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How to cope with estrangement at Christmas

how to cope with estrangement at Christmas

Dealing with the pain of estrangement can be difficult at the best of times, let alone when it's Christmas and the absence of family may be more noticeable. After a difficult year of restrictions, hearing about the 'Christmas bubbles' some families are forming may also add to the feeling of loss that estrangement can bring, so we asked gransnetters for their tips and advice on how to cope with estrangement at Christmas time. 

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Seven ways to cope with family estrangement at Christmas 

1. Focus on yourself and what you want to do

"On Christmas Day I got up early, had several cups of tea, fed the dogs and then wrapped up warm and took them for a long, slow walk. We got back home, I made a hot drink, put the fire on and cuddled up with the dogs until we'd all thawed out.

My Christmas dinner was egg and chips with brown bread and butter and then I curled up with the dogs and watched three Star Wars films, one after the other. It was wonderful! I went to bed happy, relaxed and ready for whatever was coming next. Please don't think of Christmas Day alone, but of Christmas Day on your own - a vastly different kettle of fish."

Whether you're alone for Christmas, or spending it with other family and friends, try to create a day including things you enjoy and that will make you happy. It could be that you ignore traditions and do something you've always wanted to do, for example, an alternative feast and film marathon like this gransnetter, or make the day as festive as possible (with all the trimmings). The important thing is that you try to make plans (whether alone or with others) that will bring you joy. Stuck for ideas? Check out our page on things to do if you're alone for Christmas.

One gransnetter recommends doing something altruistic to raise your spirits: "Volunteer! There are so many people in need this time of year, and lots of amazing organisations. Focusing on giving to others in need will help you embrace what the season is all about, peace and goodwill. You’ll feel so good about your good deeds, you’ll forget to feel bad."

If you're deliberating whether to decorate or not, one gransnetter has this advice: "If you've always celebrated Christmas, decorated your home and your tree, don't stop. It's very tempting to not bother because it's just too painful but you can't ignore it, not really. You see homes with their lovely decorations and, for me, to not do my best to embrace this time of the year would simply reinforce what we have lost, and make it harder see what we still have."


2. Talk to a trusted friend

"I would talk to your friends and get it out in the open. You may find that talking about it helps get it in perspective and makes it more manageable. I would have a plan for the day, make the most of the things that you have and do something that will keep you busy and engaged. I am sure that there will be posters here on the day too."

Christmas is a hard time of year to be estranged from family, so it's important that you have a support network in place in case you need to talk through your feelings and acknowledge the sadness you might feel. Communicating how you feel to a trusted friend (who isn't involved in the estrangement) is important for your mental health, and they can always offer support in the form of taking your mind off things by having a good catch-up too. 


3. Or chat to the Gransnet community

"Most importantly, talk about how you feel and if you think that those closest to you are 'all talked out', talk to us here on GN. You are not alone. Like me, and I'm sure it's the same for so many estranged people, you'll be surprised at just how many are going through what we are."

If you are unsure who to open up to, the Gransnet forums are open 24/7 and there's a dedicated estrangement topic, where users share advice and offer support to those in similar situations. There'll also be quite a few of the Gransnet community around at Christmas, especially with restrictions meaning many are spending the day alone, so whether it's for support or virtual merriment to cheer you up, you can chat anonymously on the forums. 

4. Remember it's just a day 

"I think Christmas can be a minefield most years, but this year is particularly problematic with bubbles and worries about infection. I think there is so much hype surrounding Christmas and the sometimes unrealistic picture of saccharine family harmony."

The pressure Christmas can cause shouldn't be underestimated - a survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than half of adults in the UK are worried about the mental health of a loved one over the festive period. With sadness caused by estrangement on top of the usual Christmas stresses, it can seem overwhelming - particularly if it's your first year estranged. Try to remember that it is a short period, and to take each step and day at a time, as Christmas will soon be over and you're not alone in feeling this way. We have a page on how to deal with loneliness at Christmas that might be useful in finding some coping mechanisms.


5. Avoid activities that will make you feel worse

"If there are things that you feel are just too hard to do, don't do them. It's eight years for us now and I still can't go to our church's children's nativity service or watch them on tv, so I don't."

Identify triggers and avoid them where possible. If it's one of your first Christmases estranged, this might be difficult as you may not necessarily know the things that will bring on feelings of loss until you encounter them, but if the thought of going to or watching something makes you feel uneasy about the memories it may provoke, it's best to give it a miss if you can. 

It might also be worth avoiding social media such as Facebook and Instagram around the time if you feel you may become upset at photos of families spending Christmas together. In this instance, it's important not to compare yourself and your situation to others, as this is likely to be detrimental to you, and bear in mind that not everything on social media is as it seems.

6. Think carefully before you communicate

"We've never sent anything to our estranged son which to be honest is purely for self preservation, as neither of us could cope with anything we'd sent being returned, or being castigated for sending him something in the first place. Do what feels right for you, do what will help you get through your first or yet another Christmas with estrangement."

The sentimentality of Christmas may incite nostalgia, and make you want to pick up the phone or put pen to paper to try to reconcile, but before you make any hasty decisions think through whether this is the right thing for you to do. If you receive no reply, will it make you feel worse than before? Would you want to make contact like this if it was any other time of year? Connecting with an estranged relative is obviously a very sensitive topic, but it's essential that you think things through clearly and objectively before making any big decisions. Our page on estrangement has more information on this.

If you're struggling with not seeing your grandchildren over Christmas, and are unable to make contact, one gransnetter recommends creating a memory box and putting a card in there for them each year. This way you are acknowledging your grandchild's Christmas without creating further hostility with their parents: "This will be the first year we haven't sent them a card in the post, we've decided we don't need to do that anymore, so we will be getting a card for each of them to go in the memory box."

7. Be kind to yourself and get help if you need it

It's been an unimaginably difficult year for many, so go easy on yourself, and remember that even when coping with loss through estrangement, you're still allowed to feel joy and happiness at Christmas. If you are really struggling and feeling low, it's important that you seek advice and guidance to help you through this hard time. Here are some organisations which may help if you're worried about your mental health:

  • Relate - offer relationship counseling, including family issues
  • Mind - offer mental health support 
  • Silverline - helpline for older people
  • Samaritans - if you urgently need emotional support, you can contact them by emailing [email protected] or by calling 116 123.


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