It is common for human beings to experience feelings of grief during the holidays, particularly if we have experienced a recent loss, such as death of a loved one or a pet and this is the first holiday without them. However, when we are dealing with loss due to estrangement from family members, there is also a grieving process, one that is less recognized.
The impact of a loss of relationship with family members due to estrangement can be devastating for people, and the holiday season brings constant reminders of the loss. Many people feel they are alone in their situation, and because of feelings of shame or guilt they may not share it with others. While family estrangement may not be openly discussed, statistics indicate that it’s more common than you might think- 1 out of 5 people are estranged from a family member.
The following are some ideas to help with coping with estrangement during holidays:
- Honour your feelings. Acknowledging how you feel, the range of your emotions and the pain you may be experiencing are important for your well being. Identifying supportive people you can talk with, safe spaces in your life and finding ways to release emotional energy from your body (e.g., yoga, walking, swimming, meditation) will all help with managing intense feelings. Grief, anger, sadness, guilt, and shame are some of the common emotions with estrangement.
- Know that you are not responsible for all of the family dynamics at play, even if you have a big role. Whenever you bring people together, there will be dynamics, and the family system is a complex web of relationships with history. You are one part of a family system and can only be responsible for yourself and your own actions within the functioning of the family. Remind yourself of this especially if you are experiencing feelings of guilt. To move toward healing in relationships, one person cannot do this alone.
- Write a letter to your estranged family member. Without considering that you will send it, sharing what you think and feel in the form of a letter can be helpful. Expressing how you feel and think at this moment in time may help bring clarity of thought, guide your decision making in the future, or open up some new insights.
- Acknowledge holiday pressure. There may be pressure to reunite with the estranged family member, from yourself or others in your life. If you are wanting to reach out, consider whether this is the best time for you and for them, what the outcomes might be, and if you have the emotional bandwidth to deal with a rejection. If an invitation comes to you, take time to respond thoughtfully, and talk about it with a trusted person before you do.
- Create new traditions. If estrangement has changed the holiday for you, create new traditions and rituals that represent what is important to you and works for your current life situation. Accept that it’s possible some will not be happy with your decisions and choices. While it can be difficult to disappoint others, it is more important to be true to yourself and do what is best for your mental health, than to try to please everyone and make yourself miserable.
- Set boundaries that work for you and have realistic expectations of yourself and others. Be considerate of your own needs, and the needs of others when planning or attending family events. Where there are estranged relationships there will be increased stress. While holidays can bring people together, they can also be emotionally charged and result in conflicts. Also consider the needs of children when making decisions about family get togethers. Witnessing family conflict is stressful for adults, but is particularly upsetting for children.
- Have perspective. Remind yourself that family relationships will continue to unfold over time in life, and the pressure of an upcoming holiday will not change family dynamics more quickly. Some things may resolve over time, and some things may never resolve. Separate the holiday from the complexity of the estrangement. This will allow you the space to be able to enjoy the holiday while also accepting that at this moment, the relationship is estranged.
- Grow and nurture healthy relationships. Connect with people and pets and surround yourself with things that bring you joy. Allow yourself to be open to new healthy relationships in your life. Many people consider their friends as their chosen family in life. Make the most of the relationships that you do have during the holiday and enjoy yourself.
- Consider what you can do for others. Sometimes, changing our focus to the broader world helps us gain perspective. Think about volunteering your time or resources in the community, such as donating to a community toy or food drive or lending your skills. Giving to others in the community is a wonderful way to remind yourself that you are part of something bigger, you belong and you matter.
- If you are struggling, reach out for help. Family estrangement can be a difficult situation to cope with, especially during the holidays. People can experience a great deal of triggering at this time of year. Talking with a therapist can provide a safe, non-judgemental space to gain insight into your family dynamics, understand your own role within that, help you to cope, and help you determine how to move forward in your life in a healthy way. A therapist can also assist in mediating conversations with estranged family members if all are willing to engage.
Christine Bibby, MSW, RSW
Brant Mental Health Solutions