Navigating The Holidays When You're Estranged From Your Family

by Kimberly Zapata
Originally Published: 
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It’s been nearly a year since I “saw” my mother. I mean, I found her — face down and clinging to consciousness — in June. I stared at her (in her casket) in early July, and I’ve seen dozens of pictures of her before her death and since, but our last visit was last Thanksgiving.

She went to my mother-in-law’s for the free turkey and free booze.

I don’t remember what she wore that day. I know her hair, full of grease and grit, was slicked back. Held in place by a headband. Green, or possibly black. I know her face looked fuller than it had in months. Water retention, I thought. Alcoholism, I assumed. And her skin seemed yellowed.

She was brash and short-tempered.

She was wasting away.

But I didn’t say much. I let her talk about the weather and her hatred of Trump. She told me that man would be the fucking death of her. She talked about his asinine antics. Well, that and what was on TV. I let her play with her grandkids, something she was rarely able to do because alcoholism was stealing her identity. Because, years before, mental illness had stolen her mind. And I smiled. We posed for a picture together, the picture that would become our last, because during that visit I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t help my mother. I couldn’t save my mother, and I couldn’t pretend.

She was sick, and I was a child. 35 but still in many ways a kid.

Family members become estranged for a variety of reasons,” Loren Lomme — a licensed counselor at Just Mind — tells Scary Mommy. “For some, estrangement can be consequential, i.e. individuals can and often do drift apart over time. Estrangement can be intentional. You may be alienated and/or alienate a particular family member or even a whole family unit.” And some estrangements are more about setting boundaries than setting people aside — and that was the case with me.

For my mental health, I had to step back.

For my sanity, I had to step away.

Of course, setting boundaries was tough. I felt embarrassed and ashamed — of her predicament and my absence. I was angry. Angry I couldn’t do more and that she couldn’t get her shit together, and I felt (and still feel) guilty, like I was abandoning her. Plus, I missed my mother, not the person she became but the woman she was. The one who studied spelling words with me in the kitchen. The one who played hide and seek with me even though my spot never changed. I was always in the laundry basket in the hall. I also missed her presence: at Christmas, during birthdays, and at my son’s baby shower.

I told strangers I had no family.

My father died when I was 12, leaving me to grow up (more or less) alone.

Of course, the reality is I was and am not alone. Millions of Americans have experienced alienation, dissociation, and separation by and from their family. In fact, one study found more than 40% of participants had experienced family estrangement at some point, suggesting that in certain groups, such as U.S. college students, estrangement may be almost as common as divorce. But knowing you are not alone doesn’t make things happier or easier. For many — like myself — the holidays are still hard. Plus, the “are you going to your parents’ house” question is the fucking worst. But there is help.

Here are six tips and tricks to help you navigate this emotionally trying time of year.

Find appropriate ways to manage your stress.

Life is full of stressors, during the holidays and beyond. Finding healthy and appropriate ways to manage your stress is imperative.

“One way to manage these uncomfortable emotions is to find a healthy outlet in which to express or experience them,” Lomme explains. “For some, this may mean journaling or meditating. For others, the outlet may be exercise or art. The aim is to quiet the mind and calm the nervous system.”

Make sure to exercise and eat right.

I know what you’re thinking here: You’re stressed. You’re depressed, and the last thing you feel like doing is getting up and moving. It just doesn’t feel right. But physical activity won’t just relieve stress — exercise releases endorphins, which make you feel good all day. The act can also serve as a valuable distraction from your daily worries. So walk, run, take a bike ride, or dance. Seriously. Just move.

Acknowledge your feelings. Don’t swallow or avoid them.

When you lose primary relationships in your life, it doesn’t just hurt like hell, the stress and anxiety of the situation can be overwhelming. “Common feelings of estrangement include sadness, shame, guilt, anger, frustration, disappointment, anxiety, loneliness, or stress,” Aaron Sternlicht, a licensed therapist at Family Addiction Specialist, tells Scary Mommy. However, it is important you acknowledge your feelings. Acknowledgment is the only way to process them and move forward.

“Individuals should talk with someone about their feelings, be it a close friend, a family member, or a therapist,” Sternlicht says, “because bottling up emotions often leads to mental health challenges. Conversely, talking about your feelings can help to release unpleasant emotions and examine unhealthy thoughts surrounding the relationship.”

Make a game plan for how you will handle each holiday, whether or not estranged family members will be present.

Hallmark tells you the holidays are supposed to be a joyous time. A happy time. A time of fun, filled with tree shopping, romance, and jaunts in the snow. But life isn’t like the movies. You cannot pick or “fix” your relationship with your family — particularly if said relationship is abusive, toxic, or just plain broken. But instead of focusing on what is lost, try and focus on what you have.

Figure out what you want from the holidays. Time alone with warm cider and a good book? A low-key Christmas with your chosen family, your partner, loved one and/or your kids? Listen to yourself and follow your heart.

Limit your exposure.

Sometimes we can’t avoid seeing estranged family members, especially during holidays. However, according to Lomme, you can limit your exposure.

“Establish boundaries for both yourself and others. Identify what you will need to manage any feelings that may come up during your get together, and schedule how and when you will leave. It may also be helpful to take breaks away from the family to check in with your emotions and de-escalate any stress that has come up. What’s more, if there are certain topics or behaviors that you know will cause an upset, you might find it helpful to create an exit plan ahead of time or let the estranged family member know that you are not willing to participate in conversations or interactions about those topics.”

Plan your out and/or an escape.

No matter where you are or what you decide to do, make sure you set time limits and have an exit plan. “Let your host know in advance that you will only be spending a certain amount of time with them,” Sternlicht says. Stick to your plan and know that, “if at any point you feel triggered and feel you need to leave, have an exit plan in place.”

That said, no matter what happens, remember: you are in control — of your wellbeing and your life. Take the time to love yourself and care for yourself. Realize you are not bad, if distance separates you and/or circumstances. And don’t be ashamed or afraid to say no. You are worth it, during the holidays and every day.

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