The holiday season is usually a time to gather with family and friends, to celebrate, to laugh, to eat, to give, and to be happy. Unfortunately, some LGBT people (particularly those who are estranged from their families) experience the opposite during the holiday season. They may feel sad, lonely, or isolated. People are amazingly resilient though, and thus regardless of the LGBT person’s experiences, there are usually ways in which a person can still enjoy the holidays. In the spirit of holiday sharing, I will tell the tale of how I learned to enjoy the holiday season after becoming estranged from my family.
Like many other people, I was raised with two different sets of families. My parents divorced when I was very young. I lived with my mom and step-dad until I was a teenager, and then with my dad and step-mom until I graduated high school. During my teenage years, I developed especially strong bonds with my dad and step-mom, my step-brothers, and my step-mom’s family. My step-mom’s family was loving. Over time, I grew close to my step-mom’s family. I stopped thinking of them as “step” family. The blood line did not matter.
Like other families, we enjoyed the holiday season. The entire family would always convene to someone’s home on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. All of the adults would cram into the kitchen and living room while the children played outside. I always snuggled into an empty corner in the living room so I could eavesdrop on the various adult conversations. I can still remember how the laughter, chatter, and luscious smells of spices and freshly baked pies overwhelmed the house. Different family members would eventually make their way over to my corner and would ask me how things were going in high school or what I had planned to study in college. I can remember looking around at everyone and feeling grateful that I belonged to such a supportive and happy family.
My parents learned of my gay identity when I was 17. It wasn’t long after this discovery that things started to change. Although they didn’t immediately disown me or kick me out of the house, they started to distance themselves from me. I still attended family gatherings during the holidays. Although my parents acted differently toward me, I enjoyed being around my extended family. If my extended family knew of my gay identity, they didn’t seem to care. Things did change after I started college. My parents slowly stopped talking to me. They no longer invited me to family gatherings. Eventually, my parents told me via email to never contact them again. I realized that losing my parents also meant that I would lose my extended family. Although I remained in contact with some of my extended family via social media, I knew it would never be safe to attend family gatherings.
The holidays became an especially difficult time for me after losing my family. I started to feel indifferent during the holidays. I was still surrounded by people during the holidays, such as my partner, friends, and my other family, but I still yearned to be with my dad, step-mom, and brothers. I didn’t know how to handle these feelings. I didn’t know how to cope. So, I emotionally withdrew during the holiday season. I would become bitter and depressed. I would try to work a nursing shift at the hospital so I didn’t have to confront Thanksgiving or Christmas day. I wished I could ignore the holidays.
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20’s that someone noticed my mood change during the holiday season. It was a colleague who noticed this change and reached out to me. Her concerned questions led me to reflect on my feelings around the holiday. I recognized that hiding these feelings was not healthy and that I needed to learn how to cope during the holidays and discover new ways of enjoying the holidays. I decided to be more mindful about my feelings. I knew that my feelings of sadness would not disappear during the holidays, and so I acknowledged them and accepted the absence of my past family. Acknowledging my feelings helped me to refrain from emotionally withdrawing. I was then able to notice everyone around me during the holidays – my husband, my friends, and my family. I made a conscious effort to celebrate with the people around me and to engage in the holiday activities.
I don’t want to lead people to believe that I am “cured,” but at least I have a process. Each holiday season still makes me think of my past family. I still experience those difficult feelings, but I don’t let them overwhelm me. I acknowledge the feelings, accept the absence of my past family, and cherish the people in front of me. I know that this will become easier with time.
I know my story is not unique. Many other people in the LGBT community have had similar (or worse) experiences. I chose to share this story to bring light to some of the sensitive and private issues that many of us face. Please feel free to share your own story in the comment section.