… I was totally depressed when I visited my brother’s family just after Christmas. I felt I no longer belonged there. My sister in law treated me like a visitor and wouldn’t let me help with anything. The teenage children hardly noticed me at all, they were so involved with themselves. My brother was never one for sitting around, so I didn’t really have any real conversation with him. I don’t get to visit them very often, so I thought they would make a little effort. In the evening they were just watching telly and I left early, making an excuse that I had a lot of things to do…. That was a week ago and I haven’t been able to shake off the depressing feelings I have. My husband tells me just to forget about it. But he didn’t grow up in that house and Jim is not his brother. I felt like a ghost in the place, and it’s like my parents died a second time. I know there are people who feel depressed at Christmas but I was never like that. Have you any advice on how to shake off these rotten feelings? I get a lot of help from your website. Catherine
From what I know and from what I hear, these feelings are quite common. To leave your original home is a kind of bereavement, especially if the family never moved house during your childhood or teenage years. If you are not a frequent visitor there, the old bonds begin to ravel and new ones are not formed. The continuity is broken, and in that space between the distant past and the present, shadows of your parents hover, invisible to everyone but you. I know the feeling, and that’s why I don’t make light of it.
I noticed that you twice used the expression ‘to shake off feelings’. I don’t know how one could do that – nor even exactly what it means. If it means ‘Every time you remember that visit, put it out of your mind and think of something else,’ I think that would make things worse, not better; it would be a numbing of your sensibility, an attempt to bury the feeling. If that is what you want to do, I hope you don’t succeed! Buried feelings would deaden you; they would lie buried, not dead; but you would become a bit more dead every day. It happens to many people.
An alternative way would be to rationalise it. It’s not the way through, but it’s perhaps the beginning of a way. You could say to yourself: Life is like that; it moves on. “Times change,” said an ancient poet, “and we change in them.” “Not people die,” wrote a modern poet, “but worlds die in them.” The passage of time is the most pathetic of all the mysteries; it’s the one we can't ignore, because we are immersed in it. This mystery can bring us to the heart of all mystery; it can bring us to God. You may be saying ‘Well, it isn’t bringing me anywhere yet!’ But at least it’s not leading us in a wrong direction.
Try a very practical sort of rationalisation. Something like this: Your brother and his new family are a new family; they are not the old one. Your sister-in-law has the same feelings about her original family that you have about yours. She never knew your old family experience, just as you don’t know hers. A marriage really is a new beginning. For your brother there is continuity between the old and the new, but not for you, because you left and made your own new family. Be thankful that your sister-in-law didn’t set out to destroy the old, as in a case I know where one of the first things she did was to make a bonfire of the family photos (and that was just a beginning).
The practical suggestion I would make is this: When you visit them again, be totally there. From the beginning be clear with them and with yourself about the duration of the visit. Make it short, until longer feels comfortable. But whether long or short, let it be whole-hearted. Enter deliberately into their world. If they want to lounge in front of the television, lounge with them. Enter into their particular interests. Ask them lots of questions, but not such as might seem prying. Tell them stories about the past – crazy things you did as children. This might even wake your brother up. Look at everything in their garden (this is dead-safe territory). If they don’t have much of a garden, admire their potted plants! But above all, don’t let it be just an act; let it be genuine interest. It’s possible to have genuine interest even in small things if your head isn’t full of reservations and regrets and expectations. With such a visit you are creating new bonds, and you may even be reviving some of the old ones.
Your question inspired me to write the brief article on feelings in this month’s ‘Jacob’s Well’. You may find something helpful there.
Don’t forget little things like cards, emails, text messages: these keep something going and provide a context for your next visit. And don’t expect anything: expectations only tie us up in knots. Make your visits enjoyable for yourself and for them. In time, who knows, they may be on the doorstep to welcome you.