COVID-19 is a magnifying glass.
In so many ways and with so many subjects, it’s forced our focused attention to issues that, in life BC (before COVID) we may normally have pushed aside, the content we could postpone and ignore with the day-to-day movement and vigor of activity that life allowed.
From big, penultimate issues like making meaning of our lives and facing our mortality to “smaller” issues such as how robust our emergency savings accounts are or ways in which we’ve neglected or tended well to our health, COVID-19 has forced our attention to matters big and small.
This has, as far as I can tell, felt collectively hard for most of us.
And for some, in addition to all the other hard issues COVID-19 has brought to the forefront, there may also be a heightened awareness of another hard issue typically on the back burner of the mind: the family strain or estrangement you live with and the looming question of how and what to do with those relationships and the situation given the times.
Moving through the times of COVID-19 is a complex, multifaceted experience.
And if one facet of your experience has included feeling triggered by being estranged from (or strained with) your family and confused as to how to proceed, today’s post is meant to speak to you.
To support you, to see you, to provide you with tools, inquiries, and some words of comfort.
Major life matters may test the boundaries of our estrangements.
COVID-19, much like other big and challenging life matters, brings our reality of family estrangement vividly back into our awareness.
Often, those who have estranged themselves from a parent, a sibling, a grandparent, or other family members, can go about their lives aware, of course, of the dull ache of the estrangement, but with the experience relatively normalized.
It hurts, yes, but, with time, there’s a certain acclimation to the hurt.
Normalcy to it, again, over time.
After the acute pain of the estrangement has passed, you get up, go to work, hang out with friends and your SO, cook dinner, watch Netflix, scroll through Instagram and fall asleep.
Getting up the next morning to do it all over again.
It’s not like your awareness of the strain and estrangement with your family of origin (or in-laws) escapes you, it’s not like you forget, but it’s also not at the very forefront of your attention as you move through everyday life.
But in certain times and with certain events, the dull ache becomes an acute pain again, triggered vividly back to the top of our mind.
I’ve written about this before but, in my personal and professional experience, many concrete and also abstract events can catalyze this: weddings, family-centered holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, funerals, new babies into the family.
These external, calendric and life stage events can force the reality of our situation back into our awareness, the dull ache becoming acute or at least more of a throb.
Abstract events, too, can force this same kind of shift in our awareness: aging, illness, catastrophes, and crises big and small, whether this happens to you or the other person, these more abstract events can likewise bring the family strain and estrangement we live with back into our attention.
Moreover, these concrete and abstract life events can also challenge the boundaries we’ve set to not have contact with certain people in our lives.
The boundary that once set when someone was, perhaps, healthier, more resourced, more equipped, now can be tested if we discover the person is more vulnerable, more exposed.
The boundary may be tested, too, if we are more vulnerable, more exposed.
We may begin to wonder any and all iterations of the question:
“Should I get back in touch with them?”
“Is it worth it?”
“Do I keep my distance? Do I still stay no contact?”
“They don’t have anyone else, shouldn’t I be of support? I don’t want to be in touch but I feel like I should…”
“What would [my other family member] say if they knew I was getting in touch with them?”
“Dad’s estranged from Grandpa. What’s he going to do or say if I order grocery delivery for Grandpa now?”
“Mom has no one else. It’s just me. No siblings. Am I going to be responsible for her estate? Her funeral? How do I know?”
“What if they die and I didn’t say goodbye?…”
“What if I die without being back in touch with her? Do I really want to do that?”
“How do I know what to do?”
Have any of these questions been up for you as a result of COVID-19?
Has this global pandemic pressure tested any of your boundaries and caused you to question and revisit them?
Has this been an aspect, a facet of your experience we move through this world event?
Major life matters may also trigger your experience of estrangement in other ways.
There’s another piece, too, another facet that COVID-19 may be bringing to your unique experience in addition to pressure testing and challenging any boundaries you’ve established: feeling further isolated within an isolation experience and jealous of those who have different experiences.
Feeling alone and isolated is a common experience for those who have experienced family estrangements and strained relationships.
When you couple this everyday experience with the actual isolation that COVID-19 is imposing, it’s possible that you’re more acutely aware of your loneliness than before.
And, what’s more, you might feel terribly sad and jealous as you watch or hear about other people and their families making efforts to bridge the physical distance divide: Sunday evening family Zoom hangouts, gathering to sing to Grandma outside her nursing home for her birthday, virtual birthday parties, Facetime storybook readings to the grandkids, committing as a group to playing WOW or Animal Crossing on Saturday afternoons.
Learning what others are doing to stay connected to families that seem to be more functional, close, and connected than yours can feel so hard, so triggering.
And if you reside inside a marriage where your partner is estranged from family (or really strained with them), you may have all of the questions COVID-19 raises (“Shouldn’t we be in touch with them now?”) but in a double bind reckoning with your partner’s wishes, possibly upset with them, upset at the whole messy, family experience you married into and inherited.
To live with family strain and estrangement at the best of everyday times is one thing.
To live with it through an unprecedented global pandemic may feel harder.
If this is you, if in any way your boundaries are feeling challenged or if you’re feeling extra triggered and sad, I want you to know that I get it. I get what you’re going through. I see you.
This IS hard. This is sad. This is complex.
What you live with because of your family strain and estrangement will always add a different facet to your experience of most major life events in the way that someone who is close and connected to a relatively functional family won’t have to contend with.
So what is there to do if you, like so many of us, likewise have to contend with this facet of the experience along with all the other facets that COVID-19 is bringing to the world?
I have some thoughts.
If you’re navigating family strain and estrangement through COVID-19, consider this.
If you are navigating family strain and estrangement through COVID-19, I want you to consider caring for yourself and your experience in even more radically-supportive ways as you would if your hard context was being triggered by family-centric holidays or other triggering events.
I want you to practice exceptionally good and kind self-care, of course, but I want you, too, to see what elements you long for but don’t exactly have that you could recreate in the social sphere and environment you have.
Put plainly, in the same way I talk so often about the criticality of re-parenting yourself or cultivating a second-chance-family-of-choice, I want you to imagine leaning on non-triggering social supports and getting creative about how you can meet your emotional needs.
If no relationships can easily provide that for you, I want you to, at least, put yourself in contact with those who may be able to relate to your uniquely faceted experience: folks who get what it is to be estranged from their families at this time.
And if COVID-19 is greatly testing your boundaries and causing you to question whether or not you should or want to be back in touch with a certain person, I want to let you know that I’m building out a module in my forthcoming course Hard Families, Good Boundaries right now that will walk you step-by-step through a set of inquiries and thought experiments designed specifically for times like these when we need or want or are being tasked to revisit and possibly renegotiate our boundaries.
I’m working on this course every spare minute I have and expect to be launching it very soon, so if this topic resonates with you in any way, I highly encourage you to sign up for the interest list to be the first to know when I launch it live!
(Side note: when you sign up for the interest list you also receive a free little guide called Setting Boundaries With Family: The Top Five Myths. This little myth-busting guide is a terrific resource if you need a wake-up call, a surge of empowerment, and a proverbial digital permission slip to set and hold boundaries with the difficult people in your life because it unpacks and challenges the biggest and most tricky internalized beliefs you may have around this issue.)
More than anything else, please give yourself grace and compassion for how doubly hard this experience of COVID-19 may feel for you if dealing with being estranged from your family or strained with your family.
Take all the wonderful self-care and self-compassion advice that’s being offered on the internet and double down on it.
You live with hard at the best of times. And this is clearly not the best of times.
I hope that you, like so many of us who are holding this additional facet of the COVID-19 experience right now, take such extraordinary care of yourself and that you reach out for additional support when and if you need it.
COVID-19 is shaping up to be a marathon, not a sprint, which is a pace those of us who live with family dysfunction know so well: it’s long. And it can feel hard.
So take good care of yourself, my friend.
Do you struggle with knowing what to say during challenging conversations?
I created this list of 25 scripts to help you feel calm and empowered when communicating with the difficult people in your life.