It as then that I discovered we all belong to two families: our family of choice and our family of origin. My family of choice is a colorful assortment of surrogate grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends who infuse me with love, belonging, and acceptance. My family of origin, the one into which I was born, was also brimming with love but was not a healthy family system.
- Ashley Judd
Today is Easter and we’re all hopefully enjoying a lovely long weekend with people we love and care about. Sometimes on days like today we can get really caught up comparing our situation to those of people who have strong, healthy family connections. When we do this we can end up feeling sad, lonely, disempowered and “not normal”.
This is not helped by people who have those lovely, strong family connections saying things like “Easter is a time for family”, or “At the end of the day family is what it’s all about”.
For many of us, family is not (sadly, or not so sadly) what it is all about. We may be dealing with distance, disconnection, fragmentation and feeling alone. It’s a good reminder to look around and see who is in your life that might benefit from a little extra attention or nurturing.
For those of us who are estranged, I encourage you to think about the relationships that build up your resilience and make you feel cared about and strong. My family of choice includes my beautiful daughter and her best friend (surrogate daughter), my best friend (sister of my heart), my treasured friends and colleagues who are a charming, whacky collection of intelligent, witty, intensely creative and HUGELY caring people. It includes my two adored kitties and my fur elf of a puppy. It even includes you, my wonderful readers!
Tell me about your family of choice?
Sometimes the way the grief process is commonly seen just doesn’t seem to fit for estrangement. How can resolution to grief mean “forgetting” or “getting over” or “moving on” – when those are bonds we share with our parents, or children or anyone that we love, and wish more than anything to be connected to, but for whatever reasons can’t? What if Mr Maraboli in the quote above, is wrong, and we can both carry space for a disconnected relationship and move on?
I was recently reading a research article, Attachment, Loss and Grief [Shaver, Fraley], which validated what those of us who regularly work with grief and loss already know, detachment in the face of grief is often not only not possible, but not desirable either. For some of us who may continue to search for reunification, yearn for connection balanced by sometimes anger or ambivalence about the person or relationship, it may be refreshing to know we aren’t necessarily experiencing disordered or unnatural grieving.
There isn’t a “one way fits all” for grieving. Even different relationships may inspire different grief processes. I have estranged relationships in my life where the love, caring and enduring desire for connection is unlikely to ever change or “resolve”. This doesn’t mean I am stuck in my grief, or unable to carry on with a healthy and happy life, it just means I still care, I still have room for that person and relationship. I have other estranged relationships, where the grieving process is very much complete and I have moved on.
How does this fit for you? Have you ever felt pushed to “move on”? Are you able to maintain a healthy “continued bond” that allows you to hold relationship, while also carrying on with your life? What if grieving could be more about integrating loss and changed relationship, and less about “getting over it”?
[If you'd like to read more about continued bonds, you can check out the book, Continuing Bonds: New Understandings of Grief (Death Education, Aging and Health Care). Don't let the title throw you!]
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
― Richard Buckminster Fuller
We can make a decision on days like “sibling day”, “mother’s day”, “father’s day”, birthdays – holidays like Christmas, or Thanksgiving to direct our attention to the relationships that we have in our lives that sustain and nurture us. These relationships aren’t “substitutes” or “second bests” or even “instead of’s”, they are our family.
“There is a bias that runs through so much of the older literature on how human beings respond to loss … there is a tendency to under-estimate how intensely distressing and disabling loss usually is and for how long the distress and often the disablement commonly lasts.”
- John Bowlby
Sometimes when we talk about estrangement there is an idea that we should just “get over it.” People may not understand why months, or even years later, estranged people are still grief-triggered, still holding on, still not over it. Ours is not a culture that permits extended grieving, and in fact, grief that persists longer than two months and interferes with day-to-day functioning is part of the diagnostic criteria for depressive disorders.
So what is “normal”?
The long and short of it is there is no normal. Current research about grief and loss demonstrates that the duration and quality of grieving is widely varied and that even the healthiest and hardiest of us oscillate between “hyper-activation” – a strong desire to seek proximity with the person we are missing and “deactivation” – a desire to move forward and create a new life without them. Between the two ends of the continuum, we’re busy learning to accommodate and make sense of our loss.
Yearning for connection, thinking about the other person, being caught up in the implications of loss is part of the process. Allowing ourselves to build a new life, form new connections and push away from the loss is also part of the process. Hyper-activation allows us to explore the meaning and significance of our loss and find ways of re-organizing our lives without the relationship. If this process is experienced as tolerable and manageable, it gives us the opportunity to integrate loss without losing valuable parts of our identity or history in the process. Deactivation, when it occurs without minimizing loss or suppressing our authentic feelings, is also an important part of integrating loss and allowing us to find meaning and enjoyment in new experiences and other relationships.
We can be patient with our grieving process. We can allow ourselves time. We can still feel sad.
“When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.”
- Eckhart Tolle
Those of us who are struggling with estrangement sometimes forget that we have choices, that we don’t actually have to remain locked into cycles of self-destruction, that we are not without power. We know we can’t change other people, no matter how much we’d like to, no matter how hard we try. We also know that we can contort ourselves into pretzel like shapes trying to accommodate things which rob our peace, destroy our equilibrium and leave us feeling out of control of our lives and of ourselves.
There are things we can change and things we cannot. We learn the difference, sometimes the hard way. Once we recognize that we cannot force change, it’s time to weigh up our choices.
As the Eckhart Tolle quote above says: Take action. Leave or let go of the situation. Accept it.
That is all.
Mind reading also known as: supposition, presupposition, presumption, premise, belief, expectation,conjecture, speculation, suspicion… What they all have in common is a lack of evidence.
Healthy relationships are based in mutual directness. We feel safe and create safety when we say what we mean and we mean what we say. Direct communication saves time and energy, it’s genuine and it lets everyone know where they stand. Direct communication removes game playing and does away with victimhood.
Wasteful questions: “What is (s)he thinking”. “Why did (s)he do that?” “What does (s)he want?” “How does (s)he feel?”
You don’t know. Without a conversation and a bit of reality checking with the person in question, you can’t know.
Mind reading takes us out of the present moment, it preoccupies our attention and removes our power to make healthy, informed, life affirming choices.
You don’t know.
In order for an apology, an offer of amends, to genuinely occur, it must be predicated by mutuality, a willingness to be vulnerable and to receive another’s vulnerability. There must be a willingness to trust; to trust that its safe to offer an apology, to trust that the person offering the apology is sincere. The person seeking amends must be prepared, the person receiving amends must equally be prepared.
We often think of an apology as something we give or something we are given. In actual fact, good apologies are a breathtaking dance of mutual vulnerability and trust.
We cannot dance this dance alone. Amends are not a one person affair.
“I understand that some of you may have already tried to make amends. But, most of the time when people feel like they’re written a good letter of amends, they actually haven’t. Not because they didn’t want to. But, because it’s really difficult to do!”
- Joshua Coleman
It’s no good telling people who have apologized and I’m sorry’d, bent over backwards and given up self in multiple attempts to repair relationships, mend bridges and find love, acceptance and approval – that it’s their fault if it doesn’t happen. Sometimes, it is not the poor quality of apology, it’s the resolute indifference of the listener.