A funny thing happened when I was asked to write about family this month.
My mind went blank.
Writers block came up and I struggled to find a coherent thought to put on paper. Why was this, I wondered? After all, I have a great family. I am surrounded by an extended chosen family of friends and blood relatives who get along well, support one another, enjoy visiting each other, and laugh together often. I love family! I love to write about them! What was wrong?
But then I realized – perhaps it is because in this season, there are so many among us, some even in my own family of both blood and non-blood, for whom that word holds a different and perhaps difficult meaning.
Family, after all, can hold a lot of grief.
And it seemed somehow arrogant of me to write an article about how great my extended family is and how much I love them, when there are those who are grieving over their own, for so many reasons.
The grief could be due to having just had someone extremely dear and beloved move on from this life into the next.
Or perhaps the grief is due to the loss of a relationship after having a disagreement or lack of communication so great that the chasm created simply cannot be breached.
Or it may be due to the loss of childhood and innocence from an unhealthy, unstable, and even abusive birth-family situation.
Or possibly grief is due to the loss of a sense of self and personal history after coming from foster care and/or adoption.
Or it may be due to the simple fact of feeling alone and isolated while everyone around seems to be celebrating together.
There are so many ways in which the word “family” can be loaded with explosive content, and in which holidays can trigger it.
It’s not like I don’t have my share of triggers when it comes to the word “family.” In my own extended and chosen family, all of these scenarios are true in various ways for various people.
For my immediate family and myself, we are still experiencing deep grief over the loss of one who was so very much at the heart of it. As my husband said at her Celebration of Life, she knew how to do family, and she did it really well. I have been avoiding thinking about the coming Christmas, as I know it’s going to be a painful one where every moment in each day will be filled with the presence of her absence. Christmas will never be the same again for us.
Yet I also know that because I am surrounded by an extended family who know how to communicate, who know how to support, and who know how to laugh even and especially during the most difficult times, we will get through it. And eventually, the pain will ease, as we go through it together.
There was a time in my life when I felt completely alone and cut off from family.
It was during what I call my Season of Job where I’d lost everything. From it, I know what it is to experience depression during the holidays because I had nowhere to go and no one I could spend it with, at least not anywhere nearby. I know what it is to spend it alone with the only turkey I ate being the lunch meat I bought that week and the only gift I received being one I got for myself.
But I also know that this time allowed me to find the way to treat myself better. I chose to make myself that canned cranberry sauce and turkey sandwich and smile at celebrating it with my cat. I chose to put up a tiny tabletop tree and string lights so it cheered me up. I chose to buy myself that gift and wrap it up just so I’d have something under that tree. I chose to laugh at myself about it too. I chose to have hope, even when I was on the floor crying beside my cat, feeling alone and lonely.
And that by choosing to have hope, choosing to not give up, and choosing to find the brightness in my heart and give myself love – I was then able to see the ones around me who’d always been there for me, and renew our relationships.
And to my joy, to find more friends and more family, new ones and old ones I hadn’t heard from in a long time, begin to enter my life one by one. I ultimately discovered the love of my life and a whole new extended family that he brought me into who embraced me as I embraced them. I was – and I am – incredibly blessed.
Suddenly everywhere I looked, I found myself surrounded by love, surrounded by family.
And all it took was discovering how to love myself first.
So when I write about how much I love family and how great mine is, rather than arrogant, it is honest.
Because it is the darkness we’ve shared together as a family that gives us the opportunity to become stronger together, to love each other even more, and to have compassion and kindness towards one another.
And it is the darkness in ourselves that gives us the opportunity to choose to become stronger within, to love ourselves even more, and to have compassion for where we are in that moment.
As we grieve together as a family over things, as we talk about them and share them with one another, as we (hopefully) work out the differences and work towards living together in peace, we not only grow closer to each other, we become closer to understanding, accepting and loving ourselves as well. It is going through that darkness that allows us to see and fully appreciate the light.
With family, we are forced to face the things that may traumatize us,
and how we choose to then deal with it is what forms us.
Sometimes that choice involves leaving and cutting off communication from blood family or friends that are simply no longer healthy for you to be around. Sometimes it involves having to find and create a new family of our own from those whom we invite into our life. Sometimes it involves something even more difficult: working out things with the friends and family who are already there. But whatever it is, the main thing it involves is listening to and honoring our heart, and ourselves. And then allowing that to guide us to the family who is right for us.
Here’s the thing: while we had no choice or control over the family we were born into, once we become mature enough and aware enough to make decisions about who we want to be and who we want to spend our time with, the family we have around us becomes our prerogative. It is our choice.
Family can cause you to explode.
Or family can help you to hold it together
as things explode around you.
The people we decide to be with, talk to, spend our holidays with, laugh with, weep with, act young with, grow old with, love… those people are our family, whether blood or not or a mixture of both. Family truly is what you choose to make it. And I have chosen to make mine filled with love. And a lot of laughter – even, and especially, through the tears we share.
Because that’s the other thing family can do: rather than trigger you, it can heal you. And help you to laugh again. It’s all about finding and forming the right one, especially if you weren’t given a good one to begin with.
Hopefully you were born with one that gives you a firm foundation and a great base from which to build. But if not – take heart. For I have observed something time and again, in myself and in others who have entered my life and become part of my family:
When you create a firm foundation within yourself of love and light,
and build on this – then the right family will find you, without you even having to search.
The brightness in your heart will be a star to guide them through the darkness and into your welcoming arms.
So don’t give up, beloveds who may be feeling the triggers, the sense of loss, the grief over the idea of family this season. Know that as you heal your heart, as you care for yourself, as you let your light shine – the family that belongs with you is on the way to your door.
We love you. Stay strong.
…And for those for whom these holidays truly are too much…
who have not been able to yet build that base within themself and the struggle has simply become too much to bear, who feel they have no family… please, reach out for help.
Contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Jeanette Elaine Dubois
Jeanette is a film & tv editor, writer, director and producer who’s worked on Emmy & Telly Award winning shows, movies, and music videos for a variety of networks. She’s also a trained operatic who mostly sings to her cats now, though sometimes she expands her audience to her family & friends. She loves gardening, good books, good wine, and good conversations, preferably all at the same time.
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