The Grief of Estrangement

Talking About Grief When No One Has Died

“I didn’t talk to my daughter for more than five years. I didn’t know what hit me. I kept thinking about her and wondering where she was. My granddaughter was born, and I never knew. We are trying to ‘fix’ things now, but it’s different than before. I still miss what we used to have.”

This mother’s estrangement with her oldest daughter caused her to feel confused, isolated, and distressed. But most of all, she grieved the loss of her daughter. Even when they began working on their relationship again, she grieved the dynamic they used to have. 

Unless you’ve gone through the specific pain of estrangement, it may be difficult to see severed relationships as a loss that we grieve, just like we grieve for people who have died. That’s why estrangement is one kind of disenfranchised grief—it’s not something our culture recognizes as legitimate, even though it is. Estrangement is a hurtful, difficult experience on its own. But when people around you just don’t get it, it can feel like you’re on an island all on your own. 

Being estranged from family or loved ones is a significant, meaningful loss. Here are some evidence-based tools to help you deal with the grief of an unresolved, alienated relationship:

  • Redefine your family role. We all play roles within a family, and the expectations around those roles can contribute to the pain of estranged relationships. Create a list of the roles you play in your life—in the past and the present, within your family and outside of it. Make a second list of your attributes that bring you pride and satisfaction. Take your time over days and weeks to make these lists. When you’ve been thoughtful and thorough, consider this picture of you as a person: you fulfill many roles outside of the one lost or damaged by estrangement. Despite your grief, you have many strong, positive qualities that contribute to a productive life. Your estranged relationship does not define all your relationships. And the characteristics you might feel shame, guilt, or uncertainty over do not override all your positive characteristics, either. 
  • Make choices in a seemingly choiceless situation. The painful reality is that you cannot change someone else’s mind, even if you want to reconcile with them. If you focus on wanting to change the status of an estrangement, you will remain fixated on it and have less energy for yourself and other relationships. Though you can’t choose to change the situation, consider what choices you can make that help you move toward peace and acceptance. Here are some examples:
      • “I choose to dislike this situation, but I also choose to continue to love this person.”
      • “I choose to forgive myself for my role in this estrangement. I did the best I could, and I will do better going forward.”
      • “I choose to accept that this might be out of my control.”
  • Lean on your circle of support. Think of yourself at the center of a circle. What are the people and groups that support you, from your closest confidants rippling out to the farthest? Include family, friends, community members, workplace supports, religious organizations—anything that supports you in some way. When you’ve thought broadly about your circles, come back to you at the center. Even without the relationship you’re grieving, picture the meaningful, connected life you do have—and don’t be afraid to ask those circles of support for help, company, and comfort.

Estrangement is a very difficult grief to reconcile with, especially because as long as the people involved remain alive, there is always some possibility of change. It’s hard to live fully in this limbo and all the emotions that come with it—anger, guilt, and shame, to name a few. But being estranged from someone you care about is a valid and complex loss. It’s just as important to make space for your grief as it is to keep your hope alive.  

For more on understanding the grief of estrangement and how to deal with it, learn more about our evidence-based workshop.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash