Everyone has family reunions, so what’s the big deal about attending yours this summer? Mom will appreciate your presence, and you know you have to get to the bottom of the story about your cousin Charlie and his famous frat brother. If you’re queasy about it, consider that about 100 million people attend reunions every year, so you’re in good company.
If you’re helping to put the event together, an online people search can help tremendously. You may use it to find addresses of distant cousins, to find out if the new owners of the old family farm will allow visitors to see where Grandpa was kicked by that mule, and in general to study up on some of those who may attend.
Breaking the ice
If you find “lost” family members through people search engines, keep in mind that people may respond in a variety of ways to being invited to a reunion of people they haven’t met or don’t remember. Of course, search results can help you decide if you want to include people you’ve never met, too. Consider these options:
- Send a written invitation to the last address listed, and include your phone number for follow up.
- Offer to meet ahead of time to make the “new” family member comfortable, so they don’t feel like a stranger at the event.
- If the person you found can’t attend, perhaps you can arrange a phone call to get some information about their side of the family.
You may also opt to use that people search function to forge a pact with cousin Charlie — you won’t mention his arrest if he stays away from the topic of your third marriage. Or perhaps you’ll find that nephew Paul, the quiet one, is listed as the owner of significant business and several homes, a handy piece of information you may need when passing the hat to help with reunion expenses.
Deciding to attend
Put yourself in the “new cousin’s” shoes and welcome him and his family appropriately. Perhaps thinking about attending gives you flashbacks to scary games in your grandparent’s basement? Imagine showing up to face a few dozen people without knowing anyone. Reunions are a hotbed of angst for many people, for good reason.
Ways to welcome a new relative include:
- asking them how they want to be introduced;
- finding out a little about them first, and making small talk;
- offering to be of assistance with any needs, and
- including them in activities as a partner.
Mental health professionals say that if attending a family reunion causes anxiety, you should rethink your commitment to attending. Don’t let peer pressure get the best of you and potentially cause a setback. If you’re seeing a therapist, discuss it with them and leave yourself some wiggle room to step back if thoughts of attending are having a negative effect on you.
Offer to be an ally to anyone with anxiety, whether a spouse, sibling, or close relative, and help them get through the day. Before the event:
- establish talking points and boundaries for conversation;
- remind others in attendance about topics that should be confidential;
- brainstorm other topics to discuss that can be substituted, and
- plan a safe word or signal to break away and regroup when necessary.
When setting boundaries of conversation:
- remind yourself that you’re doing it not to be vindictive but to preserve your mental health;
- remember that the people you see once a decade don’t need to know your darkest secrets;
- stay positive, refuse to take the bait that might tempt you into talking about others the way you wouldn’t want them to talk about you;
- walk away from conversations about politics, lifestyle choices, money, or anything else that will only escalate into nastiness, and
- only say or do (or eat or drink!) things that you can feel good about the next day.
One brilliant strategy for avoiding the pitfalls of bringing disparate members of a family together is to appoint a “purple” person who will intervene diplomatically between Red and Blue voters if and when factions clash. Acknowledge the referee early on in the gathering to alert everyone to the presence of “Switzerland” – a neutral zone – that will ensure fair play.
Activities substitute for discussion
If you want to participate but can see issues arising between family factions that will make the reunion memorable for all of the wrong reasons, offer to plan activities that will keep you busy and provide a positive distraction. Some ideas include:
- For older relatives, mapping the family tree and piecing together bits of individual stories can be entertaining;
- For kids, plan contests for different ages, anything from coloring to trivia to cornhole to “name that tune”;
- A water balloon toss is a fun event appropriate to hot weather and including all ages;
- Brief games like Jenga allow a variety of people to participate.