How to Handle the Stress of Christmas – Family Estrangement

For most people, at some time in their lives, Christmas has been about family. There are often good memories about that time. Being part of a group. Feeling loved. Feeling included. And Christmas is always spoken of as a family time.

If you are estranged from family members, Christmas is a time where you are most likely to remember that estrangement. And it hurts.

Family members usually don’t become estranged in a moment. If you are the one who made the choice to remove yourself from those family members, the hurt that lead to that most likely built up over time. And the decision to cut off contact was most likely not made lightly, but made after a lot of thought over an extended period of time. And the estrangement hurts.

If you have been the one a family member has walked out on, there are often the questions about why this happened. Trying to understand. Trying to make sense of it. Feeling hurt.

No matter what has led to you being here, in the lead up to Christmas, remembering family members you know you can’t talk to or see, it hurts.

So how do you deal with it?

Like any loss, estrangement leads to grief. Grief takes time to process. The pain may seem to diminish with time, but it will never go.

Part of the grieving process is expressing your grief. Allowing it to be spoken of and acknowledged. Allowing time for the healing and accepting the scars.

A caring friend may be willing to listen to you. You may choose to visit a counsellor. You may find expressing yourself with art activities is helpful. Movement may help. Writing poetry or journaling can be helpful as well.

Acknowledge the hurt. Don’t try to hide it. What you express hurts less than what you hide.

Reflect on the relationship and find a symbol to express how you grew through that relationship and how you have grown as a result of the end of that relationship.

The symbol can be anything. Clients of mine have chosen a number of symbols:

  • A colourful spinner for the garden;
  • A butterfly picture;
  • A bird bath;
  • Made a collage of pictures out of magazines;
  • Taken photos; and
  • Collected shells from the beach.

They all found the act of reflection, choosing the symbol and being able to see it helped them learn how to fit the estrangement into their lives.

Christmas will hurt. Acknowledge the pain. Find new meaning in the Christmas you are having now. Talk to someone if you need to. Be compassionate to yourself. Be okay to hurt and be okay to enjoy the Christmas you have.


How to handle the stress of Christmas – The Need to be Perfect.

One of the biggest problems in our society is the need to be perfect. On the television there are advertisements and whole programs on that perfect presentation. And if you open a magazine to escape the pressure, there are likely to be articles about the perfect dinner layout and the perfect Christmas menu. Not surprising that many people feel the pressure to be perfect at Christmas. And that is stressful

If this if your stress this Christmas, there are some helpful things you can do to reduce that stress.

The first is to ask yourself what that need for perfection is all about. Are you trying to prove yourself to someone?

The expectations of others can be very difficult, especially when they are imposed on you by an important relative, such as your mother.

Christmas is such an important family time for many and it is easy to get caught up in the pressures that existed in your childhood. Especially when you are surrounded by messages of perfection.

So how do you deal with that?

That depends on how great the need for that relative’s approval is.

Sometimes being aware of that pressure and making a decision not to be affected by it is enough.

For others, brief mindfulness meditations are really helpful.

One such meditation is known as 4-7-8 breathing. To do this, find somewhere where you will not be disturbed. Sit comfortably but upright. Set a timer for five minutes. Closing your eyes will make it easier to focus. Breathe in so that your tummy rises for the count of four. Hold your breath for the count of seven. Then breathe out through pursed lips for the count of eight. While you do this, focus on your breathing and the counting of that breath. Put other thoughts out of your mind. If thoughts creep back, just gently push them away. Focus on this breathing pattern until the five minutes is completed. Practise this several times a day. Three to five is very effective. Most people find this really calming.

If you find the significant relative has more impact on you and is harder to ignore, then it can be helpful to see a counsellor who specialises in treating adults who have had difficulty in childhood. Seeing a counsellor is, of course, a long term solution. In the interim, try the 4-7-8 breathing meditation to get you through this Christmas as stress free as possible.



How to Handle the Stress of Christmas – Being Alone

Christmas is a season full of relationships. Watch the television, read a magazine, go to the movies, look at billboards and they tell you that. Buy this for Mum. Take your family to this restaurant for Christmas lunch. Your children will love this toy. Buy this for your partner. Receive this from that special someone. Sounds wonderful.

But what if you are alone? What do you do if there is no-one to buy you something? How do you celebrate Christmas, or just survive the season, when you are on your own and you don’t want to be?

Some people plan a special day with a lovely ‘just for one’ meal. And they treat themselves to a special present.

Others volunteer to help serve lunch for Homeless People.

Others go to lunches put on by local churches that are for people who are on their own at Christmas.

Some get together with others they know.

Then there is the option of staying at home with a good book, or a movie marathon.

How the day is for you depends on how you choose for it to be.

It is not easy. If it is not your choice, being alone can be painful. Christmas and Birthdays are big reminders of something you may be able to push aside at other times of the year.

If being alone is something that still hurts, then it will be harder this year to accept and live with.

At Christmas time be kind to yourself. Acknowledge you hurt. Acknowledge that it is okay to hurt. Don’t pretend it doesn’t hurt if it does. Be kind you yourself and allow yourself to have sadness. But also allow yourself to have joy if it creeps in.

Plan something special to do at Christmas.

You may like to plan a special outfit to wear. You may put it on and tell that amazing person in the mirror they look fabulous. You may enjoy putting up a tree and decorations. You may put a present for you under the tree. Something you have wanted all year. Something special. Your treat because it is Christmas and you are special. You may choose to go somewhere that has special meaning for you. Whatever you do, make it special for you.

Talk to a counsellor if you need to. And on Christmas Day, remember Lifeline is still manned and you are not inconveniencing the operators if you call.

Remember. You may be alone at Christmas in a world that seems to leave the alone out of the picture, but there are many people out there who are alone at Christmas. You may not see them around but you are one of a group. And you are special. You matter. You are important.

In the rush of family images around Christmas, never forget how much you matter.


How to handle the stress of Christmas – Grief and Loss

Christmas is a time of great busyness. There are presents to buy. Food to purchase and prepare. There are Christmas events to attend. Family visits to prepare for. The list is endless and varied. The decorations and stories say peaceful times. But for the individual the extra busyness can be anything but relaxing.

The emotional impact of Christmas is massive. It is the undercurrent to all the busyness. It is the racing heart. The sadness. The rising panic. The anger. The loneliness.

Life doesn’t stop because it is Christmas. It is likely to impact more at Christmas. There are all the reminders of the hurts you can more easily manage at other times of the year.

When you have lost someone you love through death or estrangement, it can feel harder at Christmas, which traditionally includes family.

So how do you cope with that?

It is important to acknowledge your feelings. Yes you hurt. You may hurt terribly. And you always will hurt. Trying to push the hurt away will only make it have a stronger impact on your life. Be okay to sit with it. Be okay to have your sad times. Be okay to have a Christmas that is different.

For some people, there is a belief that it is wrong to be happy after what has been lost. Do you feel that way? Grief involves a wide range of emotions including happiness. Being happy doesn’t mean you are not hurting. The hurt will always be there. So accept the happiness when it comes. Just as you need to accept the sadness when it comes.

This Christmas may be very different from previous ones. You may not feel as happy. But it doesn’t have to be a horrible Christmas.

  • Jo sets a place for her estranged son at the table and prays someday he will sit at it.
  • Amy cooks the cake her mother used to cook and remembers her.
  • Phil visits the beach his wife loved walking on.
  • Trina lights a Jasmine Candle to remember her murdered daughter.
  • Lorraine places ornaments that represent the new life she has created after the devastation of her divorce.

They all acknowledge the sadness. They all say the first few years were really hard. All of them find talking to a Counsellor is really helpful.

It is possible to survive Christmas when grieving. You may not be as happy as you once were. In time you will find a new way to be. A new way to experience happy moments. A new way to find happiness at Christmas. On that journey you may find visiting a Counsellor helpful.

If you would like to talk, ring 0409396608 for an appointment.

Please Listen to Me

“Why is it I always seek to understand others when they are rude to me but I don’t get the same consideration? It’s not fair!”

Ilse slumped down in the chair, tears of frustration mixed with sorrow coursing down her cheeks. She had come to see me because, at the end of a distressing week she had snapped at her sister-in-law’s unreasonable demand. Now she was the pariah of the family.

Her sister-in-law was always rude and demanding and normally she forgave her because she could understand the need behind the rudeness. She had spoken to this woman in calm times and told her how her words hurt. She had asked her not to speak to her like that again. Her sister-in-law didn’t acknowledge her behaviour was bad and she didn’t apologise for the hurt she caused. Other members of the family agreed with Ilse that the sister-in-law behaved badly. So why was it that she was being treated like a terrible person because she had snapped at her? She had had a terrible week. Her best friend died of cancer on Tuesday and on Friday her husband received a cancer diagnosis. Friday evening her sister-in-law had berated her for not ordering the serviettes for her parent’s wedding anniversary celebration in two months. Ilse had snapped at her.

To her horror, she was berated by other family members for her response. What she wanted was understanding and compassion and her family gave her none. This is why she came to see me.

Maybe you can relate to Ilse’s experience.

When you are hurting and needing support, who do you turn to? People often turn to family and friends. But what if they aren’t available, or they are the problem?

This is where a visit to a counsellor can be really helpful. Ilse came to see me and was able to be heard, to feel understand, and to receive compassion. She was able to find a safe place to express all the pain, fear and helplessness she was feeling. In the session she was able to discover how to move forward. How to cope with the stresses in her life. How to sit with the hurt she was feeling.

Do you need understanding and compassion? Maybe I can help you too?

If you would like to sit in a safe place where you can be heard and receive compassion then ring 0409396608 for an appointment.


Loss interview

Nan was interviewed on Brisbane community radio station TRIPLE YYY 87.6FM, where she talked about working with people who have suffered loss. In this interview she discusses the many types of loss that people encounter and the difficulties associated with that.

When your abuser dies and the pain you feel is not love

This story is about Anna. This is not her real name. That has been changed, along with a few details, to protect her privacy. She wanted to share her story because she realised other people struggle with the convention that says you should grieve for a parent who dies, even when they abused, hated and rejected you. Here is Anna’s story.

There was recently a death in my family. My mother in law, with whom I had a very difficult relationship, died. My husband was sad, but not surprised. She was 94 and her death was not unexpected. My children were not really moved by it. They all said she did not mean anything to them. Sadly, she was not the sort of grandmother who forms relationships with her grandchildren. It caused me to think of my own mother’s death over ten years ago. She was also incapable of forming a relationship with her grandchildren, or with her daughter for that matter. I cried when she died and in the aftermath felt my world had fallen apart. I had lost the definition of who I was. As time went on I realised my tears were not about love for her. I realised I had no feelings for her other than anger at the way she had rejected me and deliberately set out to put me down and had not protected me from my father’s abuse. My tears were about the lost opportunity to ever hear her say “I love you”. The last time I saw her, she looked at me with such dislike, and it was really hurtful. I knew she died never having loved or even liked me. And the only sin I had committed was that of being an unwanted child, which was not my choice.

Facing my mother in law’s funeral brought up questions about why people cry at funerals. There are those who genuinely love the person who has died and are grieving the loss of a beloved companion. There are those who are grieving the loss of the opportunity to understand why the person behaved as they did towards them. Or the lost opportunity to hear ‘I love you’, or ‘I am sorry’. I have read that when a parent dies, the unresolved issues between the child and the parent must first be resolved before grieving for the loss of the loved one can take place. I realised that with my mother, resolving the issues identified that there was no love in the relationship. The grief I felt was purely the grief of never being loved and accepted. The little baby still seeking the acceptance that ensures survival.
This year, my mother would have been 90. On that day it was two months short of 13 years since she died. Every year I deliberately ignore her birthday and do not acknowledge it. But this year I decided to acknowledge it and to have a little time on my own. Just me talking to her. The words were not be ones of love. They were ones laying to rest the grief I have felt these past 13 years for what I never had. To acknowledge that love never grew in that relationship but I no longer grieve for that. The pain will never go away, but it has become easier as I have learned that who I am is my definition, not my mother’s warped, controlling one. That I can be a better person than she was. That there were people who liked her and loved her, but I was not one of them. She may have been a great wife, a great mother to some of her children, and a great friend. But to me she was a really crap mother and this is not incompatible with the way other people saw her.

My father is 92 and I know a day will come, sooner than later, when I will have to face the same situation. Any grieving I will do will be for what he never gave me. The difference this time will be the time I have had to accept what he did and establish my own identity.

The message I want to share from this is that you may go to the funeral of your abusive or rejecting parent and you may only feel sorrow for what they never gave you. I want you to know that is okay to feel that way. It is not selfish. You had every right to expect those things from your parent. It doesn’t make you an uncaring person. It makes you alive and real and very human. Others may not want to know about your pain and may seek to shut you down. Don’t allow it. It is important to grieve for what you never had as well as what you lost.

Sitting with the discomfort

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you have suffered a great loss, or a major disappointment? You are in a place where you are reeling from the shock and hurting so badly. And then someone says to you.

“It’s for the best you know.”
“He’s in a better place.”
”Did you hear so-and-so suffered (insert apparently worse situation than you are in).”
“You’ll get over it.”
“Aren’t you over that yet?”
Or other hurtful things that I have not listed.

And all you want is for someone to sit and listen, maybe put their arm around, or cry with you, or just be with you and offer compassion.
Why is it so hard for people to do that?

Yes, our society teaches us to ‘fix’ problems and many of us are programmed to offer advice and suggestions and fix other people’s problems. That is unhelpful. People want to be heard. Not fixed.

But that doesn’t explain the uncaring comments.

In truth most of us feel very uncomfortable with pain in other people. We don’t know what to do about it. When we don’t know what to do about something, we try to push it away. But what if we just acknowledged the discomfort and sat with it anyway? What if, instead of trying to shut the other person down (because that is what those comments are doing) we just sit with them, in their pain, and do nothing?

Yes we will feel uncomfortable, but what is wrong with that?

The person in pain will feel a lot better being able to sit with their grief and pain, have it acknowledged, being given permission to grieve, and feeling they are not so alone because someone is prepared to sit with them.

And maybe someday, someone will do that for you too.

Childhood trauma interview

Nan was interviewed on Brisbane community radio station TRIPLE YYY 87.6FM, where she talked about the ongoing impact of childhood trauma on adult lives.  She details her Communicate, Collaborate, Choice to counselling trauma sufferers.