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?