Seth Forbes first became estranged from one side of her family at 13. By 27, she was estranged from the other. Her experiences with estrangement led her to found the nonprofit Together Estranged, a group that provides services to adults who are estranged.
While many LGBTQ+ people become disconnected from their families because of their sexuality or gender identity, estrangement can happen for a variety of reasons. That's something that Forbes, the executive director of Together Estranged, wants people to know.
"A lot of people don't want to talk about it, but it is everywhere," Forbes tells The Advocate. "Estrangement is not an all-or-nothing experience: There are many varying levels of estrangement."
Those levels can range from complete estrangement to only small amounts affable of contact.
Forbes says she experienced estrangement first as a young teen when she became estranged from half of her family after she was sexually abused. She experienced it again before 27 because of her queerness.
"I was sexually assaulted by a family member when I was 13, and the family that I was living with -- because my parents were divorced -- they did not believe me," Forbes says. "They basically blamed me and shamed me for what happened, and I no longer felt safe in that environment."
That's when she moved across the country to live with her dad. "As I got older, I actually found out that I was gay, and that's when I realized that my dad and his side of the family just couldn't accept that part of me."
Motivated by her estranged relationships, Forbes started Together Estranged in 2021. "It was a really earth-shattering experience for me over the years -- to lose so many people. It had a severe effect on my mental health," she explains.
During the pandemic, Forbes realized others might also be in similar situations and have had similar experiences. She wondered, she says, if they were getting the validation and support they deserved. Forbes grew up watching her dad run a business, so the MBA student decided to start her own endeavor.
Together Estranged sees more than 350 participants in its support group, Forbes says. "We are very busy. We have newsletters, we have social, you know, social media. We have done some of our own research. We have a lot going on."
Though it's in Boston, many of the group's programs are virtual-friendly. That includes this weekend when Together Estranged will host holiday programming online for a day of togetherness. Thanks to a partnership with BetterHelp, those participating can also sign up for six months of free therapy with the online platform that pairs people with reputable and licensed therapists.
Sunday's program comes at a challenging time for many estranged people.
"The holidays are incredibly difficult," Forbes says. "Advertisements and media often portray this picture-perfect family where everyone's happy and everyone's getting along and it's just this beautiful portrait of a loving family and that's really not always the case."
For those who are estranged and might be feeling the holiday melancholy, Forbes recommends a few things. She says that people should think carefully about what would be best for their mental health. For those that do have family contact, but may still be on some level of estrangement, Forbes suggests asking yourself: Do you have to go to the family event? Can you put a time limit on it? Could you organize a phone call that you need to take to help leave the event? She says it could be helpful to have some exit strategies in place to leave if the environment gets toxic.
Throughout the period, Forbes says that estranged people should focus on what they need, "whether it's spending as much time as possible petting your cat or your dog or whether it's making sure that you're getting outside and taking long walks, cooking food for yourself, hosting your own like Friendsgiving or Friendsmas."
She also says that people who know people who are estranged can also help them through this time of the year.
"Recognize that it's very hard for someone to disclose that they're estranged from family. We don't want to be the bad guy. We don't want that judgment. We don't want shame. We don't want any negative feelings about us not having these family members in our lives, so I would say just remember to be very empathetic with those people because it took a while for them to open up to you and trust you enough to tell you that information," Forbes says. "I would also say check in with that person to see what kind of support they need. Some people would love it if you invited them over to your family holiday event, while other people might find that really triggering."
Most of all, Forbes wants people to know that they aren't the only ones going through this.
"I want to give back to the community," she says. "And I want other people to know that they're not alone, that this is a very common experience."