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Why Holidays Are So Hard for Those Who Are Estranged

... and 8 ways to gain greater perspective and peace.

Key points

  • Those in fractured families often dread Christmas hype and the long, melancholy season that they may spend alone.
  • Family estrangement is an epidemic, with one survey suggesting that as many as 67 million Americans live with family rifts.
  • Lowering expectations and reframing the holiday experience can help the estranged cope with end-of-year blues.
 - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
"Freedom From Want" by Norman Rockwell
Source: - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

The fantasy of the perfect American holiday hurts the estranged.

Here it comes again: Norman Rockwell’s romanticized portrait of the ideal American family. Eleven people spanning three generations, seated around the Thanksgiving table, beaming at one another and at a bounteous spread of food. This 1943 painting set the standard for what we think our holidays should look like: joyful kin of all ages, basking in the warmth, comfort, and love of family.

This, however, is not the holiday scene awaiting the estranged. Those cut off from family feel their losses acutely from October through December, and the aggressive spread of holiday cheer only worsens the suffering: Even a well-meaning “Happy Holidays! Hope you’re enjoying time with your family” can twist the knife.

During the years when I was estranged from my only brother, I struggled to get through the holidays. From the lavish downtown decorations to the local grocery store’s tinsel, every bright, jingling holiday display reminded me of the “happy family” I was missing. Things seemed to get worse every year, with retailers nudging profits forward until candy canes jumped Halloween altogether and began popping up as part of back-to-school sales.

When the big days finally arrived, I scrambled to fill the chairs at my holiday table. Year after year, I cooked the usual elaborate feast for just a few people.

Worst of all, I assumed I was the only one suffering from the alienation, pain, and stigma of being shunned. Amid everyone else’s togetherness, I felt terribly alone.

Alone in aloneness?

I was reluctant to join a support group or even to share my story. I didn’t talk about the hole that estrangement had dug into my life because I feared I would be judged. People tend to project onto others their own notions of what a family should look like, and society cherishes an idealized version of family in which relationships are indissoluble.

So, when I began working on a book about sibling estrangement, I found that I was not alone. I interviewed experts and conducted a survey asking for estranged siblings' stories, and I learned that most people don't want to talk about living in a fractured family—one of life's most painful experiences. Many refuse to fill out surveys, making it difficult to determine how many people are estranged. Karl Pillemer's research for his book, Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, revealed that 67 million Americans have family rifts. It's an epidemic.

I learned from my interviews that many of the estranged suffer from greater depression, loneliness, and low self‐worth as the weather turns cold.

“Fall sucks,” a woman who doesn't talk to her siblings said bluntly. “I say it every year. The holidays rub your face in the estrangement.”

Some said that they wake up crying in their sleep, devastated by their losses. Even some who chose to sever family relations found that holidays spent alone could prompt a reevaluation of whether a cutoff was the right choice.

For some, it's not a time of mourning

Others actually said they felt relieved that they don’t have to endure strained gatherings with “loved ones.” Yet even for them, there’s no graceful answer to the question every acquaintance seems to ask: “What are you doing for the holidays?”

Some of the estranged are remarkably resilient. One woman who doesn't talk to her sister said she reframed her holiday experiences by focusing on what she doesn’t miss about family gatherings. The list includes an uncle’s incessant political diatribes, drunk relatives, a brother's cutting remarks, and her sister’s dry stuffing.

Others, however, spoke of fearing the isolation of holidays without family. One woman rejoiced when she received a coveted invitation for a holiday dinner with friends. She said she felt as if she’d won the lottery because she would escape the sadness she typically feels on that day.

Things to do on lonely days

For those who have no place to go but home, it’s natural to dread the dreary, lonely days. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Decorate your home just as you like. Then think ahead to make specific plans for the days you’ll be alone. Consider entertainment, like a concert or a visit to a botanical garden; or prepare special dishes, just for you.
  • Volunteer to help at a crisis center for homeless people, refugees, or others in need. Surround yourself with people who, unlike family, may appreciate your time and efforts.
  • To address your spiritual side, go to a religious service, maybe even of a different religion. Plan a peaceful day focused on appreciating what you have rather than dwelling on what’s missing.
  • Take a walk to see the local lights. Every culture has celebrated a holiday that brings light to the darkest days of the year.
  • Don't feel obligated to spend the holidays as one “should.” This time is yours. Do what you wish. Take a trip, organize closets, do projects you’ve put off. Or give in to simple pleasures like binge-watching TV, reading, and eating meals when you want to.
  • Start new traditions to make the holidays less stressful and more fun.
  • Avoid letting technology sprinkle salt on your wounds. Mute or delete social media apps during the holidays. You might even decide to leave them for good.
  • Assess what you’re missing. Maybe you’re grateful that you don’t have to deal with family drama.

A fractured family is reason enough for the estranged to say, “Bah humbug!” They may wish the calendar would fast‐forward to January, allowing them to skip the holiday madness, mark the New Year, and put off another round of suffering for 10 months. That being impossible, what is possible is to make your own holiday cheer, and to find peace when you can, where you can.

Facebook image: Yulia Raneva/Shutterstock

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