Thanksgiving survival guide: 2021 was tough, family doesn't have to be

A Thanksgiving dinner is displayed on a table in Concord, New Hampshire. As families navigate the vaccination divide, Thanksgiving is a bellwether for how the rest of the holiday season will go.

It's that time of year again.

We hope you have a warm, loving — perhaps even raucously fun — home to go to this Thanksgiving.

But we're also aware that the best families still have their troubles, and that those troubles were likely compounded by the grief, isolation and fraught politics of the last year.

There's a good chance you've got an alcoholic mother, a culture-warrior uncle or a dementia-addled grandpa waiting at the end of a long car-ride. Perhaps you've got all that and more — a Whitman's sampler pack of dysfunction.

We can relate.

That's why we offer this message of grace: You can do this.

Here are a few tips to help you survive everything the holiday has to throw at you.

Be kind. Here's the thing: As stressed out as you feel this time of year, there's a good chance everyone around you is, too. And the nasty things people say or do are often a reflection of how those people feel about themselves.

Take pity on the aunt who always complains about dry turkey or the dad who questions your choice of spouse — seven years after your wedding. Imagine how unpleasant the rest of their lives must be that they feel the need to constantly pick nits or reopen old wounds. Try to comfort them without accepting their reality as your own.

Use the buddy system. If you have a spouse, this is the time to lean on them. If you don't, bring a friend who doesn't have family of their own. (People tend to be on their best behavior when there's an outsider in attendance.) Or, barring that, have a text buddy who you can reach out to for some encouragement when your blood-pressure spikes.

When in doubt, help out. Volunteer to look after the kids or, better yet, offer your services at the cutting board. You'd be surprised how quickly stress melts away when your hands are busy. And it'll be easy to deflect uncomfortable questions or unsolicited advice when you've got a turkey to baste.

Just breathe. Six seconds in. Hold for six more. Six seconds out. And no one will notice if you simply disappear — to the patio, to the garage, to the bathroom — for a few minutes. They're too busy worrying about themselves.

Don't poke the bear. You know where the soft spots are. Whether it's politics, religion or good ol' fashioned family drama, you're best served not fighting those battles on this particular day. And, if you must, try to disagree agreeably. Emphasize empathy and avoid partisan bickering.

Don't overindulge. There's a reason alcohol is called a "depressant." You may not be able to control your family but you have a measure of control over how you deal with them. Alcohol and other substances alter your ability to perceive, think and respond. They also disrupt sleep, and you'll need to be well-rested.

Have an exit strategy. We're going to try really hard not to draw the obvious wartime metaphor here, but the truism holds. If you can afford it, spring for a hotel room or plan to drive home to your own warm bed. The more you control the situation, the more comfortable you'll feel and the more relaxed you'll be.

Finally, remember the reason for the holiday: Gratitude.

No matter what's going on, it's possible to find some good in any situation. It may be as simple as having any family, as dysfunctional as they are, or the comfort in knowing that Thanksgiving ends.