- Estrangement is common.
- The grief of estrangement is unique and often felt in a more isolated way than other forms of grief.
- Being kind to yourself, creating new traditions, and reminiscing can help.
Estrangement is common. A 2015 study of college students found that 43 percent of participants were estranged from at least one family member (Conti, 2015). As a therapist, I imagine this number would be even higher today.
Each situation is a little different. I've met individuals on both sides of estrangements involving elements of addiction, parental alienation, painful memories, abuse, divorce, unwillingness to accept a family member's sexual orientation, anger, longstanding conflict, mental illness, and others. Similarly, the relationships before the estrangement vary wildly from consistently combative to mostly positive to ones that seem to have never existed. Sometimes someone is not able to identify the exact reason for the estrangement and I've met more than one person estranged from their entire family.
Regardless of whether one has chosen the estrangement or not, there is often a common theme: pain.
Most kinds of grief are shared. Often it is in sharing memories and support that we heal. In cases of estrangement, though, often the grief is felt alone. The person may miss their family member(s) deeply (even if they do not feel comfortable with them in their life at this time). They may grieve them repeatedly, hoping for reconnection and sometimes gradually letting go of that hope. Sometimes reconciliation happens; other times it doesn't.
Holidays can be particularly rough on someone experiencing estrangement. While families can usually gather together after a death and express the shared missing of the person, in estrangement often family members feel ashamed and unable to discuss it. When a person is not invited to the family gathering or when the one someone is estranged from still interacts with other family members, this can be especially painful.
What follows are five strategies for getting through these days:
1. Be kind to yourself.
If you need to slow down during this time, that's OK. The Christmas specials on TV may make you think that this is a magical time that should be happy for everyone. That's just not the case. Allow yourself to feel.
2. It's OK to remember.
If you have memories of happy holidays with the person (or people) you are estranged from, it's OK to remember those. Bringing out the family photo album can sometimes hurt, but those memories still matter. If you don't have any positive memories with the person you are estranged from, you may have other positive holiday memories. Those count too.
3. Wishes do not need to be shared.
You might not be able to wish your loved one a happy holiday. Still, you may have many well wishes for your loved one. You may write these in a journal or think of them as you light a candle. Wishing do not need to be shared to be valid
4. Look for what you can still enjoy.
You might be going back and forth on that invitation your friend gave you to join their family gathering because you feel unwelcome at your own. Whether or not you accept it is your choice, of course. Still, making new memories and spending time with people you are close to may still bring a smile to your face.
5. Begin a new tradition.
Changes can encourage new traditions. You might decide to walk through a light display you never explored, to attend a movie, or to order special food. Consider what you might be up for.
Conti, R. P. (2015). Family estrangement: Establishing a prevalence rate. Journal of Psychology and Behavioral Science, 3(2), 28-35.