting the feelings of a loved one.
"Be firm, consistent, and polite, and don't waver," said C. Vaile Wright, a Chicago psychologist. "You made the decision. Stick with it."
Bill Marshall, 63, of Scottsdale, Arizona, said his mother did her best to hide her disappointment when he told her he couldn't visit her in Florida this Thanksgiving day. He won't see his mom, who is 87 years old, for Christmas either, although he hopes his sister, who lives in Miami, can see her.
"When I call her she tries her best to be optimistic, but she says things like, 'This really isn't a way for someone to face the last few years of their life," said Mr. Marshall Pick up the phone and dial your people, you want to be optimistic. After 20 minutes of trying to help them find activities, you run out of ideas. Then you just say, "I know. This is awful."
Horacio Sierra, 37, said he usually celebrates Christmas with dozens of relatives at his parents' house just outside Miami, where they roast a pig in the backyard. This year, he said, Christmas will be like Thanksgiving – with far fewer people and empty chairs as a visual reminder of the relatives who couldn't be there.
"It's a little bit of anger and sadness in one, a year less with Abuela and not being able to be physically with each other," said Mr Sierra, using the Spanish word for grandmother. "Overall a lost year."
Tears on FaceTime
People need to be reminded that it's okay to grieve, said Lori Brown, a professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, NC.
"Of course we should mourn the loss of people, the loss of security and the loss of time with others," she said. "We have lost businesses and jobs that should all be mourned."
That advice could resonate with the likes of Cheryl Lee, a Chicago hospital doctor, who told her 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son last summer that they would not see their grandparents for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
It was an abstraction back then, but reality hit it on Thanksgiving. Her husband, who is also a doctor, worked a night shift. Dr. Lee sat at the table, staring at takeaway turkey breast containers and filling, trying not to cry.
Realizing something was wrong, her daughter took a huge bite of turkey, recalled Dr. Lee and said cheerfully, “Wow, that's so good. This is the best turkey ever. "
"But it wasn't her voice," said Dr. Lee. "It was her kind of voice when she played a princess."
Arlo Simmerman, 20, a junior at the University of Denver, said his mother cried when he told his parents that flying home to Michigan for Christmas was too risky.
They have since connected with FaceTime, and Mr. Simmerman said his mom did her best to sound upbeat. But it is clear, he said, that she is still upset.
"It is usually around the time we sign out that you can hear tears in the sound of your voice," he said.
Does "quarantine" mean "no golf"?
Mrs. Kiely, the administrator of the Dr. Fauci Fan Clubs said she told her mother that she might be ready to travel to Florida if Ms. Cohn promised to avoid activities that might bring her in contact with other people two weeks earlier.
"She said," Does that even mean golf? "Said Mrs. Kiely.
Ms. Cohn, who protested that she was wearing a mask and bumping her elbows instead of shaking hands, said it was difficult to listen to her daughter who disapproved of her behavior.
"It's hard not to say," Hey, I'm the mother, "said Ms. Cohn." "ME respect what you do but you have to respect what i do. "
However, Ms. Cohn said she accepted and even supported her daughter's decision not to come.
"The numbers are higher than I thought," she said.
Ms. Cohn said she also thought about how she would feel if her daughter got sick after a vacation visit.
"I would feel awful," she said. "I would think," That wouldn't have happened if you hadn't been pushy. "