We’ve all been there… The family reunion –aunts, uncles, first cousins thrice-removed, and other relatives — everyone gathered to celebrate a progenitor from a hundred years ago. Does the word awkward ring a bell? These gatherings are fantastic, and important, but if effort isn’t put into strengthening family friendships then no one will feel very comfortable.
Part of the trick is to remember that every subgroup of the family is unique. Cousin Jenny’s family might be vegetarian, while everyone else loves a good B-B-Q and steak. And then there’s Great Uncle Fred, and his family, who cannot play sports – even though there are four high-school All-Stars scattered throughout the rest of the family. These differences aren’t areas that need to cause conflict – they instead are part of the family’s tapestry.
We have a saying hanging on our wall –“ Families are like trees. They may branch in many directions, but the roots are the same.” By focusing on what we have in common as an extended family, we will be able to increase our understanding of each other and enjoy each other better.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are rapidly approaching. No, I’m not going to give a count down. If family relationships need to be improved before those holiday gatherings are upon us, then now is the time to start working. Will some issues take longer than others to work through? Yes. But, it’s important to start.
Why? Why is this so important?
Because, as awkward as this sounds, everyone will end up at a funeral together some time or another. I’m not wanting to be a downer, but the reality is that everyone eventually dies. And when parents die, their children are left to support one another. If those children aren’t already comfortable supporting each other, then the death of their parents will be even more difficult to work through. No one wants to feel alone in this world, but if family connections aren’t strong, then that’s exactly how they can feel.
Now that we’ve talked about why creating family friendships is important, let’s talk about the how.
- Spend time with one another. Go to those reunions and make the time to talk with the other families. Try to find time during the year to spend time with siblings and their families. These don’t need to be huge activities, or expensive outings. One of the best adult family memories I have is of an Easter where my parents and three other sisters (and children) were able to meet at a park. We played on the playground, had a family Easter egg hunt, flew kites, and a picnic. It was a fabulous afternoon.
- Treat each other as adults. It can be difficult to let go of childhood roles as we grow older. But, it’s important to respect each other as adults and individuals. We may offer advice if asked, but should really try to keep our opinions of each other private. If there’s an issue with a particular sibling, we should address that issue with that person privately – not to everyone else in the family, just as we would if it was a friend we had an issue with.
- Accept each family as they are – differences and quirks included. There really aren’t a lot of black and white choices when raising a family and what works for one family may not work for the other. Remember that every set of parents are doing their best to a) not mess up their kids; b) raise happy, healthy kids; and c) create a loving family environment. So, if what works for you is having your kids jump on their bed before sleeping, but what works for me is having my kids read books for 20 min – yeah for both of us that we figured out what our kids need to get to sleep smoothly.
Accepting each family as they are, treating each other as adults and making time to spend with one another will help to cement the family friendships we all need as our immediate family ages. Brothers and sisters will be the safety net of support after parents pass. That net needs to be full of love and compassion, understanding and kindness. And it is up to us to fill it now, before we need it, so that it’s ready when we do. And, as an added bonus, we’ll have people we know and love to sit with at those family reunions.