It is when hard times hit you that you really come to see how much it means to have Family. As I have said earlier, to me Family is not necessarily a blood connection. It can also be those you choose to be really close to, those with whom you can let your guard down and who are in it with you for good times and bad.
When my first boyfriend and I broke up after a relationship of 10 years, I was heartbroken. We still loved each other very much, but it just didn’t work any longer. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep and I was an emotional wreck.
This was really rock-bottom. What I had never realised before (because I was always working) was that I had no close friends, no real network and no family around me. I was in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language. I had nowhere to go and no shoulders to cry on and I felt very, very alone. If it wasn’t for the understanding I received from my colleagues, I would have given up completely.
I rented an attic from a colleague who was travelling a lot. It was warm and safe, but a far cry from my own comfortable home with all its carefully selected furnishings. I arrived with a suitcase, a duvet and a few bits and pieces. It felt like my own personal hell.
Having never been through a break-up before, I could never have imagined how hard it would be. -The sense of desperation, being totally lost in the world and having no idea whatsoever who I was or if I belonged anywhere at all.
My parents could not imagine what I was going through either. They were very practical about it all, when I talked to them in Spain on the phone.
We would discuss my move, my work, the weather and what I had for dinner. There was no way I could share with them the gaping emptiness inside me, although the many times I broke down in tears during one of our ‘practical’ conversations must have given them a clue that things were not going so well at my end of the line.
It was during this time that I longed deeply for someone in my family to reach out and say, “It is ok, you will get through this. We know it hurts, but we are here for you. If you want to come home, we will help.” I longed to be given some sort of indication that my identity was still around somewhere, that someone knew who I was and that I was still loved although I felt such a terrible failure.
Yet this confirmation from my family never came.
Today I have matured sufficiently to see that it may have been too much to expect. I had lived abroad for 23 years and approaching me would not have been easy. I now see that I could have reached out. I now know that when you are in trouble, people cannot read your mind. Sometimes you need to tell them what you need from them, “Can we have a talk? Would you just hold me for a while? Can you please tell me it will all come right again some day?”
But I had certain sabotaging thoughts that convinced me my Family were not interested. This was my way of not allowing myself the love that was there for me all along.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt that your family let you down?
Such feelings can fester and lead you to take distance from those you love most.
With 20/20 hindsight, I have made this list to help you handle any life crisis as effectively and honestly as possible.
A crisis may be anything like divorce, death, health problems, losing your job etc.
10 things to DO in a crisis to keep your family relationships clear and supportive.
- Communicate directly, not through other people
Feeling too low to reach out, I assumed my Mother would tell the rest of the family that I was in a bad state and that I could do with some support.
I never directly told my family what happened or how I felt, in other words, I never opened up the communication lines and invited them to share my life. Most likely they didn’t know what to do, so they did nothing.
- Tell your Family what happened
In the case of a divorce, second-guessing creates its own awkwardness. “What went wrong, who did what and who are we blaming for this?” are common thoughts. Make sure your Family hears the truth in your own words and prevent any misunderstandings in this area. Also make it clear how you are planning to handle the situation, for instance ‘We are still friends’ so that they know what to expect and that they don’t need to take sides.
- Accept that others cannot understand how you feel
I thought my family would understand how hard a break-up is and what it does to your self-confidence and sense of identity.
Now I realise that if you have not experienced it yourself, you can never fully appreciate the immense impact on all areas of your life. And no two break-ups are the same. Besides, in my family’s church circles, divorce is not ‘done’ and it turned out they had very little experience of dealing with couples breaking up.
- Know that your family’s belief systems may get in the way
I thought my family would see my relationship of living together for 10 years as equal to a marriage and our break-up as the divorce I felt it was.
Later I realised that because we were not legally wed, my family saw it as being in a different category than a marriage. This is not a question of right and wrong, but a clear-cut case for misunderstandings and unfulfilled expectations. Only by communicating will you understand where you family is coming from and can you explain how it feels for you.
- Tell people what you need, or they won’t know
I needed approval, understanding and the confirmation that I was still loved. It seemed obvious to me. But how could anyone know that since I never told them? Being a very empathetic person, I tend to feel a lot of what other people are experiencing. I always thought everyone did this.
It has taken me years to really accept that most people can’t feel into others feelings and that I cannot expect them to do this.
- Do not belittle yourself by thinking negatively
In my case, I decided that my Family had so many other people closer to them so they didn’t have time for me. Writing this I once again feel how I tortured myself with that thought. I really made a victim of myself.
Now I know that if you love someone and need them to be close, chances are that they will want to be there for you. Just give them the chance.
- Make allowances for the fear-factor
Whether we have lost a loved one to death or divorce, the resulting situation is emotional. Your Family may be scared to open up a can of worms, say the wrong thing, hurt you or they may even fear you showing your emotions. Especially the older generation still has difficulty with open displays of grief. They have grown up to face the crude and vulnerable reality of Life with stoicism and will often avert an emotional talk by switching over to practicalities. Most often they fear their own feelings. They have bottled up so much in their life that there’s no telling what would happen if their bottled-up tears began to spill. And they often project this fear onto you, thinking it would be uncomfortable for you to cry in front of them.
- Realise that your Family also have a Life
When we find ourselves in deep pain or confusion, we become self-centred. Literally. There is so much inside of us clamouring for our attention that we need to deal with it. To some extent, that might be the lesson within the pain- to stay close to ourselves, to listen to our own needs and to take good care of ourselves. On the other hand, it can make us blind to what other people are dealing with. Stay open and show an honest interest in whatever your Family is going through. Firstly that feels much better, secondly it shows them that you are open and available for a good talk and they will feel free to ask you how you are doing.
- Do not get into the ‘comparing dramas’ situation
When I was going through my rock-bottom period after my break-up, a friend of mine went through something much worse, she was sexually abused. In one of our many talks, I told her it didn’t feel right to tell her about what I was going through. After all, I was fine really, nobody had hurt me physically, my ex-partner was still alive, I had a roof over my head etc etc. Compared to what she must be feeling, any complaints of mine seemed superficial and irrelevant. My friend went on to teach me a very important lesson, which has often been relevant in my life since: “Pain is pain, you can’t rate it or scale it. In a loving friendship, there needs to be room for both parties and their feelings. If you start to ‘compare dramas’, you are being unfair to both parties and it doesn’t lead anywhere.” Intimacy occurs when you can both honestly share what you are going through- you may have a whole lot more in common than you thought.
- Be yourself
Do not go out of your way to get your Family’s approval or support. This is a difficult time for you, so make sure you are kind and gentle to yourself. At the end of the day, this is not about what your Family can give you. It is about what clarity you can give yourself in a difficult situation. And anything your Family offers in terms of support is a welcome bonus.