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Estranged From Adult Children at the Holidays?

How to survive an especially painful time for estranged parents and grandparents

Source: Tommaso79/Shutterstock

Many estranged parents feel a sense of dread when a holiday approaches. Whether it's Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, Hannukah, or the High Holy Days, they all want to know how they are going to survive it.

Some common questions are:

  • What do I tell people when they ask me what I'm going to do with my kids over the holidays or my birthday?
  • How do I manage my feelings of sadness, jealousy, or anger at my friends or children?
  • Are there any activities that are better or worse to do on those days?
  • Will I ever be able to get through a holiday and feel sane and whole again?
  • What should I say to others when they ask about my estranged children or grandchildren?

My short answer is: "Whatever you damn well please." In other words, you don't owe anyone an explanation, so you shouldn't feel obligated to say more than you want.

If it's an acquaintance or someone you're not close to, you can say something breezy and change the subject: "Oh, she's off in her own world. I don't see her or the kids as much as I'd like."

If they persist, you could give an update based on the last time you saw your child, grandchild, or something that you heard through the grapevine. And then change the subject.

In other words, you are not ethically obligated to say more than you'd like about your situation. Your main goal is to get in and out of the conversation and steer it into waters that are more comfortable for you to swim in.

If they insist on showing you pictures of their children and grandchildren, take a deep breath, say something appropriately complimentary, and then suddenly be overcome by a powerful desire to go to the bathroom or get something to eat or drink.

Don't isolate

The message of estrangement is that you can have your most treasured person torn from you, and there’s nothing, or seemingly nothing, that you can do about it. That experience makes most people feel scared, impotent, and enraged. It has the potential—especially if you’ve had other traumas—to make you believe that this is somehow your fate or a kind of validation of your fundamental lack of worth.

Sadly, this complex of emotions may cause you to do the one thing you shouldn't do, and that's completely withdrawing from everyone. Far better to be direct about the kind of support that you'd like from friends or concerned family. And if you don't have a lot of friends or family nearby, volunteer somewhere.

Do something fun and special

This is not a time to be stingy with yourself. If you’re anticipating feeling especially depressed or lonely, now would be a good time to get out of town or go do something that you might not typically allow yourself. In other words, you should pamper yourself, because it will probably be a harder day than other days. And then it will pass.

The pain of the estrangement may persist, but the intensity of the feelings stimulated by the holidays will fade. Over time, you can get better and better at learning how to develop a sense of serenity, even without your child or grandchild in your life. It takes patience and practice, but it is within your reach.