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Three Kansans Share The 'Heartbreaking' Pain Of A Lost Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving turkey just out of the oven.
Brian Grimmett
Kansas News Service
Thanksgiving turkey just out of the oven.

WICHITA — Coronavirus cases are at record levels. Just in time to pretty much ruin Thanksgiving.

In Kansas, those cases have hospitals worried about having enough space or staff. That’s prompted local, state and federal officials to urge people to just stay home.

We spoke with three Kansans about their decisions to cancel trips to see family — and the loss that represents.

We edited the interviews for clarity and length.

Sara Simpson

Sara Simpson is a veterinarian who lives in Basehor, Kansas. She’s originally from New Jersey, but has lived in Kansas since about 2013.

Kansas News Service: Do you go back and see family for Thanksgiving every year?

Sara Simpson with her father during a holiday visit last year.
Credit Sara Simpson
Sara Simpson with her father during a holiday visit last year.

SS: It was always like a big thing.

You know, we would plan to see all of our friends and different family members.

So, every day we were doing something family-oriented or friend-oriented. We would always make sure we had a date night in New York City where we could go have a nice dinner with friends.

KNS: What does this year look like?

SS: This year was supposed to be my family in New Jersey. And, of course, we were looking forward to it. But with everything that’s going on with COVID, we’ve been having this conversation for a couple months now, you know, is it safe to go, both for us and for everyone else?

KNS: What were the discussions with your family like?

SS: It was a lot of back and forth, both inside my head and those actual conversations.

And there were some tears and, you know, from me and from my parents and I think the biggest consideration was, can we do this safely?

We’re just not able to quarantine for two weeks before we go anywhere. And even if we do now, we either have to fly, so, we're going to the airport, coming in contact with all those people, or we would be driving and having to stay at a hotel and stop for gas.

To me, the risk of, obviously, I worry about myself, but the risk of exposing my family and potentially, you know, you don't know how sick someone's going to get. So that was the biggest consideration for us was can we keep everybody safe and do this in a safe and responsible way?

KNS: How did it make you feel to have to make this kind of sacrifice?

SS: I’m really sad. There are intermittent tears when I start thinking about it. You see those cheesy Hallmark Thanksgiving movies and all that on TV and I have to quickly turn it off because you start thinking about all the things you’re going to miss, but I think it's a small sacrifice.

My parents haven't seen my son since last Thanksgiving, other than like Skyping and things like that.

So it's sad to think that they're missing out on this time. But I would rather have to miss this and make that sacrifice, that small sacrifice now, compared to what some other people (have) sacrificed during all of this, and then get to see everybody healthy and happy.

KNS: Do you have any negative feelings for people who choose to go ahead with large family Thanksgiving celebrations?

SS: It feels a little selfish. I don’t want to judge people for making the decisions that they make. But, unfortunately with something like COVID, those decisions don’t only affect them and the people they’re seeing in their homes.

If they pick up COVID and they don’t know it and then they’re out and about or traveling and stopping at various places and what have you, it then becomes an issue for everyone they come in contact with.

All I want to do is give my family a hug. You know, and we can’t do that right now. But I keep telling myself that if we keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing, follow public health guidelines, it won’t be too long before we can hug them again.

Christopher Redmond

Christopher “Chip” Redmond lives in St. George, Kansas.

KNS: What do you typically do for Thanksgiving?

Christopher Redmond: We either travel to one side of the family or the other. We are never at home, we are never in Kansas for the holidays.

KNS: What’s the plan for this year?

CR: You know, it was a difficult choice and we've been kind of going back and forth with it. The plan was we were going to make the 12-hour trek this year, but it's not worth it.

Neither [of] our families have had recent exposures or anyone's sick, which is good. And we'd like to keep it that way.

KNS: So, what kind of deliberations went into your decision? It is tempting to think, well, it will only just be a few of us, it won’t be that big of a deal.

CR: It was stressful. More than I ever thought it would be. It put a lot of weight on us.

(My parents) were open if we wanted to come and I think that made it more difficult for us, because it put more weight on our shoulders to make that decision.

But as cases have risen in the last few weeks, I think it’s started to become easier for everyone. It’s obvious that this is spinning out of control.

KNS: Were there any hard feelings from your parents?

CR: They are more at ease, like, OK, let's find a way to make this fun. It's more of, we can have a good time and we can make this not necessarily a new tradition, but we could find, we could still carry on a lot of the old traditions.

KNS: Are there any positives that are coming out of this?

CR: It’s easy to focus on negatives, but there are some big positives. We’re helping out the local economy. We drove away every year. Manhattan and the area is a college town, a military town, and so now all those people that would typically be leaving town are now buying stuff and staying in town.

You also don’t have to worry about traveling for 12 hours and all the other people on the road. And I think in the long run we’ll end up having better discussions with family because you’re not sick and tired of being with them for 24 hours, 48 hours. You get trapped with them.

KNS: Do you have any thoughts about people who are deciding to gather anyway?

CR: I understand it. We’re all human. But, for the love of Pete, just be smart about it.

Maybe don’t go anywhere for a couple of weeks after that. Take a safety protocol after that and lock yourself down. If it’s really that important to you, then don’t do anything the next two weeks.

Sarah Bunn

Sarah Bunn is a Kansas transplant from northern Illinois. She’s lived in Kansas for about 11 years.

Kansas News Service: So if you’re a transplant, does that mean you have family still in other states?

Sarah Bunn: My entire family, basically, is in northern Illinois and some of them are in southern Wisconsin.

KNS: Are you traveling to see them this year? And how did you decide?

SB: My mother works in health care. My aunt works in health care. There was just a general consensus among us that traveling is probably not the best idea.

We’ll do something, but all physically being in the same place is just not feasible this year.

KNS: How hard was it to just say, “we can’t get together this year”?

Credit Sarah Bunn

SB: It’s heartbreaking for me. I told my husband I think the hardest thing about this whole period for me is that I can talk to my mom, and we FaceTime a lot. But if I‘m not physically in the same room with my mother at least like once every three months, I suffer for that.

It’s heartbreaking, too, because I have an almost 2-year-old, and my sister has one who just turned one and that age is so hard because they go so fast. So, by the time I see my niece again in person, or my mom sees her granddaughter again in person, it’s a completely different baby.

KNS: Have you come up with any alternatives to gathering in person?

SB: We talked about doing a Zoom. I think that would be fun, but we tried to do a Zoom happy hour in the beginning (of the pandemic) and in the end I think two of my cousins hung up so mad at people were talking over each other and my mom and my aunt in the same room joining the call from two different devices and it’s just like, ‘Hang up and just go walk over there.’

KNS: How much is this impacting you and your children? Do they notice how crazy it all is?

SB: So, my 8-year-old will say, ‘When, can we go to Grandma's? When the virus is better, can we go to Grandma's?’ And that’s heartbreaking, you know?

That's what I worry about the most when it comes to doing the holidays in this new normal is that I feel like I try to make it so much for them. And there's so much of the tradition that we're just not going to do this year because it's just not safe.

My daughter is doing full remote school and she’s in third grade and she had to write a paper about traditions and she had to pick a family tradition and she was trying to kind of think of one. And it was like everything we came up with was like, ‘Oh, we're not doing that this year.’

That, for me, is the hardest part. How do I make this special for them without what we would normally consider to be a tradition. I’m not sure yet how I’m going to do that. I haven’t really had time to sit down and plan what we’re going to do instead.

KNS: Why do you think these sacrifices are worth it?

SB: For me, it's just a cost-benefit analysis. As much as I would really, really love to see my mom. And like I said, I need to be in the same room with her every once in a while. My husband even said, you know, if you want her to come and she takes a test before and she wears all of this stuff and wears an N95 (mask) on the plane and all of that. But for me, it's just not worth the risk. Right?

I just don’t feel like I could ever forgive myself if we were to bend the rules a little bit and go travel or something and something bad happened. You know, maybe everything would be fine, but what if it wasn’t, you know how do we live with that?

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2020 KMUW | NPR for Wichita

Brian Grimmett comes to KMUW after taking a year break from journalism, but he’s excited to jump back in to the fray. Previously, Brian spent almost five years working at KUER 90.1 FM in Salt Lake City. He worked his way up, starting as an intern and sticking around long enough until they relented and gave him a full-time job. At KUER, Brian covered a wide range of topics, but mainly focused on covering the Utah state legislature.