Estrangement and the Holidays

Healing the pain, embracing joy.

Posted Nov 15, 2017

Source: iStockPhotos

Estrangement from a parent or an adult child is painful every day of the year but it can be especially difficult during the holidays. With visions of family togetherness all around you, all you can see are the empty chair, the memories of when times were so different. Your feelings of hurt, loneliness, and shame are overwhelming. As other families celebrate the joy of the season, you feel like hiding.

But for estranged parents and adult children, the holidays can also bring opportunities: the chance to reconnect or, that failing, to nurture yourself and find your own joy through new holiday traditions.

If you’d like to reconnect with your estranged loved one:

1. Be the first to say “I’m sorry.” 

Some estrangements deepen as each side waits stubbornly for the apology they feel they so deserve. It may come down to this: you can be right, or you can have a relationship with your loved one. In most estrangements, both sides have contributed to the rift. Think about what you might have said or done to help cause the feelings of estrangement. Then be the first to apologize even if you’re convinced that most of the responsibility for what happened rests with the other person.

2. Reach out in non-threatening, low-key ways.

Send a card, a letter, an email, or an invitation. Don’t make any demands or dump guilt. Just let him or her know that he or she is in your thoughts, that your door is always open.

3. Manage your expectations.

While you may hope for a reconnection that is full and heartfelt and leads to a joyful holiday together, celebrate progress when the reconnection is more limited. It may be a terse text or a phone call rather than a visit. Accept this small step with love. Whatever signs of life and willingness to communicate the other person shows is a positive. If, on the other hand, the other person responds angrily or meets your efforts to reconnect with silence, it may help at least a little to know that you’ve made the effort. While you didn’t get the hoped-for results right now, things may be different later on. One client, who kept her door open emotionally to her estranged son for more than a decade, was surprised last Christmas by a phone call from him, apologizing for the rift and expressing a desire to get together. So you never know. You can both keep hope alive and, at the same time, nurture yourself through yet another holiday without him or her.

If the estrangement persists this holiday season:

1. Leave your estranged loved one alone after extending your initial low-key olive branch.

Don’t insist, beg, threaten, or otherwise try to change his or her mind. Respect the limits your estranged loved one is setting. Acceptance now may facilitate reconciliation later on.

2. Embrace all the love in your life.

The pain of estrangement can overshadow so many of the blessings of your life, including the love of other family members and dear friends. These other relationships don’t replace—can’t replace—the relationship you’ve lost either temporarily or permanently through estrangement. But embracing these anew can help to soothe your pain and isolation. All of the love in our lives matters immensely.

3. Create new holiday traditions—just for you.

Especially if this estrangement has meant that you’ll be alone this holiday season, don’t spend these days looking back with wistfulness and sorrow. Instead, think about how you’ve sometimes dreamed of spending the holidays. It may mean reuniting with extended family members you haven’t seen for ages, like a sibling and his or her family or a cousin for a holiday celebration. It may mean doing charity work through your church or another organization dedicated to feeding the homeless or making the holidays special for disadvantaged children and their families. It may mean granting yourself a special wish: like attending Midnight Mass and sleeping in the next day or spending a peaceful holiday reading and eating take-out. It may mean gathering a family of friends together with a potluck to celebrate the day. Or, perhaps, you will opt to spend the holiday with a very special friend at his or her home, or out doing something that delights both of you.

4. Allow yourself to feel joy between your moments of pain.

Feeling joy in your pain helps to strengthen you for the next wave of pain and brings so much more to your days than unending sorrow. As you build a new life for yourself, there may always be that hope of reconciliation, always with an open door and open heart. But when you embrace all the love and joy in your life, you will have a growing capacity to feel truly blessed, whether or not you ever heal your estrangement.