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Don’t Be Alone! Celebrating Holidays with Found Family

Family estrangement is particularly painful during the holidays with festive pictures tugging at the heart. Television and media are choked with images of dinner tables surrounded by kind, tolerant heterosexual families who are happy to be together and share space. These pictures can spur a particularly dark emptiness in alienated family members, however.

Violetta Fernandez , a licensed clinical social worker and therapist who specializes in family estrangement, says traditional holiday caricatures generally exclude the kind of people who get alienated by family. They also ignore alternative families, including single-parent homes and LGBTQ+ families. Additionally, these images create the illusion that families are inherently cohesive and conflict-free.

“They contradict the reality for many people experiencing family estrangement,” Fernandez said. “When the illusion of cohesiveness, festivity, and support has either not been consistent or present, it can cause confusion, grief, and shame. People estranged from their families may question why they’re not good enough or they (may think) something is wrong with them for not living up to societal and cultural standards.”

Fernandez is estranged from her own family and has dedicated her professional life to helping her clients cope with varying levels of family separation. Causes of isolation vary from emotional and physical abuse to oppressive and bigoted beliefs. But whatever the reason for the rift, Fernandez urges her clients to create boundaries and stick to them. People long for a connection to estranged relatives, but building distance between corrosive family is important for victims of abuse or emotional neglect.

“For some, this includes incorporating previous family traditions into new traditions. Whereas for others, letting go of family traditions that have centered ideologies rooted in colonialism can be empowering,” she said. “It really depends on what feels right for you.”

Fernandez herself spends the holiday with her daughter and her partner, their pets, and friends, and she foregoes contact with her parents and extended family. She recommends estranged people decolonize the unrealistic notion of traditional family and cultivate more reliable support networks beyond blood relatives, even if the original family sometimes doesn’t make this easy.

“I grew up with the belief that we weren’t supposed to trust anyone outside of our own family,” Fernandez said. “There was a huge emphasis on blood-related family members being prioritized over my need for support outside of family. (But) not only does re-defining family help reduce isolation, we get to diversify our support and experiences.”

Fernandez also processed her family-related feelings of abandonment and grief through therapy. Expressing pain in therapy and support groups was essential to validating her own voice, as was taking ownership of the holidays and creating new traditions.

“Creating new traditions … not only engages your senses with being more present in the moment, it really taps into creativity and capabilities,” she said. “This can include using outlets like movement, art, music, writing, cooking, etc.”

Additionally, she suggested diversifying the holiday experience by leaning into community. This can include neighbors, small businesses, digital spaces, and even animals. A wide variety of things can provide a sense of familiarity and support. New York LGBTQ+ support organization, The Center, suggests seeking out public events in which to involve yourself, despite whatever hesitation you may have about meeting new people.

“Go to queer theatre shows, Christmas drag shows, go volunteering. Aiding somebody else sometimes teaches you a lot about aiding yourself,” the organization says.

You don't have to live in New York to find possibilities. Even ultra conservative Jackson, Mississippi—deep in the Bible belt—offers LGBTQ+-target activities this holiday season, including a Trivia Night and a “Holiday Drag Brunch” complete with ugly sweater contest. You're not as isolated as you may think.

Fernandez added, however, that the struggle to shrink the vacuum of abandonment can take years, so prepare yourself for the long haul.

“I encourage you to be patient with yourself,” she said. “Family estrangement doesn’t happen overnight, and grief is an ongoing process. Whether you’ve been disowned, or you initiated the break from family, this is an opportunity for you to take back your power by prioritizing what’s important to you. Look for those small moments of peace such as resting and allowing yourself to exist in safe spaces.”

Fernandez shares additional healing tips on Instagram, and organizations like The Trevor Project are available for call or online chat if the struggle with loneliness gets dangerous. Don't hesitate to reach out. You are not alone.

Nicole Froio is a reporter, researcher, and translator based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She covers women's rights, feminism, pop culture, and everything in between.


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