When Holidays are Hazards and Milestones become Minefields
Holidays come in many forms. There are public holidays that celebrate culture and religion. There are birthdays and anniversaries. There are life and family milestones: weddings, funerals, graduations.
Holidays exist to bring together past and present, to unite families and cultures. Holiday rituals are designed to invoke memories of the past and create memories to anchor the future. Once-in-a-lifetime events mark the passage of time, recognize changing identities and roles, celebrate accomplishments, create ways to say hello and goodbye to the people most important to us.
Holidays and celebrations are truly more than “just another day.” They are important and have existed across all centuries and cultures of human existence. When anyone is unable to share and enjoy holidays and milestones, it is a real and significant loss.
Unfortunately, the same features which make holidays and milestones special are what make them so painful when family relationships are broken. Few types of brokenness are more complicated than sibling sexual trauma. And it is seldom the only issue that extended families bring to the table when they gather. Traumatic memories, conflict, loss and grief, stress, alcohol, secrets, differing expectations all combine to bring days of incredible stress, sadness, and possibly the danger of further abuse or violence. Losses, traumas, and burdens that are manageable or pushed aside in day-to-day life may bring unbearable loneliness, anger, or fear, not only during celebrations and special days, but also during times of anticipation and planning.
Holidays of all types are known to be difficult after a loved one dies. That doesn’t make the day any easier, but it does offer a framework to support people who are grieving and acknowledge their struggles. Sibling sexual trauma, along with all types of intra-familial abuse, is very likely to be hidden, even from others in the family. The hiddenness increases the stress and trauma exponentially, while blocking opportunities for support or validation of all types of difficult emotions and reactions.
When sibling sexual trauma is disclosed, the hiddenness is gone, but the drama often increases. Family members may exert pressure to continue past traditions unchanged or to include everyone together at the same time. Family members–such as older generations raised in a family-first culture, those who are still in shock or denial, those whose past sexual trauma has gone unrecognized or unhealed–may exert a lot of pressure to include everyone together. There may be conflict over who should be told about the abusive behavior, and how much. Take the example of a sensitive and common dilemma: A survivor does not want or is not safe to celebrate together with the sibling who has violated them, but also is not ready to disclose their story to the whole family.
There are so many possibilities, so many factors, so many differences. There is no universally right or wrong way to approach holidays and celebrations in a family affected by sibling sexual trauma. But here are a few guiding principles, a few starting thoughts and considerations.
Everyone in the family is carrying some kind of pain and trauma. It is normal for past memories to bring grief or anger or numbness. It is OK to feel any kind of emotion. But accepting and embracing an emotion doesn’t mean it is OK to express that emotion to any person, any time, in any way. And it doesn’t justify making decisions based only on those emotions.
Ring Theory is a useful tool that can guide a family in holiday planning, as well as choosing appropriate people to lean on for emotional support. It gives a visual image that reminds us to center the needs of the people who are most directly and personally affected by any kind of abuse or tragedy. Those who have experienced sibling sexual trauma would be at the center of the circle, their needs given priority. They should be allowed to express emotions outward toward anyone in their family or support network. Their wishes regarding who they see and when, who they tell and what, should be respected. Parents, in a middle-level ring, need support from those outside the immediate family. But they should not lean on a child for emotional support, even if that child is now an adult. The current safety of vulnerable family members, particularly children, should take precedence over the desires of adults.
There may be ways to include family members in events and milestones without having everyone in the same room at the same time. Ceremonies can be livestreamed, adult siblings might bring their families to visit grandparents on different days, meals can be shared in a public space such as a restaurant. Most funeral directors are experienced in accommodating complicated family dynamics. It’s fine to ask about finding a way for everyone to say goodbye to a loved one, while also respecting needs for space and safety from other family members. As time goes on, the wishes and needs of everyone in the family may change and celebrations can also change.
If family members are unable to offer adequate support, it may need to come from outside the family. Look for friends who can be on call, or ways to spend time with others who are lonely or alone during a holiday or celebration. It is a good idea to add numbers for hotlines, helplines, and emergency or crisis care in your phone contacts, easy to access if the day becomes overwhelming.
For a fuller discussion: Trauma, Drama, & Yo' Mama: Surviving the Holidays This is a radio show recorded in 2016 in the US, which starts with discussion of conflict over politics, but at 15:00 moves to an excellent discussion of dealing with past family trauma during holidays, including a realistic and respectful discussion of many options.