How we can cope with family estrangement during Christmas

Christmas is meant to be the happiest time of the year. It’s a season to share with your family and friends,

Christmas is meant to be the happiest time of the year. It’s a season to share with your family and friends, thanking them for being in your life and heralding in a brighter future together. Unfortunately for some Australians like me, Christmas is a reminder of family relationships that are broken or altogether missing. For people like us, it’s very important to have strong mechanisms to cope with family estrangement during Christmas.

I have been estranged from my father for many years. The reasons leading to our rift were complex, varied and painful. Now as my father grows older, with nursing homes and medical complications looming on the horizon, I struggle to contemplate our future. I’m torn between knowing my father will soon pass away, versus knowing he has many transgressions to make right.

My personal turmoil is amplified every December, as people ask “what are your plans for Christmas?” or describe presents they’ve bought for their own fathers. My children are all grown up now, and they’ve never had a proper grandfather to celebrate Christmas with, although they’re used to it. Over the years, my closest friends have learnt not to ask about Dad. ‘The perfect family’ picture is never far away though, whether in Christmas catalogues, on television ads or down at the shops.

That’s why it is so important to have strong coping mechanisms, when dealing with family estrangement. I have a counsellor who I still see semi-reguarly, and I’ve read widely on the topic of family estrangement. Its causes can vary greatly, and include anything emotional and physical abuse, alcohol or substance abuse, personality clashes, bereavement, divorce, new family members, money challenges or mental health problems. Estrangement may happen by choice, or through a general drift. People coping with estrangement may have made the decision to cut-off certain family members, or have been cut-off themselves. Either way, it’s an extremely difficult topic.

Dealing with family estrangement is a lot like coping with grief. As Dr Kylie Agllias explains, “when a person is estranged (from) a family member, they generally experience a range of immediate grief, loss and trauma responses. Bodily responses such as shaking, crying and feeling faint are common, alongside emotional responses such as disbelief, denial and anger. People often ruminate over the estrangement event or the events that led up to the estrangement”.

Over time, immediate grief responses will give way to general feelings of hurt, betrayal, disappointment and even guilt. Occasions such as Christmas are trigger events, which cause these negative feelings to resurface. Experts like author Tina Wakefield recommend three steps to approaching family estrangement. These steps are particularly helpful during trigger events, such as Christmas:

1. Be consistent in your message 

Your message might be, “I love you, but don’t like having you in my life” or “I need more time to consider our future”. Either way, don’t feel pressured into changing your mind, just because it’s Christmas. A consistent message will ensure your lines of communication stay clear and objective.

2. Be prepared to admit your mistakes 

Estranged family members may reach out to you at Christmas. If they do, it’s worthwhile to have considered what your response may be. Are you ready to listen to their perspectives? Do you need certain incidents acknowledged, in order to move forward? Are you prepared to discuss your part in the estrangement process? As Wakefield highlights, “there are two sides involved in the relationship”. A conversation facilitated by a counsellor might be advisable, in these instances.

3. Get support for you 

For anyone experiencing estrangement, it’s beneficial to seek counselling or a grief support group. Professional guidance may help you understand the factors leading to estrangement, and may assist in identifying whether there’s a road to recovery. At Christmas time, it can also be particularly helpful to share your feelings with other people who are estranged from loved ones. “Through talking with others, you’ll find people who are in the same shoes, find ways to cope and even enjoy your life”, explains Wakefield. “You might even arrive at a point of genuine hope that there’s a possibility of reconnection”.

Are you coping with family estrangement this Christmas? What messages would you share with people who are also estranged from loved ones, whether by choice or not?



  1. Not seeing any family on Christmas day for the first time in my life

  2. Yes I can relate, very much so. It has all been too painful to write about and I did reach a point of acceptance.
    Once you have done all that you can and there is no more, give them your love and work at having a happy life without them.
    I mourned deeply for two years,then realised that my life and what remains of it, has to be the very best life I can manage.
    Enough of being unhappy because of others, one last, ‘I will always love you, no matter what,’ and I released myself.
    It worked because my soul was with me and my highest,’self,’ bouyed me on my way.
    I haven’t looked back.
    I felt like I was free and unburdened.
    All the very best and hopefully you will be able to free yourself and heal.

    • Thank you for this. I am going to take a leaf out of your book and move on. I have done all I can for all of my family and love them all. The grieving has to stop now because I have never harmed any of them in any way….just the opposite.
      Merry Christmas and thank you again for writing this.

    • Very much my experience too, Philomena. Years and years of trying with only more pain eventually leads to this. Yes, ” I will always love you, but we cannot be in contact” is my final answer now. When it is a child I think it becomes a lifelong crater in the heart. But battling on would have killed me – literally.

  3. I am totally looking forward to Christmas this year, I normally spend my Christmas alone, except for lunch with my son. But this year I get to spend it with my family, we live all over Australia and one niece lives in Arizona, so getting together is a big deal for us. It has been about 12 years since we all sat down for Christmas lunch, I am the oldest but my niece is only 5 years younger than me, so it makes for a fun time, full of laughter and memories. hope you all have a wonderful Christmas too

  4. My very close friend spent Christmas alone one year. Like me, she is the mother of several children and nobody was getting along.
    She called me on Christmas day and asked if I would meet her. So sad for her.
    We had lunch together at a Club, second for me as I had already eaten at my sons house.
    But it was a priveledge to feel that she trusted me enough to ask.
    I knew only too well how she felt.

    • Whatva wonderful gesture, Phil…..a true friend. Where is your friend and yourself spending the day this Christmas?

    • What a lovely thing to do. Bet your tummy was full!! Families can be very cruel and take the huff for the simplest of reasons, especially if you don’t happen to agree. What happened to “agreeing to differ and move on?

  5. Depends on the reason for the estrangement I guess.. We pass this way only once! Sometimes reaching out to someone is all it takes. But sometimes the hurt is too deep. Acceptance of the situation and move on! I had wonderful parents that I lost in my early twenties. I always miss them more at Christmas. This lady has to decide if she can, or wants to, reconcile with her Dad who is an old man now! Only she knows what is in her heart.

    • Sometimes we have no choice in reconnecting especially if you and most your siblings have been disconnected as we have by a surviving parent and one sibling for no logical reason and they have moved away and you do not know where.

  6. With two failed Marriages and the loss of a loved one Christmas is so hard for me but I put on a happy face and soldier on. Lucky for me I have the love of a Family and Friends to pull mr though.

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