First, let me say that I wish you a wonderful holiday season, whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukah, Solstice, something else or no specific holiday at all.
This season is traditionally a time of family gathering.
That also means that it can be a time of grief when family members are no longer available to gather with.
I hope you are not grieving. If you are, this article might help. If you’re not, chances are very good that people around you are, whether you’re aware of it or not.
These Past Two Years
These past two years have surpassed anything any of us have ever lived through in terms of death and grief. Yes, I’m talking about the worldwide pandemic, which has now moved from epidemic to pandemic to endemic. I’m of course referring to Covid in all of its variant forms.
Initially, the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 was compared to Covid, and also WWII in terms of deaths, but Covid is different than both.
In the US, only soldiers died during WWII. Other people were safe. Not so in parts of Europe and elsewhere though.
Covid infects and affects everyone, indiscriminately.
Now, almost two years in, I don’t know anyone whose family is untouched, and most of us have lost multiple people. That doesn’t count the one quarter to one third of Covid-infected people who recover that carry long-haul symptoms. We don’t know if they will ever fully recover.
Anyone who has ever lost someone they love knows all too well how difficult the holidays can be – especially the first set of holidays following their passing. Everything changes. Traditions cease to exist or are hollow shells of what they were before.
Some people go through the motions for the sake of others. Others don’t have anyone left to go through the motions for. Or they simply can’t or don’t want to.
I get it.
These past two years have seen the “normal” deaths that would have occurred regardless, PLUS an exorbitant number of Covid deaths. More than 815,000 in the US alone, 5.3+ million worldwide, and rapidly rising.
Add to that the fact that for at least the first year, including this time last year, most people didn’t gather with their families. Even so, the worst Covid spike we saw followed the holiday season.
Since that time, we’ve had a slight reprieve, followed by Delta and now by the Omicron variant which propagates 70 times faster than Delta which, as we know, was more than twice as contagious as the original unmutated Covid-19.
This article isn’t about Covid itself, but the effects of Covid on families, which likely includes yours.
This Holiday Season
Some families have cancelled or curtailed holiday gatherings for a second year in a row.
That alone causes grief. Not everyone who was present two years ago is here this year, and some of the people here this year won’t be here next year. Life simply doesn’t stand still.
The good news is that various forms of electronic communications exist, like Zoom. Zoom has become a staple.
While Zoom is nice, it’s not the same and can’t replace a hug.
The Blame Game
If someone died in 2020 or 2021 from Covid, or has long-haul which causes disability, it’s all too easy to play the blame game.
Did they not take proper precautions and paid the ultimate price?
If you think for one minute death only affects the person who died, think again. Not only is an entire family grieving, someone has to pay for a HUGE medical bill. My cousin is losing her home because her spouse died of Covid after refusing to believe it is real and act accordingly. He left her with a ginormous medical bill after weeks in ICU.
Did someone else not take proper precautions and infected a family member who died? How does the rest of the family feel about that person? How do they feel about their actions? How do people cope with that?
Was someone untruthful about their vaccination or isolation status before a gathering, or refused to wear a mask, transmitting the disease to someone who became ill or died? Yep, that happened to one of my cousins too. Needless to say, that family isn’t gathering together this holiday season.
In these situations, family members not only lost the person who died and are dealing with some level of fallout from that, but may well have “lost” other family members one way or another in the process too.
They may be grieving a death and also angry with the person who died (or other people) because their death was needless.
Regardless of right or wrong, grief is grief and has a cascading effect.
The Walking Dead
These other lost family members are the people I’ll refer to as “the walking dead.” They are still alive, but the family is so fractured that family members have become completely estranged.
I’ve seen this happen over and over again these past few months. Repeatedly. One friend’s wedding caused a huge rift because they insisted all of the guests be vaccinated.
Another friend lost 4, yes 4, siblings and yet other family members wanted to attend the in-person funeral(s) without masks. Big rift in that family now too.
Yet in other cases, the politics behind various beliefs surrounding all-things-Covid has cleaved families clean in half. (Please, no political comments.)
While all of that that sounds awful in general, think of this in more individual terms.
Perhaps this is your brother and his family, or your parents, or one of your parents but not the other, or God-forbid, your children.
How would you be feeling this holiday season, with some family members actually dead, and others among the walking dead because they have chosen estrangement?
I can tell you how you’d feel. Utterly and completely miserable.
Life has changed entirely in the past two years, and it’s never going back to the way it was.
The pandemic may end one day, or enough people may contract Covid or be vaccinated that we reach herd immunity one way or another, or we may learn to live with Covid in some weakened form. Regardless, the accumulated damage and grief will never be repaired
This has not been a pause which we hoped it would be initially. It has been a slow-motion train wreck that’s still occurring.
Studies show that at least 27% of people in the US are estranged from a close family member. You can read about that here and here. Most of these studies are pre-Covid, and I guarantee you that estrangement has increased dramatically over the past two years.
Furthermore, an estrangement with one person often has a ripple effect. For example, if you are estranged from a specific family member who has children, you’ve in essence lost them as well since the parent controls the children.
If you’re a parent/grandparent in this circumstance, this is agonizing. It’s like they died but only to you, and by choice.
Truthfully, I’d be hard-pressed to think of any family who has had a relative that died of Covid who has managed to escape estrangement.
The “I Don’t Care About You” Message
Estrangement says very clearly that one person doesn’t care if the other person lives or dies, literally – or anything in-between.
That’s a horribly bitter pill to swallow – especially if the estrangement was the result of ghosting or unspoken issues surrounding the parameters of engagement, like vaccinations or political beliefs.
And that message is unmistakable.
This article in Psychology Today discusses the estrangement epidemic with suggestions for how to understand and deal with fractured families.
If you’re one of the more than 67 million people suffering from estrangement, there are tips and hints here for you.
You can also reach out to others. Often, helping someone else who is in need or suffering makes both people feel better. I’ve been doing a lot of that recently and it helps a great deal.
What Can You Do?
The holiday season isn’t just about wishing someone happy holidays or purchasing a gift. Sometimes it’s about reaching out. It’s about a human connection.
Do you know someone who has endured a Covid or non-Covid related death during the past couple of years? Funerals have not been normal and a situation that is already extremely stressful has become even more so with grieving routines and traditions disrupted and family disagreements boiling over. Reach out and make sure your friend knows you care. Invite them if you are gathering. Don’t simply assume they’ve been invited elsewhere or that their family traditions haven’t changed.
Alone, if you don’t want to be alone, is awful.
The holidays are hard enough for some people without all of the additional stressors we have now.
Do you know someone who is estranged from a family member?
Have you heard the phrase “family of heart?” Family-of-heart is who we choose to be our family members. Some of the people I’m closest to are my “chosen family,” my “family of heart.”
Ask how someone is doing, and listen without judgement.
Be generous with kind words. I’ve told many people I love them these past few days. I do love them and I want to be absolutely positive they know that.
Tell people that you love them and how much you appreciate them while you can.
Estrangement Is Embarrassing
Estrangement, in particular, is embarrassing. When someone dies, everyone gathers the next holiday season and talks about how wonderful the dearly departed was. Not so with estrangement.
Estrangement is the dirty little secret no one wants to discuss. It’s painful and there is always the scent of guilt. “Why would they do that to you?” is easy to interpret as “What did you do to deserve that?”
If you can do so gracefully, share you own estrangement story with your friend. Let them know they really are not alone. Estrangement or abandonment happens to good, wonderful people. People who don’t deserve to be hurt. But it happens quite frequently, nonetheless.
When your friend shares with you, be sensitive how you form questions. Questions that begin with “Have you tried…” might suggest that you think they bear the responsibility for not resolving an issue that is not in their power to resolve. I guarantee, they’ve probably asked themselves every possible question over and over.
Estrangement combines betrayal and abandonment and causes the victim to wonder why as well.
I do feel compelled to add that some estrangement is entirely warranted such as abuse. Those aren’t the situations I’m referring to.
Tough Time of Year
It’s a tough time of year under normal circumstances, and this is anything but.
If you have a friend who is withdrawn, depressed, grouchy or just not acting themselves, grief may well have something to do with it. You may not realize they are grieving. They may have lost multiple relatives or close friends in one way or another – and often the loss of the walking dead is actually more painful that someone who physically died.
The person who died had no choice in the end – the walking dead make and continue that dagger-in-the-heart choice every single day.
Grief Never Ends
Regardless the source of grief, it never ends. In time, we often learn to deal with grief in a more productive or less painful way – but that’s not always the case with a series of grief events in close proximity.
Be caring and respectful of those who are grieving, which is pretty much everyone this year, whether they’ve told you or not.
They are likely NOT going to post that information on social media.
Depending on the situation, grief may extend to a job, one’s health or other factors.
Grief can include anything that affects your life negatively.
This has been a tough year for me in multiple ways. I’ve lost more than 9 relatives to Covid – depending on how you count. For example, my cousin lost both of her parents a few days apart. One of her parents is my cousin by blood and one by marriage. How do I count that? Is the couple one family member or two?
Furthermore, I’ve lost additional close family members to estrangement.
My husband’s longest friend died, and that family is fractured too.
Covid, death and estrangement isn’t just an isolated story now, but one shared by almost everyone one way or another.
I’m extremely, extremely grateful for my family members that I’m close to, although my family is shrinking.
I’m also incredibly grateful to my friends and family-of-heart. For example, within the last week or so, one friend has come to help me at least 4 times with something particularly difficult. Then, just this evening, Christmas Eve, my husband and I were included in a non-traditional family gathering.
Perhaps we are forming new traditions this year – ones to sustain us in the future since going back to the way things were in the past is simply not possible.
Wishing You Peace
I wish you peace and joy this holiday season.
I hope you are happy wherever you are.
Personally, I’ve adopted the Icelandic strategy where you go to bed with a good book and eat chocolate. Yep, I have my book waiting here for me, as soon as I’m finished with this article. My 72% dark chocolate awaits too, as does a hot bath, comforting quilts and my three fur-children.
If celebrating is not in the cards for you this year, I wish you a good book, a good movie, good food and lots of sleep.
Please know that I care about you. Let me know how you’re doing!