Enduring the loss of an adult child to estrangement is hard at any time, but the holidays can magnify our grief and pain. The holidays bring so many messages about what family is supposed to look like. We can get swept away with the images of happy families we see in advertisements, Christmas cards and Hallmark movies. We may feel overwhelmed by the shame that ours does not look like that.
If your adult child is not in your life, you know the anguish of spending a holiday season with no contact. Holidays are when we are supposed to be the happiest. It’s when families come together to celebrate their connection. It’s when parents lavish their kids and grandkids with gifts, family dinners and their favorite cookies.
The grief we experience when there is a child missing from these special times can cause us to miss the joy that is there. It’s ok to feel sad and even to allow yourself to feel the grief of not having your child there. But the one thing I have learned is that I have a choice. I can cancel the holiday and be miserable or I can acknowledge my pain, feel the sadness, and then go ahead and make Christmas for my family anyway. I have been estranged from my daughter for 10 years now, and I can tell you it does get easier.
In order to make it through the holidays with less pain, I have learned a few things about how to make it easier for myself and not rob myself and my other children of the joy we deserve at Christmas. I am sharing a few ideas that may be helpful.
1. Look up at the ones in your life that offer you love and support every day.
It is easy to get so burrowed in with our grief and shame that we forget to recognize that there are many people still in our lives that love us. Don’t give them the short end of the stick because of the one person who is not there with you. Those who love and support us deserve our presence. Look them in the eyes. Give them your full attention. Let yourself laugh. Marvel at the joy of connection and practice gratitude for the ones who are still with you.
2. Don’t allow your estranged child to be in control of your happiness.
Of course you are aching for the one who is missing, but why should that one person determine how your holiday (and life) is going to play out? You are in charge of your life and your happiness — take charge right now and don’t miss out on the delights of the season.
Take a long walk solo, or with someone you love. Bundle up if you live where it’s cold and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. Exposing yourself to the light has been proven to boost your mood. Plus, moving our bodies and getting our blood pumping releases endorphins that can help us feel happier.
You are in charge of your holiday. When you think about your child, send them love, wish them well and then get on with your day. Again, focus on doing things for those whose love and presence you still have in your life. And don’t forget to add yourself to this list. You deserve to make magic for yourself, whatever that may look like for you.
3. Don’t agonize over gifts and letters for your estranged child.
If in the past you have sent letters and gifts and never received a reply — or worse, had your gifts returned — then you need to rethink whether it is helpful to continue reaching out. You may think that by ceasing to send gifts and letters your child will feel that you have abandoned them. But consider this: if your child has asked for no contact, it may be that the most loving thing you can do is skip the gifts this year. Your child may feel that you are violating their boundaries by sending gifts when they have asked you not to contact them. If you are ever hoping to reconcile, this may not be the best way to do it.
Instead, consider buying gifts for a local homeless shelter or other community organization that is doing a gift drive. Put all the love you have for your child into the selection of the gift. Send your child love when you deliver it. Don’t tell them you are doing this, though. This is just for you.
Not sending gifts frees you from the agony of wondering if they got them, or why they haven’t responded, which can create more pain for you. Give yourself the freedom to let it go this year.
4. Be gentle with yourself when you do experience grief.
It is natural for you to feel especially sad at this “most wonderful time of the year.” It seems that everyone around you is happy and enjoying their families. It can feel unfair that you are missing someone you love so much — especially when you know they are alive and well somewhere on this planet.
Let yourself feel the sadness, but don’t let yourself stay there. Sit quietly for a few minutes and have a little chat with yourself. Put your hand on your heart and say to yourself, “This is really hard. I know how much you are hurting. It feels like your heart is going to crumble into pieces. You think you cannot bear the weight of this grief. I understand. But I know you are strong. You will get through this, and you will be happy again.” Talk gently to yourself, just like you would to a friend going through a hard time.
Let yourself cry if you need to, then take some deep breaths and get up and go about your day. Find little ways to bring joy. Make your favorite hot drink. Put on some happy music. Bake cookies. Even if you did these things with your child, do them for yourself, now. You deserve happiness, too.
5. Remember you are not alone.
While I am sorry to say that it’s true, there are literally thousands, if not millions of parents who are experiencing the exact same thing right now. Parent-child estrangements are common, even though most people do not talk about it because there is so much shame a parent feels when their child walks away from them. It is too hard to talk about, so it is easy to feel isolated and alone in your grief. Let me assure you, you are not. I am walking this path with you right now.
You have permission to be happy.
Don’t let your holidays be ruined by the loss of a child. It is difficult, but not impossible, to find joy in the festivities with your family and friends that are still in your life. It is ok for you to be happy. You are not dishonoring your child by enjoying the holidays.
Remember to take care of your physical and emotional health. Take a walk. Play fun music and dance. Bake something special. Light some candles and serve dinner on the best china. You are in charge of how special and joyful your holidays are.
Believe me, it does get easier. When you make an effort to let go and get on with your life the loss is softened, the grief lessens, and you can begin to find peace with your life as it is. All you have control over is yourself. Take your life back and don’t miss your holidays.
If you find that you can’t do any of these things and can only manage to survive this year, be gentle with yourself. It takes time. But keep this list in your back pocket for the time when you may feel stronger.
May you find a measure of joy this holiday season. I am wishing you peace.