Mixed feelings as UAE residents are unable to celebrate Christmas with families: 'It won't be the same, but it can still be enjoyable'

Psychologist Aisling Prendergast shares tips for making the festive season feel special from afar

One young woman watching TV for New Year and Christmas. Getty Images

Fathers missed the birth of their first child; funerals have been observed via Zoom; siblings have had to skip weddings; and now thousands who looked forward to reuniting with loved ones for Christmas are unable or unwilling to travel because of a purported second Covid-19 wave.

The timing has been particularly tough for Dubai resident Aine O’Brien, 38, who could not deliver her first child in Ireland, in July. A few weeks after, O’Brien lost her grandfather; a violinist, she’s devastated that she was unable to perform at his funeral. This December will be the first Christmas the new mother will not celebrate in Ireland with her parents, who are yet to meet their grandson.

“I can't believe I have a beautiful baby boy, who is three months, and none of my family have met him,” O’Brien says. “It’s heartbreaking. We were planning to fly to Ireland this month [in November], but [Covid-19] cases started to rise again and we pulled back.”

Aisling Prendergast, a psychologist with Lighthouse Arabia, says missing important family milestones and being apart from loved ones has a “huge impact” on the mental well-being of individuals who are feeling uncertain and vulnerable about the future.

Plan a different version of Christmas day with your friends or family here

“Individuals are experiencing disenfranchised grief, where the nature of the grief is not widely recognised by society,” Prendergast says. “It’s difficult to validate not being present at events as a loss, and people are pushing themselves to be OK when they are feeling a huge amount of sadness. When we try to suppress or deny these feelings, the intensity increases.”

Prendergast suggests validating how difficult it is to not engage in the plans that you thought you would. “There will be tough moments,” she says, “but that's allowed. It’s more important than ever to schedule time to speak to family and friends.”

Canberra-born Peter Somerville's flights to Australia for Christmas – when his whole family was due to meet his new bride for the first time – have been cancelled. The couple was forced to postpone their May wedding in Georgia, so they ended up getting married in Dubai in August with two witnesses and their families attending virtually on Zoom.

Somerville plans to travel to his best friend's wedding in Australia next March, but his wife cannot accompany him as a tourist because of Covid-19 restrictions.

Getting philosophical as he puts a positive spin on the helpless situation, Somerville says: “My wife’s parents were able to visit us in September for a week, and we plan to go skiing in Kazakhstan for Christmas. At least we have each other and our health.”

Stacey Wilke is another UAE resident who exudes an admirable attitude. A cancer patient who has been unable to travel home to Australia for important check-ups, she will miss her family reunion in Perth this Christmas. However, she says: "The last few years have taught us to enjoy life. I have many friends in Dubai and I love camping, so I think we will camp somewhere to get away from the city on Christmas, which my husband and I will spend with our son here. Hopefully I will be reunited with my daughter and my three grandchildren in Australia soon."

Another family with camping plans for Christmas are the Allawerdis. For five years, Mariam Allawerdi has travelled home to Ireland each August with her husband and two children, while their family would fly to the UAE for Christmas. However, none of them want to risk travelling at the moment. "It's too stressful for my in-laws as they're in their 70s," she says.

Living without family is veritable downfall of expat life, with many building strong bonds with friends who double as family. As the festive season looms, many UAE residents are consoling themselves by turning to these carefully nurtured ties.

Mum-of-two Joanne Tyrrell Richardson, for instance, will celebrate Christmas with friends in the UAE, who aim to transform their garden into a Santa’s grotto. “The children will love it,” Richardson says, even as she rues missing her mother’s 80th birthday in April.

Richelle Fosberry normally goes home to the Philippines in December, but says her parents are old, “so I cannot quarantine with them and the flights there are too expensive. But the Filipino community in Dubai is strong, so I will spend Christmas here with friends. It’s not too bad … the weather is lovely.”

“Plan a different version of Christmas day with your friends or family here,” Prendergast suggests. “Incorporate any special traditions that you can such as opening gifts at a certain time or watching a certain Christmas movie. It won't be the same, but it can be different and still enjoyable.”