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April 18, 2014

STAWAR: Reflections on reconnections

— Today is Good Friday, for many people the most solemn day of the year. It’s when Christians commemorate the passion and crucifixion of Jesus.

The day also sets the stage for the coming celebration of Easter. For many Christians with Eastern European roots, Easter is the major family holiday, even overshadowing Christmas.

In my extended family, it was always a time for a big get-together for a holiday breakfast consisting of traditional foods, including a mixture of cut-up ham, Polish sausage and boiled eggs covered with a sauce made from the sausage and vinegar. My grandmother called it Bosh and my father would always add some horseradish for more flavor.

When I was a child, all my relatives would come to our house to celebrate and eat Bosh. After the death of my grandmother and father, the big Easter celebrations ended and the extended family grew apart. My immediate family was fractured when my brother died and again later when my mother entered a nursing home. I had always thought that our family was unique with all of its estrangements, but such alienation among family members seems pretty common today.

Families split apart for a variety of causes. Guilt, jealousy and anger are among the most common underlying reasons. Often someone suffers an injustice, takes offense, and the situation spins out of control. Even though the parties involved may later have regrets, stubbornness and pride often prevent them from remedying the situation.

Occasionally family members may be expelled because they violate some inflexible family norm. In some cases, family members may be physically, emotionally or sexually abusive and estrangement may be the healthiest course of action. In dysfunctional families, it’s not unusual for survivors of abuse to be ostracized by other family members when they no longer accept the abuse and are not willing to keep the families’ secrets.

Although estrangement can be painful and uncomfortable, reunification is not always the best course of action. Esther Kane, a psychotherapist from British Columbia says, “If you did the cutting of ties, remind yourself why and ask yourself if you made a good decision or if it was a mistake, and let that be your guide in reconnecting,”

While many split families are the result of misunderstandings and a lack of communication, I’m surprised how often guilt is the underlying issue. Confronting other family members may mean having to come to terms with long-standing feelings of guilt and many people decide it’s just easier to avoid such situations.

Family splits typically occur at major life transitions such as death, divorce and marriage. As the family membership changes, so do the dynamics. A new family member may be a harmonizing or disruptive influence. I’m surprised by how many parents report estrangements between them and their adult children, often simply because a new spouse sees little value in the relationship.

Likewise, a death may ignite a pre-existing conflict or remove the only reason for connection between family members. The emotional stress in such events likewise increases the chances for fracture.

I am happy to report, however, that last week at a family wedding in Florida, my wife Diane and I reconnected with our niece, whom we hadn’t seen since my brother’s funeral 26 years ago. It was an emotional reunion and we’re hoping to build on it and perhaps make a visit together to see some other relatives.

It was odd to talk to someone who knows many of the references from your childhood, as well as family customs and characteristics, like eating Bosh and having dark circles around the eyes. I doubt if the reconnection would have occurred had it not been for our oldest son’s efforts, our niece’s courage in coming and social media.

We made initial contact with our niece through Facebook. A few years ago, we made contact with another niece the same way.

Catherine Saint Louis, a New York Times writer, recently said, “Not long ago, estrangements between family members, for all the anguish they can cause, could mean a fairly clean break. People would cut off contact, never to be heard from again … but in a social network world, estrangement is being redefined.”

Social media can make it easier to locate and in some cases reconnect with estranged family members, Saint Louis says.

“Relatives can get vivid glimpses of one another’s lives through Facebook updates, Twitter feeds and Instagram pictures.”

But learning about a family birth, marriage or death in such a manner can also be a painful reminder of what has been lost.

Writer Yuki Hayashi from Canadian Living says the first step in reconciliation is deciding if you really want to do it. Experts say there is there’s no one right way. Most advise going slowly, since it can be a long process.

They say to prepare for the worst and be persistent. It’s important to establish appropriate boundaries and rebuild on common ground. Confronting issues in a forgiving way and trying to address barriers, such as guilt, pride and stubbornness might help

Perhaps Easter is an appropriate occasion to think about estranged family members and consider reconnecting.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. Reached him at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com

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