If there’s a time of year when family is foremost, it’s the holiday season.
Everywhere, there’s yet another image of togetherness: snuggling with the kids and grandkids on the sofa, unwrapping gifts, attending worship services, enjoying a shared meal. Songs, movies and television all celebrate the seasonal joys of family and its loving embrace.
Except for those whose family ties have snapped, estranged from their parents, children, grandchildren or siblings.
“Norman Rockwell lied,” says one divorced and childless woman (who prefers to remain anonymous), accustomed to solitary holidays after decades of estrangement from a sister to whom she was once very close.
It happens for a range of reasons: a spouse who refuses to accept the partner’s family of origin. Or, maybe, you refusing even one more blast of a relative’s racism, sexism, narcissism, emotional or substance abuse.
Not the happiest time of the year
“This is my busiest time of year as a family therapist,” says Lori Whatley, who works with families and couples in Atlanta.
Holidays are especially hard for families with estrangement issues, she says, in part because those with intact families just don’t get it and can ask prying and painful questions.
“We would never walk up to an abuse victim and try to discern what happened to them,” Whatley says. “So we should allow these people the same respect. Estranged relationships are complicated.”
There’s little formal data on the subject, although a 2015 study published by researchers at Purdue, Cornell and Iowa State universities found that 10% of adults were estranged from at least one of their children.
The current political climate hasn’t helped, says Sheri McGregor, author of of Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children .
She knows of adult children who have told their parents to “vote my way or it’s the high way.”
We also think differently about relationships now, she says.
“Toxic,” the 2018 Oxford Dictionary word of the year, used to mean a poisonous substance. But now it’s used to describe everything from our divisive politics (toxic political culture) to misogny (toxic masculinity) to people (toxic relationships).
In the financial world. McGregor says, when something is toxic, it has no value.
“And if you can say someone is poison or of no value, it supports a decision to discard them,” she says.
How to make it through
So, how to survive—and thrive—when you’re not celebrating with family?
“The holidays are always conflicted for me,” says Janet (a pseudonym), a 69-year-old divorcee in San Francisco. She has no children and, estranged from her one sister for 40 years, has little relationship with her nieces as a result.
“Sometimes I volunteer, sometimes I’m alone,” she says. “Sometimes I’m generously invited to other people’s homes and I go with an overabundance of participation, bringing pies and cakes and an optimistic, joyful attitude.”
Some people don’t understand the very real sadness, longing, embarrassment, and shame that estrangement can bring. It can be difficult or tiring to explain, so if you feel that way, don’t feel you have to explain at all.
“The scars run very deep,” adds Whatley. “As people get healthier, they may decide that this relationship is healthier for them not to be in it.”
“Feeling prepared helps,” says McGregor. “Come up with some ready answers. Role play with a friend you trust.”
Love your own life
For Michele Sponagle, a 56-year-old writer in Paris, Ontario, the holidays are the same as always—estranged from her father for more than six years. Her mother is dead, of ovarian cancer.
“Not only did he cut me off, but he cut me off from the whole side of my mom’s family,” she says.
She’s also estranged from her brother, 52, while both men live about 45 minutes from her. When she was diagnosed with cancer and facing grueling treatments her father “never reached out. He knew what I was facing.”
But Sponagle and her partner of seven years, a freelance illustrator, will celebrate happily anyway — thanks to the love of his family.
“They’re lovely and accepting,” she says. “His mother treats me like a daughter.”
For Nancy Klune, who lives in San Clemente, Calif., it’s the estrangement of her only child, a son, that’s been the cross to bear. Not only did she lose him, but after his wife cut him off from her completely, she also lost access to his four children. The family lives in Asheville, N.C.
She handles the holidays by taking very good care of herself.
“I rescue animals,” she says. “I find other sources of happiness and joy. I have to love my own life and give my own life priority.”
Flip the script
Those who’ve survived many estranged holiday seasons know it’s essential to flip the script on typical holiday expectations. Self-care is key.
“Consider what they will not miss in not being part of the celebration,” says McGregor. “Maybe they have more money in their wallet, don’t have to cook, won’t have to travel anywhere. Maybe you get to eat what you want or can afford to do something special you’ve always wanted to do. It’s okay to decline party invites, and you don’t have to tell why.”
If you really want to see someone in your family—while avoiding a painful scene with someone else—make it as comfortable as possible. Ask the host about seating arrangements, plan on being present for a limited time, or even come at different times, she suggests.
“Staying busy is good,” McGregor adds. “So, if that means volunteering, taking friends to lunch all through December, or sitting down to write out notes of thanks to people who mean a lot to you, do it.”
Start your New Year early
“Maybe this is a good time to set goals for the coming year and make a logical plan to achieve them,” McGregor says. “Then, while everyone else is out shopping, you can shop for any support items you need—a book that can help you accomplish your plan, a new day planner or a set of hand weights.”
As others enjoy their traditions, create some of your own, suggests Whatley. “Go on a trip, take a cruise with your kids.”
Maybe you can reframe estrangement as an opportunity for reflection and growth.
“Although winter is a time of dormancy, there is a lot going on inside a barren tree,” says McGregor. “Think of yourself in that way, too. What can you do now to nurture yourself?”
After all, she points out, there are 365 days in a year. The holidays only take up a few of them.
“Take charge of your mood and happiness,” she advises. “You can do something good with the days ahead.”