The Etiquette of Christmas Estrangement
“Good manners have much to do with the emotions. To make them ring true, one must feel them, not merely exhibit them.
Holidays stir the pot for many people who are estranged from their families, but Christmas seems particularly difficult. One of the reasons this may be so is because the very nature of Christmas is to reconnect in a spirit of generosity. We send cards, buy gifts, make plans to share meals and do things together. We generally continue to hold this view of the Christmas holiday, and do the things we are neatly programmed to do as part of our traditions and celebrations, and then bump into the blank spot on our Christmas list. The blank spot is the name of the person we are estranged from and they are definitely the most difficult person on our Christmas list to shop for.
“I’m estranged from my father, but as a gesture of good will I would like to send him a card. Is this okay?”
“I don’t want anything to do with my sister, but I feel terrible not acknowledging my niece and nephew. Can I send a gift?”
“I have been estranged from my grandmother for 4 years. She has sent me a gift should I send it right back unopened? Obviously I can’t accept a gift from someone I never want to speak to?”
“I am estranged from my mother and most of my extended family. They have now started freezing out my children. Should I buy them gifts and pretend they are from their family?”
These are just a few of the comments and questions you are sending me, Dear Readers and at the risk of sounding like the Ann Landers of family estrangement, I am going to give you some things to ponder.
1-No two instances of family estrangement are the same. What works brilliantly for me, may backfire terribly for you in your family. Let’s start the advice giving by acknowledging that you know your family circumstances best and ultimately if something does not fit for you, it’s not a good idea for you. Trust yourself.
2- Check your motives. Think about why you want to give. Often we are triggered at Christmas time to reach out and connect with family members, even though it may not be in our best interests. Consider whether by sending a gift or a card you are opening a door that you’d really rather stayed shut. Consider what you feel. Is giving informed by guilt? By shame? By obligation? As the Amy Vanderbilt quote above suggests, if we’re doing something from the wrong feeling place, it is unlikely to ring true – and more importantly, is likely to leave us feeling badly.
-3 Consider your resilience. Think of the best/worst case scenarios. Consider whether you have the reserves and resilience to deal with them. If you extend yourself and make an overture and it is rejected, how are you going to feel? Can you give without having any expectations? This is not about being negative or thinking of the worst, it’s about giving from the heart and ensuring you can look after yourself if it goes sideways.
4- Yes, do think of the children! Family estrangement is grown up business. If it is possible to leave children out of it – please do. Something as simple as a card can make the difference between another generation learning to cope through distance and one which understands that difficulty in one relationship is not an excuse to obliterate all other connections too. Think really carefully about this one.
5- Graciousness and gratitude. If someone you are estranged from sends you a gift, consider the spirit it is offered in. Even if you do not desire any connection whatsoever, think about whether sending the gift back is a means of self-care, or a means of punishing the other person? Do the right thing. You’ll feel better for it.
6- Don’t fake it. If your family is not buying or giving for your children it hurts. It hurts them and it hurts you too. This is a BIG family estrangement owie – as the implications are enormous. We can live with knowing we will not have access to family, but it may break our hearts that our kids will grow up marinating in disconnection and distance.
Any time there is a special occasion involving children, we can find ourselves feeling very badly indeed for our kids, as well as for ourselves. This extends outward to extended family who do not feel able to connect with children or young people whom they love and care about, because they are estranged from their adults.
Despite all the pain and anger this may stir up, we need to be honest with our kids. Age appropriate honest. We don’t make excuses and lie for people. We also don’t demonize them. We need to let kids know that they will not get acknowledgment or gifts from certain people ie. grandparents, the way that their friends do, but that it doesn’t mean they aren’t important or loved. That’s right, we take the high moral ground around our children. We explain that there is pain, hurt feelings and disconnection AND that it doesn’t mean the missing family members don’t love and care for them. We give them an alternate story, that is capacity building and life enhancing. We give them a chance to break the legacy of estrangement.
7- Make new traditions and rituals which acknowledge disconnection and estrangement. Perhaps at the family Christmas meal a small toast or prayer can go out for all the family who are missing. Perhaps you burn a candle through the Christmas season to remember those who are absent. Acknowledging the existence of our family is affirming, even when we are not in relationship to them. Even when we are still angry and still hurting.
8- If you can give and you want to give, and you can manage to do it without expectation – give!