Dear Carolyn: Our extended family — siblings and kids — have always gathered at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Last week I got a text from my sister saying she and her family would be going away for the holiday and would no longer host Christmas Eve at their home.
This came out of the blue and is really upsetting me. My brother and I have both been widowed in the past four years and this event was something we looked forward to because everyone attended and it was a lot of fun. (My brother has grown children; I do not.) We feel surprised and unwanted and don’t understand the decision.
Of course it is their right to celebrate as they wish, and I kick myself for expecting a 30-year tradition to continue. But I can’t figure out how to feel OK about this. I feel rejected, and I don’t know why they would do that.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so painful if I had a family of my own, but I no longer do. Any advice? I haven’t said anything except, “I’m disappointed” to my sister.
Carolyn says: I’m sorry. Change is hard, changes that subtract time with loved ones are harder, and changes to longstanding tradition (delivered by text, ugh) can feel like a death — as if the tradition itself was a family member, too.
So you don’t have to “feel OK about this.” At least, not now, as you get used to the change. It’s been only a week.
It’s also really good that you stuck to the limited “I’m disappointed” response. As you said yourself, this is their holiday to plan as they choose, so pushback would be inappropriate. Worse, it could sour your relationship with your sister, which could then retroactively tarnish past Christmas Eves.
This disappointment may have come to you from the outside, but your work now is strictly internal and doesn’t involve your sister — except, genuinely, when you’re ready: “I’ll miss the tradition, but I admire you for having the courage to do what you needed. Carrying the expectations of the entire family for three decades can’t have been easy for you.
“Thank you for those 30 years.”
Which beats berating her for the 31st.
Which brings me to the next point: Isn’t fatigue more than enough to explain “why they would do that”? You mention grown kids and 30-year traditions and widowhood (my condolences), so I hope I can inoffensively deduce that you’re all in the slowing-down years. Therefore, you have the option to interpret this as a slowing-down, period, vs. torturing yourself with ways to take it personally.
Slowdowns bring their own grief for sure, but they have nothing to do with being “rejected,” “left out” and/or “unwanted.” You can be wanted and accepted yet still affected when the terms of inclusion must change.
So you don’t have to feel OK about this anytime soon, but I urge you to turn your thoughts — as soon as you’re ready — to inclusion that’s easier on everyone. Smaller groups, non-holiday times of the year, more emphasis on local connections. Whom can you host for Christmas Eve? Your brother and his kids? Do you have friends in your position?
In cosmic gratitude for 30 years of warm inclusion, whom can you now include?
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.