“Family is one of nature’s masterpieces” — philosopher George Santayana.
If so, what are we to make of estranged family relationships?
And, extending the question, how do we process the death of an estranged family member?
First, the numbers.
- In a 2015 study, Richard P. Conti of Kean University found that about 17 percent of respondents experienced estrangement from an immediate family member, most commonly from the father.
- In his book, “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them,” Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist at Cornell University, says 27 percent of a study he conducted acknowledged being estranged from a family member. Moreover, half of that group said they had been estranged for four years or more.
“Family estrangements are on the rise — according to one study, they may be as common as divorce,” writes Vinita Mehta in Psychology Today. “It’s painful and alienating for those involved.”
How did we reach this level?
Multiple Causes/Strong Feelings
Kristina Scharp, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, says estrangement is driven by eight conditions: communication quality, communication quantity, physical distance, presence/absence of emotion, positive/negative affect, reconciliation/desire to be a family, role reciprocity and legal action.
From personal observation, it’s probably fair to add a couple of other conditions (which may, in fact, be subcategories of Scharp’s eight conditions), including truthfulness/trustworthiness, ethical/unethical behavior and financial decisions/actions. And then there’s “making choices”: Bad, good, communicated, not communicated, avoided and misunderstood.
No longer loving the other person? It’s the one thing experts and research indicate is not a cause.
“You can’t be estranged from someone you’ve never cared about, but you can care deeply about someone you’re estranged from,” writes Harriet Brown in “Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement.” “To be estranged is to be distant, physically or emotionally or both, to be moving away from the other, less a state of being than an action.”
Brown adds that estrangement requires choice, “at least for one person,” adding “families can drift apart out of indifference or circumstance, but estrangement grows out of strong feelings.”
And, once an estranged relationship takes hold, my view is that it is made worse by the following toxic combination: the passage of time, a certain amount of stubbornness and an inability to create and execute a reconciliation strategy.
How often does this happen? We’ve all sen it. In circumstances where two estranged family members attempt to reconcile, they all too frequently can’t even agree about what has been keeping them apart for years … or even decades. With the passage of time, memories fail or significantly cloud the original trigger or triggers.
Mourning the Estrangement
To be sure, many people with estranged family relationships already are mourning the loss of their loved one. They experience feelings – emptiness, broken hearts, loneliness, guilt, anger, desertion – not unlike those felt when someone they care about dies.
The problem, of course, is exacerbated when the estranged relative passes away. You already are mourning. You already have a hole in your chest. You already are questioning your faith and the fairness of life. You already have passed the point of knowing how to fix what seems unfixable.
And, then, your adult – and estranged – child dies. You may not get the information first-hand and, in your mind’s eye, you visualize your adult child from an earlier period in time, as you have no present or recent image in your mind.
You may experience several circumstances that make the situation even worse, as you may not:
- be able to get accurate (and timely) information
- have up-to-date contact information
- have personal (or current) relationships with grandchildren (if there are any)
Moreover, the current travel and personal-contact constraints imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic create an unprecedented level of frustration. Visits with ill relatives and participation at a wake, funeral or shiva may be next to impossible.
You don’t get to say goodbye.
And, so, your mourning becomes more difficult to move through and you are terribly confused about what you are experiencing and feeling.
How to Begin Addressing Your Grief
This is a long-term issue. However, there are some small initial steps that can be helpful:
- Forgive. Yourself and your loved one. There is no weight that you need to carry forward. Likewise, there is no weight you need to assign to anyone else.
- Reach out to grandchildren, if you have some. You may not have a relationship now, but you may be surprised at their openness as they may have been withheld from you.
- Force yourself to articulate your feelings in writing. Write a letter. It doesn’t need to be sent to anyone, but it does need to be written.
- Make a list of remembrances. You’ve put them aside for years. They belong to you. Re-embrace them. There are more positives than you think.
- Revisit photos. You’ll see them differently than you did during the estrangement. And you’ll remember the days they were taken.
Most of all, keep moving forward. But don’t forget. You may find that you think about your lost loved one more frequently than you did when you were estranged. Don’t reject those thoughts and don’t run away from them. In fact, welcome and own these feelings as they will sustain you going forward.