Holiday Season Survival Guide

Holiday helpThe holidays can be one of the toughest times of the year for parents estranged from adult children and grandchildren.

It may be tempting to ignore, avoid, or downplay the holidays.

You escape by going on vacation.

You might take on heaps of volunteer service to keep busy.

Or you might just put your head under the covers and wait for the new year.

It’s not easy to escape the holidays. So this newsletter contains 7 ideas to help see you through a potentially difficult time of the year.

1. Send love

If you have their address AND they haven’t asked for no contact…

Whether you usually send gifts, a card, or nothing at all, you might just keep it simple and send a card this year.

If you’ve sent gifts before that haven’t been acknowledged, definitely just send a card. Why send gifts to people who don’t appreciate them?

If you usually send money inside a card, and it’s not acknowledged, send an e-card instead. Offer a few positive, loving words. (I use Jacquie Lawson, but there are lots of other e-cards out there.)

Do not send a card without money if you normally enclose money! It could be interpreted as punitive. With an e-card, there’s no question of enclosing anything.

Try to find a card that reflects something about your child.

If she’s a dog lover, find a card with a dog on it.

If he’s into social justice, buy a card that sends part of the proceeds to a cause he’s excited about.

If she’s a podiatrist … well, good luck finding a holiday card that features feet. You might need to widen your net.

Think about your child’s hobbies (does she speak another language?), the place where he lives (it probably won’t be snowing in Costa Rica in December), and even the music or movies they love.

Since it’s hard to find holiday cards that feature non-holiday subjects, it’s okay to send a non-holiday card with an image that fits for your child. The message you write inside will make it festive.

Your effort to match the card to your child will not go unnoticed. Unfortunately, you probably won’t hear about that right away. Each successful outreach is like a few pennies toward a 100-dollar prize.

If you don’t have their address…

Don’t have ANY way to contact your child? See #2 below. However…

If you have an email but not a physical address, send an e-card or an email with a VERY simple subject line, e.g. “Happy Hanukkah” or “Thinking of you.”

In an email you can still include a photo your child might appreciate. You can find millions of images online at

Have only a phone number? Send a SHORT, sweet text BEFORE the actual holiday. Make it something you’d say in a card, like, “Thinking of you and hoping you have a wonderful holiday. Lots of love from both of us.”

Texting before the holiday is just like sending a card.

I repeat: If you’re going to send a text, consider sending it before the holiday. Why invite rejection on a day of celebration? Keep your holiday safe from the potential of added pain. Send loving contact ahead of time, then try to let it go.

Whether it’s a snail-mail card, a text, or an email, keep every message short and sweet, e.g. “Just a note to wish you a very happy holiday season, with much love from Mom and Dad.”

This is not the time to express your real feelings, if different. Just send love, cheer, and goodwill.

2. Create a ritual

And speaking of your feelings, they’re tremendously important. Although your child can’t help you deal with them, there are ways you can process them by acknowledging, honoring and generally making room for them.

You might have survived the holidays without your child before, and found a way to get through them. If you have something that works for you, by all means use that.

If this is your first holiday season with your child, or you don’t know how you’ll handle the holidays without them, consider creating a ritual to honor the relationship and your sense of loss.

Rituals help us cope with grief and other difficult feelings by giving them a place in our lives.

Having a ritual concerning your estranged child not only provides an outlet for your feelings, but can also help process and contain them.

One example of a ritual might be singing your child’s favorite Christmas carol, and dedicating the moment to your child. The same can be done with their favorite story, their favorite food, or even their favorite family ritual.

“We’re dedicating this ___ to Jonah,whom we love and miss,” you might say, Or “This ___ is for Madeleine. I’m thinking of her and hoping to reunite one day.”

You might decide to light a candle for your child and focus your thoughts on him or her while it’s burning. Let whatever feelings happen, happen.

Above all, allow yourself and others to grieve this month. If some family members are uncomfortable with this idea, assure them it’s safe and healthy to experience painful feelings on purpose. Let them know that doing so may be the only way to free up room for other feelings. Like contentment, camaraderie, and yes, even a smidgen of joy.

Send them to the library for a copy of Constructive Wallowing, if necessary. (That will get them out of the house while you do your ritual.)

IMPORTANT: Create a ritual that has time boundaries like the ones described above, rather than, say, placing an empty chair at the table for your child and leaving it there.

The latter is a constant reminder rather than a focused ritual. It’s not like you need a reminder that your child isn’t around.

The take-away: Holiday rituals help to define losses and contain them. This makes room for other aspects of the holidays — ones you might appreciate and enjoy.

3. Give to yourself

Don’t skip this part! Being good to yourself isn’t a platitude, it’s a prescription.

If the holidays are hard for you this year, isn’t that a good reason to be extra kind and generous with yourself?

Ask yourself what would bring you a little bit (or a lot) of pleasure.

Do you need a day off, to do nothing but read?

Would you enjoy connecting with friends? Getting outside? Taking up a hobby you dropped long ago?

How about planning a getaway you can look forward to? You don’t have to rob a bank to need a getaway.

These “gifts” you give yourself aren’t just distractions from the pain of missing your child. They’re reminders that you are a human being, not an empty hole waiting to be filled.

Can’t think of anything that would make you a little bit happier, or bring you a tiny bit of peace?

Ask yourself this: Is there something in your home that’s broken, and in need of repair? Repair or replace it this month.

However you do it, make sure to stay at the top of your own priority list right now. You deserve it.

4. Give to Others

Many people find satisfaction in helping others. If you’re one of those people, this is a good month to indulge yourself.

Being of service to others can be a soothing balm when your heart is hurting, but only if you’re genuinely up for it.

If you feel drained, exhausted, or overwhelmed this month, volunteering could be just another “to do” in a long list of obligations.

However, if you’re at loose ends and have a little extra time and/or energy, consider finding a way to help someone less fortunate than yourself.

Don’t overdo it.

Volunteering can become drudgery if you spend too much of your time and energy on it. Start with a couple of hours a week and see how you feel.

In the U.S., you can find volunteer opportunities through both Volunteer Match and the United Way.

In Canada, try Volunteer Canada.

In the U.K., there’s GOV.UK

In Australia, check out Seek Volunteer

Just about anywhere, you can do an Internet search for “volunteer opportunities in (your country, state, or city)” to find ways to help others.

5. Start the new year early

Why wait till the last minute to usher in the new year, with its promise of new beginnings?

It may be natural to spend a great deal of time thinking about your relationship with an estranged child or children. But doing so can produce subtle changes in the way your mind works.

Feeling helpless in the face of something so important can push you toward passivity. It starts to feel as if you have no control over anything. “And maybe it doesn’t matter anyway,” says your exhausted brain.

But when you widen your focus to include other areas of your life, you may find untapped opportunities to make a few things better. Many aspects of your life, though not all, are under your control.

What can you have an impact on, that would make your life better?

You’re allowed to start thinking about those things now. You don’t have to wait till the new year to act on resolutions.

Starting on projects now will take you out of the waiting game and put you in the driver’s seat.

Start an exercise regimen. Or take a break from exercise to rest up for the next phase.

Add rest, reading, or something else that’s nice to your daily routine.

Sign up for a class that starts in January. Or find an online course that fascinates you, and delve into this month.

Start building a new website, or make necessary changes to your old site this month.

Spend time gazing out the window and giving thought to something important to you OTHER than your estranged child.

Give yourself the gift of personal goals, and start moving toward them. In any given moment, at any time of year, you can take control of at least some parts of your life.

Why not do something meaningful, restful, pleasant, productive, or fun this month?

Every day begins a new year.

6. Say No

Especially during this busy season, it can be helpful to remember that “No” is not a four-letter word.

Just because you’ve always done X, Y, or Z doesn’t mean you have to do it this year.

When you’re feeling sad, empty, or just plain pooped, that’s the time to practice good self-care in the form of setting boundaries.

After all, your time and energy are yours to do with as you wish. If there’s a prize we get for reaching adulthood, it’s the privilege of personal choice.

Do others expect you to do something every year that you frankly don’t enjoy doing? Calmly let them know you’re taking yourself off the hook this time.

If anyone puts up a fuss, it’s good for them to see you standing firm. If you get push-back from family or friends, recognize it as boundary-testing. Pass the test by holding your ground against demands on you that you’re not obligated to fulfill. Do it with a smile, since nobody’s doing anything wrong by asking.

Here are a few examples of activities that are optional:

  • Putting up lights/decorations
  • Cooking
  • Buying, making, or even wrapping gifts
  • Providing housing or transportation
  • Hosting (or attending) a party or other event
  • Traveling
  • Etc.

This year, if you don’t feel like it, let someone else do it, hire someone to do it, or decide it doesn’t have to be done.

7. Let yourself enjoy the holidays

The end of the year is upon us, and there will be festivities.

If that puts dread in your heart, it’s no wonder; there’s a cultural emphasis on family that’s tough to endure when yours isn’t intact.

It’s easy to feel as if you don’t fit in — as if the holidays aren’t for you.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

You might choose to let certain safe people know about the situation with your child(ren). Admit that you’re sad about it. And that you feel out of step with the holiday season.

And maybe you’ll let those people offer support and companionship to help brighten the darkness.

Maybe their support will give you the strength and the will to participate in activities you used to enjoy at this time of year. You might even find moments of cheer. Even build new memories to cherish.

It may seem wrong to enjoy yourself knowing you and your child aren’t close. You could find yourself in the middle of a smile, when a sadness creeps over you. If that happens, it’s okay. Let the ambiguity of the moment be as it is.

Opening yourself to the many pleasures of the season doesn’t mean you don’t love your child(ren), or that you’ve given up on them.

It means you’re alive.

When you allow yourself to live your life despite your child’s absence…

When you open your heart to spontaneous moments of joy, companionship and gratitude…

You don’t lose a thing.

Grieving your relationship with your child won’t keep them close. Refusing to let yourself be happy till they’re back won’t draw them to you. It only robs you of this moment.

Let yourself be open to life, even (especially?) during the holidays. It could give you something you might have thought you’d lost.

 *   *   *

This article was featured in our monthly newsletter. If you’re a Reconnection Club member, feel free to leave a comment in our General Discussion forum.

Not a member? You can still receive our monthly newsletter. Click here to join the mailing list.

Members have access to helpful courses, workshops, downloads and expert interviews along with our friendly, private discussion forums. Learn more about the Reconnection Club.