by Sheri McGregor, M.A.
The holidays are here, and for parents with an adult child who is estranged, the festivities may trigger some emotional low points. Being aware of this has helped me develop a realistic view of my happiness, and enjoy the celebrations. If you manage expectations, the holidays can be good ones.
Great Expectations, a Realistic View
Over the holidays, we may feel pressured to radiate joy we don’t necessarily feel. If you have ever confided a deep emotional pain and been told to “get over it,” then you know how hurtful the response can be. Just getting over something is easier said than done, particularly for abandoned parents during the holidays when much focus is on traditions and family ties. Make sure you’re not the one issuing brusque dictates, telling yourself you should be over this by now. I know from experience that unrealistic expectations set the stage for feelings of failure. Instead, take an honest view, and be kind to yourself. For me, during the holiday season, when my adult child who is estranged won’t be with the rest of us, that includes simplifying.
Feeling a sense of loss is natural. Remain thankful for shared good times, cherish those fond memories, but be honest about your feelings now. For the time being, some shared traditions are over. Others may be more subdued. You may feel sorrow, regret, or even anger. Recognize your feelings for what they are: natural responses. Accept them then move forward as best you can.
Even after many years, parents may still miss their adult child who is estranged, and feel sadness during special days. In writing my book, Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, I heard the stories of more than 9,000 parents. Many of them spoke of feelings coming up from time to time. Events and circumstances can trigger old emotions. Even when when we’ve worked through pain associated with an adult child who is estranged, the holidays can dredge up old wounds and sadness.
Enjoying the Celebrations
The first holiday season after my adult son’s estrangement, the break was so recent that I didn’t have the emotional energy to clearly think through or devise coping strategies for myself or the rest of the family. We celebrated anyway. We needed to begin building new memories associated with special days, which helped. You may find that beginning a new tradition is helpful.
This year, for the first time, my family played horseshoes on Thanksgiving. The idea may sound silly, but participating in new activities can ease letting go of ones enjoyed before a family member became estranged. Inviting new people to holiday celebrations might also help keep parents (and the whole family) focused on the present rather than remembering hurt and loss.
While it’s natural to acknowledge and talk about loss with loved ones who share the experience or care about your feelings, avoid dwelling on the hurt. Honoring this year’s celebrations keeps you mindful of the present experience and helps positively shape future holidays.
Meanwhile, if you feel a need, consider a short ritual that acknowledges your feelings in a positive way. For instance, making a toast to the well-being and happiness of your adult child who is estranged could be meaningful. This could be in private, or with other family members who share your loss. Perhaps saying a heartfelt prayer, or lighting a candle in symbolic honor of your estranged adult son or daughter helps acknowledge the pain without dwelling. Even putting out a well-chosen decorative object can provide a point of reflection or honor, without being obtrusive. An object that reminds me of happy times is often on display at my house: a little wooden bird that was given to me many years ago by my adult child who is estranged.
Permission to Grieve Over an Adult Child who is Estranged
Don’t strive for the unattainable. You’re human, and your feelings are normal. Check in with yourself each day. If you’re particularly sad, then a little extra self-care can help. Pretending you don’t feel bad drains energy. Consider exploring your feelings more fully. Journaling has been well-documented as an emotional aid. Five or ten minutes of writing your thoughts out or speaking into a voice recorder can provide a release, and may give you more specific insight into your feelings. For instance, you may realize what concerns you most about the annual Christmas Eve get-together is the possibility of questions about the estrangement from relatives who don’t know the current situation. Knowing this, you can prepare some ready answers or even an exit plan that takes you out of the conversation.
Shift your perspective from what you can’t control to what you can. Rather than wallow, do one small thing. Even a small accomplishment can help you feel better. Consider making a list of tasks you can turn to for energizing when you’re feeling low. Neglecting normal routines can complicate your life. If the mail piles up, a late charge can be a painful consequence. Tasks that take care of you or your surroundings, such as watering your houseplants, sweeping the porch, or going through the mail are doable in short sessions, and keep your life running smoothly even when you’re hurting.
Small Change, Big Difference
This year, I shortened my usually elaborate Thanksgiving menu then asked for help. As a result, we got to try some new entrees and desserts. Despite missing your adult child who is estranged, accepting the separation for the moment, and taking a proactive approach helps reduce overall stress so you can better enjoy the present season.
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