Paul Krauss MA LPC (Clinical Director of Health for Life Counseling in Grand Rapids, MI) was recently featured in an article published in the Washington Post by Christina Wyman entitled: How to grieve estranged family and friends during the holidays. Paul Krauss MA LPC’s discussion of the topic was featured alongside the work of Licensed Psychologist and Author: Lindsay Gibson as well as Dr. Ramani Durvasula (an expert on narcissism).
The full unedited discussion between Christina Wyman and Paul Krauss MA LPC is below.
CW: Do you have any strategies for those dealing with complicated grief around the holidays? (Especially those who are grieving family members and close relations who are alive and well, but with whom a relationship is not possible due to a variety of factors (e.g. toxic family dynamics that have led to estrangement)).
PK: There are many difficult elements for those of us who are grieving the loss of the relationship they “wish” they could have had with a family member or formerly close relationship—when they are still living. In these situations, there are plenty of opportunities each holiday season for old wounds to be brought to the fore again, and reinjure everyone involved. For instance, a person may experience various strong emotions and suffering that occurs from missing “the relationship that could be” while simultaneously dealing with the stark reality that the person(s) you are estranged from have demonstrated time and time again, that they are not amenable to an authentic repair attempt, or they don’t respect boundaries, or they continue to emotionally injure you given the slightly opportunity. During the “holiday season”, most people are inundated with messages about going “home for the holidays” or the holidays as a season of “forgiveness and reconciliation” from the world of advertising, various entertainment sources, and from other relatives, acquaintances, and friends alike. Many well-intended friends or relatives may offer you unsolicited advice from their perspective about what your relationship boundaries “should be” when hearing about your painful estrangement—this can make a person feel even worse about their choice. If you mix these difficult situations with difficult to avoid nostalgic feelings that the “holidays” can bring from one’s own childhood and the dreams and doomed expectations of how our child-self wished things would be some day clashing with the adult reality of how things really are—it can be a very difficult time indeed as layer after layer of grief build on one another.
CW: If you could comment on the nature of this sort of grief? Would you say you have a lot of people grieving people who are actually living?
PK: Absolutely. As a child, we idealize many close relationships, especially close family members, such as parents of siblings. Yet, as we grow older, many people find that being related to someone does not guarantee any sort of healthy relationship—in fact, the nebulous boundaries, family dynamics, and unspoken or spoken cultural expectations can cause intense tension and suffering.
I would say that if people are honest with themselves, that most have at least one relationship in their life that fell apart or imploded in a way that they wish had not happened. In those cases, the sadness of being unable to resolve this divide can cause years of complicated grief whenever someone is reminded of this person they are estranged from.
In years past, I do believe that there were societal expectations that silenced many people’s difficulties with close relationships and family members. Loosely, there are adages floating around in our culture such as “blood is thicker than water” and “respect your elders” and “family is forever” that essentially imply that one “should” remain closely connected to their family members or other close relationship “no matter what occurs.” I assume that these archaic adages were passed down from the era of “tribes and clans” where the most extreme punishment of a person from a tribe or clan was banishment—because of the cultures of ancient humans, this almost certainly was a death sentence. In our current society, many people are estranged from family members and former close relationships and thanks in part to the authenticity movement we are collectively learning to share and discuss these situations. In fact, many people going through estrangement situations and grief are finding ways to communicate with others involved in similar circumstances. In fact, the internet chat room “Reddit” has been a large source of communication between those in the Millennial and Gen Z generation, who have collectively declared that they are “tired” of the cultural viewpoints of the “Baby Boomers”—some of which they have expressed as toxic “blind loyalty” and “self-centeredness” that continues far into adulthood.
CW: In your practice, do you have sort of an informal sense of the percentage of estrangement that you see amongst your clients?
PK: I believe this is difficult to estimate. However, I would say that plenty of people are estranged from certain family members. Yet, to make matters more complicated, I believe that those who are not “officially estranged” from family or other close relationships are actually estranged, if you will, on a spectrum. For instance, a person may have intentionally moved far away from their family of origin due, in part, to their relationship difficulties; they may feel that many issues of in their relationship is unresolved, but they continue to “visit for the holidays” and go through the “family rituals” so that they are not further ostracized and punished by family members for not participating. In a sense, these people may “feel” estranged, but have never “taken a stand” to full estrangement—they are more emotionally and relationally estranged from family members, choosing to have a “surface relationship” with their relatives and “deal with them” for several dates a year, such as holidays and birthdays. But if you interviewed these individuals, they would admit that they don’t have a “real” or in-depth emotional relationship with these family members that they choose to spend some holidays or birthdays with—so in a sense, they are estranged, but due to perceived or real consequences, do not like to fully admit that fact publicly.
CW: Would you say that it’s sometimes harder to grieve those who are alive than those who’ve passed?
PK: Yes, sometimes it is much more difficult to grieve the relationship with those who are alive, because most people would like to be able to have an honest, authentic, and mutually beneficial relationship—that includes healthy boundaries—with family members and close relationships. There is a natural desire in many people to attempt to repair or resolve past disagreements and change unhealthy dynamics and thus, this can cause even more grief in the person as they realize the other party involved does not want to resolve or repair or even acknowledge the difficult shared past between them. It takes both parties willing to put down their defenses to even begin a repair discussion—and it takes both parties committing to creating a new healthy dynamic between them before any relationship can move forward in a mutually beneficial way—this takes work, and oftentimes one of the parties does not want to do this work. Therefore, the grief of estrangement can feel like it is being repeated over and over again—as someone wishes that their living relative would at least consider their viewpoint or work with them in order to resolve past hurts, and yet, they will not.
CW: What do you generally see around the holidays in your practice? Is it a high traffic time for you?
PK: The holidays are often a busy time for therapists because the client’s complicated grief of estrangement that we have been discussing can cause a multitude of difficulties for them. In addition, many clients suffer from anxious anticipation of feeling obligated to spend time with certain family members and/or they may ask for additional appointments around the holidays because of the time they did spend with certain family members or relationships—where awful things occurred. In general, the holidays can be a time of mental health crisis for many people.
CW: Estrangement is terribly taboo, and many of us shy away from talking openly about it because we’re afraid of the deeply unsupportive responses that tend to be the default experience when talking about estrangement. Can you talk a bit about how normal estrangement is and why, culturally, we should take a turn toward normalizing the existence of this very common family dynamic?
PK: In this era, estrangement is far more common than most people realize. As we have been discussing, there are many complicated cultural, emotional, and historical factors that have led people to conceal their estrangement. In the therapy community, we believe that speaking one’s truth can lead to healing, even though it can be simultaneously emotionally painful. If our society was honest about more issues that we face collectively and personally, I believe that would contribute to better overall mental health for our citizens. So having honest conversations that aren’t avoidant of people’s experiences that some in our society find “off-putting” can lead to a more empathetic culture—something we are sorely lacking in these times. I would like to go further and suggest that we should normalize “being a human being” which means that we all have our own unique history and experience and, I believe, are deserving of mutual respect and dignity as well as an opportunity to tell our story and speak our truth. So, if we, as a society, would be less controlled by a desire to “fit in” and can work to be more honest with one another, estrangement would likely be more normalized, and thus, people who experience that could find solace in both people in similar situations and those who haven’t really experienced estrangement without fear of judgement. Perhaps, those dealing with estrangement may be more regularly welcomed in by friends who can understand them and offer them a chance at a healthy friendship or “f(r)amily” dynamic.
CW: Do you have any concrete strategies for those approaching the holidays with a sense of emptiness, loss, confusion and perhaps dread?
PK: It is so vital to cultivate relationships with people who respect your boundaries and belief systems. As we approach the holidays, I would recommend that people facing complicated grief and estrangement (grieving the living) reach out to others who may have had similar experiences or are at least willing to attempt understanding. Since most available in person grief groups are often created in response to grieving those who have passed away, I would recommend that people first contemplate their friendships and determine if they have one or more friends who treat them with respect and are willing to commune with them during the holidays. If that is not an option, it is useful to work toward forming a healthy community of supporters- and this can be done utilizing the internet and chat rooms such as “reddit” to find others who may be going through the same circumstance of “grieving the living” as you are.
Obviously, it is not that easy to make friends in this current climate of COVID-19 and overall social confusion, so I would recommend seeking a licensed professional counselor or therapist who is well versed in relationship issues and grief and having weekly appointments as an extra support through the holidays.
Writing down one’s thoughts in a journal can also be very helpful, because expression is key.
CW: Is peace and healing during the holidays achievable for people in this situation?
PK: Yes, I believe it is if people are willing to put in the inner work.
The issue is that for people facing estrangement issues they must actually work on creating peace and healing within themselves, because they have already experienced past failed attempts of working on peace and resolution with those they are estranged from.
Individual therapy with a great therapist is a good start if you are struggling, but the importance of building a new community around a person is vital.
In a way, the wound of grieving the living is a disruption to our close community and thus we must work on repairing those wounds, both on our own and in a healthy relationship with others.
Christina Wyman is a writer and teacher in Lansing, Mich., and author of the forthcoming middle-grade novel “Jawbreaker.” She’s on Twitter @CBWymanWriter.
Paul Krauss MA LPC is the Clinical Director of Health for Life Grand Rapids, home of The Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids. Paul is also a Private Practice Psychotherapist, EMDRIA Consultant in Training (CIT), host of the Intentional Clinician podcast, Behavioral Health Consultant, Clinical Trainer, and Counseling Supervisor. Paul is now offering consulting for a few individuals and organizations. Paul is the creator of the National Violence Prevention Hotline (in progress) as well as the Intentional Clinician Training Program for Counselors. Questions? Call the office at 616-200-4433.
If you are looking for EMDRIA consulting groups, Paul Krauss MA LPC is now hosting weekly online and in-person groups. For details, click here.