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  • Danusia Atkinson

Family estrangement at Christmas; what if sometimes love isn’t all around?

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

Christmas is for family, at least that’s what the adverts and films would have us believe. It can feel that everywhere you turn, there are images of happy and contended families celebrating together but what if that isn’t the case for you?

Christmas is often romanticised and we can see this in depictions of the birth of Jesus. Whether you are religious or not, the Christmas story is no doubt an image that you have seen. In the nativity, Mary and Joseph are engaged to be married when she becomes pregnant. Joseph considers divorcing her but is convinced by an angel who comes to him, that they should be married and that the baby is the son of God. Some people believe that despite Joseph’s faith, others around him aren’t so sure and the couple is excluded from their families and their villages, the only homes they would have known, due to the stigma of pregnancy before marriage. We have an idyllic image of Jesus being born in the stable as there is no room in the inn but some believe that the reality is that Joseph and Mary would have had nowhere else to go. Shunned by their families and denied shelter, they were left alone.

Estrangement is not uncommon in the UK, Stand Alone believes that “1 in 5 families are touched by family estrangement and its consequences” (“Hidden Voices”). Stand Alone is a UK-based charity that works with adults estranged from family, seeking to support people and reduce the stigma of estrangement. In their research paper “Hidden voices, family estrangement in Adulthood”, Stand Alone surveyed 1,629 members of the Stand Alone community to find out some of the most common difficulties with estrangement. 90% of the member found the holiday season especially hard.

68% felt there was a stigma, some sort of judgment towards them, and whilst most had shared details of their estrangement with partners and close friends, many struggled to share with others in their lives. Those who spoke to others found blame and judgment, dismissal and disbelief, and avoidance unhelpful whereas listening, reassurance, and understanding were helpful responses from others.

Family estrangement is undoubtedly complicated and confusing, there may be many reasons why contact is limited, it may be hard to understand why contact has stopped completely and for some, there may be a great relief, but for others total devastation. As a society, we have rituals to hope us accept the death of a family member but what support and rituals are there for an estrangement?

This loss can be thought of as an ambiguous loss- there is no sense of conclusion, and we lack the rituals and social support to understand and connect with others. This can leave us struggling to live with our loss, getting stuck in painful grief that can impact our self-esteem and our ability to form other relationships. This is particularly the case if we are unable to talk about it to others and experience stigma. If you are interested in ambiguous loss, please look out for future blog posts as I going to continue to explore this painful but little-acknowledged loss in the new year.

If you are estranged from family and are finding it hard to cope, do reach out for some support. Stand Alone support groups may help or do think about reaching out to a therapist. With the help of a therapist, you can start to understand what may have happened and be given the support to explore and perhaps move forward with your experience.

You can contact me for counselling, online or in person in Sevenoaks, Kent via the contact me section of this website. To find out more about the therapy that I offer, please look at the rest of my website.

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