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How To Navigate The Holidays When You're Estranged From Family

The season can be especially difficult for those who aren't on speaking terms with relatives.

The holidays are supposed to be merry and bright, but for those who are estranged from their families, the festive season can be the most difficult time of the year.

“[It’s] times like these, [where] it can be pretty hard for someone who has lost the notion of what family is and the physical family connection,” Ottawa-native Maxime Redecopp told HuffPost Canada.

Redecopp came out as transgender in 2016 at the age of 38. The repercussions of that decision was “earth-shattering,” they said (Redecopp goes by they/them pronouns), as they were told they were no longer welcome in their family.

“My foundational beliefs of unconditional love went out the door. I was acting on what I was told my whole life: ‘you can do whatever you want and we’ll still love you,’” Redecopp explained.

For the past three years, Redecopp says they have had no contact with their immediate or extended family, except for two cousins who they see on occasion.

Family estrangement is more common than you think

Estrangement is the loss of a previously existing relationship between family members. “One way of looking at it is family rejection. It can bring up a lot of feelings of loss, grief, abandonment, loneliness, and shame,” Toronto-based counsellor Forouz Salari told HuffPost Canada.

Estrangement can happen at any point in life for any number of reasons, however, a 2015 report identified emotional abuse as the biggest motivator.

The study was conducted by Stand Alone, a U.K. estrangement support charity, and the University of Cambridge. It found that conflicting expectations about family roles, clashing values, and neglect were also top reasons for cutting ties.

“The experience of estrangement for people is layered and complicated,” Barbara Morrison, of Saskatoon’s Broadway Counselling & Therapy, told HuffPost Canada. “People typically are reluctant to discuss family estrangement because there are feelings of embarrassment and shame associated with this experience.”

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Because estrangement is rarely discussed, it can be surprising to learn how common it really is. U.S. studies have suggested that estrangement may be as common as divorce, and another study by Stand Alone found that over a quarter of people in the U.K. know someone who is estranged from their family.

There’s no official data on how many Canadians experience estrangement, but both Morrison and Salari say they help a number of clients with this issue, especially during the holidays.

Why the holidays are often the hardest

Nine out of 10 people who are estranged from their families report the festive season to be “challenging,” according to a U.K. study. This is because society’s focus on family at this time can drum up desires to be with or reconnect with relatives, or even trigger harmful memories of traumatic times, Salari explained.

“Depending on their cultural backgrounds and cultural or spiritual practices, different holidays throughout the year might be more challenging or painful versus others,” the counsellor said.

That’s exactly why Sam (note: name has been changed for privacy), who’s been estranged from their (Sam goes by they/them pronouns) father for seven years and their mother for one year, finds the holidays so difficult.

“Brazilians love their holidays and there’s a lot of really specific foods and traditions that we do in Brazil that people in Canada don’t really do. So that’s a bit of a tough thing,” the 25-year-old Oakville, Ont. resident told HuffPost Canada. “I feel alienated because I’m not with my family [for the holidays] and I also don’t know where to go to do the things that I would do with my family. It’s lonely.”

How to cope with estrangement during the holidays

People don’t openly talk about estrangement, which is why it can feel like such an isolating experience. There aren’t many resources for people who are struggling with severed family relationships, either.

One reason for this is because estrangement is still not widely accepted by society. “There’s a common misconception that families last forever. Cultural norms and expectations make estrangement really stigmatized,” Kristina Scharp, a Utah State University professor and researcher of parent-child estrangement, told Utah State Today.

Even Morrison and Salari admitted they didn’t know of any Canadian resources specifically for those who are estranged — that is, besides crisis lines and online chat rooms.

Nine out of 10 people who are estranged from their families report the festive season to be “challenging,” according to a U.K. study.
tommaso79 via Getty Images
Nine out of 10 people who are estranged from their families report the festive season to be “challenging,” according to a U.K. study.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t effective ways to cope. Surrounding yourself with chosen family, friends, peers and so on can be incredibly helpful.

“Chosen family is a luxury but also a necessity for survival,” said Redecopp. Even though the 41-year-old is estranged from their family, they “thankfully” have their own partner, kids, and close in-laws to support them through tough times.

Similarly, Sam — who also became estranged from their family after coming out as transgender — said they frequently rely on their partner and friends for support.

“[Those] who work towards building a chosen family as opposed to blood relatives ... may feel less of the impact of family estrangement. But it really depends on the person,” Salari said.

“Often what will happen is folks try to isolate themselves. Or [they’ll start to feel] quite socially isolated and may experience some shame around that and continue to isolate themselves, [which] can be very hard when you’re already feeling quite unsettled. It’s good to just be around others.”

Another coping technique is to express how you feel. For instance, Morrison suggests “writing thoughts and feelings in a notebook [or] using a variety of art forms to express [yourself].”

This can help you process your attitudes towards estrangement, and it’s one coping strategy Redecopp turns to often. In 2017, Redecopp even went as far as to hand draw messages to youth who are struggling during the holidays in response to a callout from LGBT Youth Line.

“Everyday I wrote what came to mind in my heart. I thought, what would I need to hear?” they explained. “I posted [the messages] and it became a series. I plan to try and do something like that again or find someone who wants to do a collaborative piece. I try to get all my ideas out through art.”

Where to find a chosen community

Attending community-led events can also help, Salari added. The counsellor pointed to Toronto community centre The 519, where she also works as the Manager of Direct Services, as one example of where people can “feel connected, feel a sense of belonging, and build a sense of community for themselves.”

Vancouver’s West End Community Centre Association holds events ranging from community tree decorating to a seniors Christmas dinner. Additionally, Halifax’s Seaforth Hall is hosting a A Merry Little Christmas Party, while Calgary’s Joy and Vitality Centre is celebrating with a community Christmas potluck.

Those who have experienced estrangement should also take advantage of public spaces, such as a public library, a coffee shop, or even the mall. This can be good when they are feeling lonely and “aren’t able to sit with [those feelings] by themselves,” the counsellor explained.

Estrangement is still not widely accepted by society.
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images
Estrangement is still not widely accepted by society.

Coping with estrangement during the holidays can be tough, regardless of whether or not it happened by choice. For more resources, check out U.K. estrangement charity Stand Alone.

Facebook is also a good resource for support groups. Whether you’re estranged from your family or are a parent with an estranged adult child, there is a group for you. Other free online forums include 7 Cups, where you can chat with someone 24/7 about family stress, or The Hope Line, where teens and young adults can chat with “HopeCoaches” about whatever challenges they are facing.

Those looking for more personal stories of estrangement can also check out Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement. Author Harriet Brown tells her story of estrangement and interviews people who are estranged to let others in a similar situation know they are not alone.

Therapy, if you can afford it, is a must

Expressing yourself through therapy and drop-in counselling is also strongly advised by both Morrison and Salari.

“Look into what is available and [how to access] it, especially before the holiday season begins or before a particular date that happens to bring up feelings of grief and loss,” Salari suggested. That way, you’ll “have that support and someone to sit down with to plan for how one can take care of themselves throughout the holidays.”

The Canadian Mental Health Association offers free phone coaching for depression and anxiety called Bounce Back. All you’ll need to participate is a referral from your family doctor. Alternatively, those seeking counselling can do an online search for “therapy” and “sliding scale” in their area to find affordable options, or use as a starting point to find suitable services for their needs.

Besides therapy, taking care of yourself can include “being in nature, exercise, healthy eating, [and] engaging in activities that are fun and meaningful,” Morrison noted.

The latter is something 62-year-old Claire (note: name has been changed for privacy) makes a priority over the holidays.

“I make myself a delicious meal, buy myself something lovely and wrap it, crack a bottle of wine, and do whatever the heck I want,” the Ontario resident, who is estranged from her four siblings by choice, told HuffPost Canada. “Sometimes I would offer to work so another co-worker could be with their family. One year, I painted my living room. Another, I watched goofy comedies all day long with my cats.”

“Find something to keep you content and at peace,” Claire said.

Are you in a crisis? If you need help, contact Crisis Services Canada at their website or by calling 1-833-456-4566. If you know someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, read this guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to learn how to talk about suicide with the person you’re worried about.

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