Holiday Grief and Family Estrangement

We often associate grief around the holidays with the death of a loved one.  However, it is incredibly important to remember that according to research, grief for the living through family estrangement is pervasive and painful around the holidays as well.  Unfortunately, it is also often hidden from view.   Those who are estranged from their families for all kinds of reasons, often feel the shame and stigma associated with estrangement, that leaves them to suffer in silence.

There are many reasons for family estrangement and for the pain associated with this, even when it feels necessary. This blogger writes, “Family ties are fundamental to our emotional and psychological make-up. Why would anyone shun one of their own? One imagines extreme cruelties of physical or sexual abuse—and indeed, these are reasons some people in the study gave for instigating estrangement. But there are other reasons, too, less extreme but very common, such as mismatched expectations about family roles and obligations, or about the meaning and expression of the family relationship. In writing about adult sons and daughters who faced dilemmas in their relationships with a parent, I found that about 20% said that the relationship constantly seemed at risk. A difficult parent is that which the daughter or son experiences as being at the cusp of rejecting the child, or casting them out as a result of disapproval, disgust, or disappointment”.

The research indicates that those who share their experiences with people they know, generally report feeling somewhat better about their experiences; they report feeling heard, understood and believed — as opposed to feeling blamed and disbelieved by those from whom they are estranged or other family members – many of whom just want the whole ‘problem’ to go away.

If you are estranged from family this holiday season, here are some suggestions:

  • Take care of yourself. Self care is crucial for stress, depression and anxiety. This might mean taking some good walks, getting other forms of exercise, meditating, journalling, etc.
  • Reach out to friends, colleagues, anyone you feel might offer a supportive ear.  You might be surprised that others have similar experiences.
  • Find a therapist
  • Find some good books and articles on grief and family estrangement. There are also online communities
  • Work toward a self-compassionate mind which means banishing self-judgment

If you know someone who is estranged from family this season, here are some suggestions:

  • Don’t assume they are OK.  Offer them a compassionate ear, or even a place at your table and with your family.
  • Don’t judge or give advice about how to rectify the situation. Just listen and empathize, even if you cannot understand the motivation.
  • Ask if there is anything they need or you can do to lend a hand.
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