Family & the Holidays: Why Can It Feel So Devastating?

Why you should grieve your old expectations and allow for something new to grow.

Posted Dec 09, 2020

 Priscilla-du-Preez Unsplash
"Waiting on the other side of your grief is a deeper, more human, more realized life."
Source: Priscilla-du-Preez Unsplash

“Can I say something about our session last week?” Karen asked.

I was pretty sure I knew what she wanted to talk about. An Ivy League MBA, Karen took her therapy seriously. However, she approached it with a softness as well. This allowed her to take in so much of what was said. Karen was the daughter of a workaholic and an alcoholic, so speaking psychologically was something that she never experienced growing up. She actually had a natural talent for it, however, which made her experience our sessions as revelatory, while at the same time familiar. The work with Karen was gratifying because everything seemed to land. Well, almost everything.  

“I’m going to be seeing my parents for the holidays and so I just was thinking a lot this past week about what you said. About how there was this kind of, like, ‘invisible neglect’ that you said I experienced growing up. It feels true…I think? But it seemed like you were wanting me to just…” Karen trailed off, leaving room for me to cut in.

“Blame it all on them?”

“Yeah…I don’t want to do that.”

“Well, good, because I don’t want you to do such a cliche thing either.”

“Okay.” Karen laughed showing her sense of relief.

I continued, “I know there’s that old thing where you go to therapy, learn to hate mom and dad, and you’re cured, but no: We have no interest in blaming them. We do need to mourn them though,” and I had lost Karen again.  

“Mourn them? Like, now?” Karen asked. “Why, or how exactly?”

“Can I answer your second question first?”

“Yeah.” 

“You start with giving up all hope,” I said.  

Grief exposes itself in many forms. We often think that grieving or mourning is something that is needed only for a physical death. But there are many things through the course of a lifetime that demand our grieving. The end of a relationship, a childhood that we never had, as well as the death of a loved one, all require grieving. The problem is that often times death or loss is left “un-mourned” due to some contradictory wiring that our bodies have. On a deep level we are wired to stay away from pain. This works well if we touch a hot stove or see a baseball coming at us out of the corner of our eye. But when we are experiencing emotional pain, grief specifically, our instincts do not serve us in the same way. We try to avoid the grief inside of us in the same way we would try to avoid a bus coming at us; by trying to get away from it. The problem is that, while avoiding the bus stops us from dying, avoiding the grief makes us want to.

It was in the early 1900’s when Freud wrote about the importance of grieving, explaining that grieving begins with our bodies recognizing that something that was in the outside world is now gone, and we deeply miss it. If we don’t go through this process of acknowledging something missing on the outside, the thing that is missing gets put inside. And the experience of something missing on the inside is what we know as depression.  

This definition lets us know that deep depression and anguish often comes from us trying to get away, out of our bodies, in order to avoid emotional pain. (This is why in some cultures, a shaman is called when someone is depressed in order to put their soul back in their body.) The belief we often have is that if it’s this painful while I’m avoiding my pain, then feeling all of it fully would be unbearable, and I’d probably drown in it all.  

The irony is that the process of truly grieving is way less painful than ignoring unprocessed grief. So once someone is truly grieving, there is not much that’s needed to be said or done as they are now in the process of letting deep pain, sorrow, run through them.

This understanding of grief and its importance can be especially helpful for many come holiday time. Even though we are well in the middle of a pandemic and COVID is keeping get-togethers to a minimum, the majority of us will still be seeing family in some capacity. And though there are many of us who look forward to and enjoy the time with family that the holidays bring, many others dread this time of year because time with family can be so painful.  

What is it about family for so many that can feel so devastating? If we dig a little deeper we find that the pain is not so much being in the same vicinity as family as much as it is the expectations that one can have for family that are then not met. In shrink talk, there’s a kind of repetition compulsion that is happening when many adult children get together with their parents. Or as Christine Langley Obaugh said, “We repeat what we do not repair.”

A simple definition of trauma is: Certain needs being unmet in childhood. The needs that all children have in relation to their parents are akin to the needs our bodies have for certain vitamins—when we don’t get them we become deficient and then crave them. An iron deficiency is going to cause me to crave a steak. An iron deficiency with a steak placed in front of me that I can’t reach is going to cause me to REALLY WANT THAT STEAK. And without realizing it, this is the cause of so much pain when families get together.

So many times I have heard a patient describe the painful interactions they experienced after having just spent time with their parents. But what starts as a story about another time with my impossible parents soon becomes revealed as an adult child attempting to go to a well that has been dry their entire life. Therefore, so much of the pain that people experience with family is falling back into old familial patterns, and then without realizing it, trying to get old needs satiated that were never met in the first place. The unfortunate reality is that if those old needs weren’t met when they were most needed, they will not be met today. Unmet needs in childhood speak of a deficiency in the parent, not the child. It wasn’t the parent not wanting to, it was the parent not knowing how.

The “hope” that Karen would be giving up would be the hope that she could someday get from her parents what she had been trying to get from them since she was a little girl. The irony is that Karen giving up hope wouldn’t make things “hopeless.” It would allow her to finally mourn the relationship with her parents that she never had and allow the possibility for something new to grow in its place. 

This is not to say that grieving is not without its pain, but it’s a pain that has a point and is moving toward something. In Karen’s case, it would be allowing for her new adult relationship with her parents to emerge. Wordsworth said, “A deep distress hath humanized my soul…” and this is the process and power of grieving. Waiting on the other side of your grief is a deeper, more human, more realized life. A life of your own design. Not one dictated by old wounds that we initially had very little control of.