Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, covid-19 has claimed more than 750,000 lives in the United States. For the second year in a row, the holidays will prove to be an exercise in enduring grief, loss, and pain for the millions whose loved ones have died.
Nevertheless, I will be grieving during the holidays: I will be mourning estranged loved ones rather than those who are deceased. And I will not be alone.
In conducting research for his 2020 book “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them,” Cornell University sociologist Karl Pillemer found that more than one-quarter of Americans reported living with active estrangement from a relative. “Extrapolated to the U.S. adult population, that’s around 67 million people,” he wrote. And his research was done before the coronavirus pandemic and 2020 election likely created even more division between families — and friends.
That’s a lot of people experiencing a version of loss that doesn’t get much airtime in the larger discussion of grief. I believe it’s time for a more nuanced discussion about this kind of grief and how to deal with it during the holidays.
Estrangement-related grief amounts from a loss more ambiguous than that associated with death, which is why it has come to be called “ambiguous loss.”
“You feel like you lost the person, but they’re still sitting there,” said licensed psychologist Lindsay Gibson, author of the book “Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents.”
“The grief over an estranged or toxic familial relationship may be one of the most unique and painful forms of grief,” said Ramani Durvasula, clinical psychologist, consultant and author of three books, including “‘Don’t You Know Who I Am?’: How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility.” Still, the stigma around estrangement leads many to be silent about their experiences.
“Other people in your life may take umbrage at people using the word grief,” Durvasula said. “The attitude then becomes, ’If you’re grieving, pick up the phone and call them.’” Or they may offer well-intentioned but unsolicited advice, said Paul Krauss, a Michigan-based licensed therapist and clinical director of Health For Life Counseling in Grand Rapids. “Their advice can make a person feel even worse about their choices,” he said.
Krauss said the discomfort related to estrangement can intensify during the holidays in particular, when people are inundated with messages about “going home for the holidays or the holidays as a season of forgiveness and reconciliation.” These messages come from all directions, he said: the worlds of advertising and entertainment as well as from relatives, acquaintances and friends. Experiencing stigma attached to estrangement, Pillemer said, “occurs even more so during the holidays.”
And while there are plenty of suggestions for how to deal with grief over the death of a loved one during the holidays — such as displaying framed pictures, lighting candles or cooking special holiday dishes — that’s not the case for ambiguous grief. “There is no grief ritual when it comes to toxic relationships, and those people are still walking around in the world,” Durvasula said. “It’s a loss that’s not allowed to be spoken.”
Durvasula offered some scenarios and skills for navigating the holidays emotionally intact. “Choose the holiday tradition that felt the least authentic and most invalidating and [re-create] it in a way that feels real to you,” she said. Because the type of food served at meals is often a holiday ritual itself, one easy way to re-create a tradition involves food. “For example, if I’m a vegan and no one in my family respected my veganism, I’m having a plant-based holiday meal, and I’m going to honor that.”
For some, spending the holidays estranged from loved ones can be terribly lonely. One way of navigating this emotion is through what Durvasula refers to as “intentionality.” “I tell clients to do a guided meditation. Close your eyes and imagine what the previous holidays have been like with the people you’re grieving.” By remembering the discomfort you endured during holidays before the estrangement, you may be able to reframe your current feelings of loneliness.
A more concrete way to remind yourself of toxic holidays past, Durvasula says, is to create a list of events, aggressions or other bad behaviors that defined those occasions. “As a person gets melancholy going into this time, they can look at this list,” she said. But, she said, don’t stop with a list of negative experiences. Durvasula also suggests creating a “counter list” of all of the things you might do differently to lift your spirits. “The idea is looking forward to instead of dreading,” Durvasula said.
Gibson suggests that people who are struggling with grief during the holidays create a ritual or ceremony to acknowledge their loss. “It doesn’t have to be fancy … lighting a candle, or writing an angry letter and then burning it,” she said. “Some kind of ceremony that grieves for what we didn’t get to have. Honoring those experiences is important.” By establishing such grief rituals, people might develop the emotional fortitude to move through the holidays psychologically intact.
Krauss, of Health for Life counseling, advises using the holiday season to cultivate relationships with people who respect boundaries and belief systems. “As we approach the holidays, I would recommend that people facing complicated grief and estrangement reach out to others who may have had similar experiences.”
Krauss also recommends journaling and extra therapy sessions during these weeks. “Writing down one’s thoughts in a journal can also be very helpful, because expression is key. [And] I would recommend seeking a licensed professional counselor or therapist who is well versed in relationship issues and grief and having weekly appointments as an extra support through the holidays.”
After speaking to these experts, I learned that I had already unconsciously adopted some of their recommendations. For example, my own counter list of holiday activities includes making cookies for neighbors, donating items to our local animal rescue and squeezing in as many holiday movies as possible. I look forward to participating in these new traditions with my family and — along with attending therapy and learning to accept my relationships as they are — I’m sure they will keep me going when the cold weather, holiday advertising and jolly music settle in for months on end.
Christina Wyman is a writer and teacher in Lansing, Mich., and author of the forthcoming middle-grade novel “Jawbreaker.” She’s on Twitter @CBWymanWriter.