The Living Loss: Family Estrangement & Stages Of Grief
Over the years of working in the field as a specialist in family estrangement, I have talked to thousands of people in support groups, research projects and in my personal coaching practice who are processing the grief they feel. Many describe family estrangement as a form of ‘living loss’ and the stages of pain and healing with estrangement are not dissimilar to those of when someone passes. More research would be useful in this area too, which would help people with a more open process of what to expect.
The differences between loss to death and loss to estrangement
The primary and perhaps most obvious difference between the grief of estrangement and the grief of someone passing, is that the person we are estranged from is still living and breathing. Full closure and moving forward can be more challenging when we know that one day we may meet that person again, we may hear about their lives from others or see them on social media.
It’s worth noting that key family relationships are not only made up of exchanges of words and messages. That's one form of relational maintenance. Relationships between family members are energetic, emotional and heart-centred connections, and we still have that shared history in the form of memories, however traumatic they may be.
So we may take distance and space in terms of communication but the ‘cords’ of the relationship may still exist. We may sense and feel their presence, which can hold us in the relationship even if we have ceased contact. Much as people who have lost a family member to death may talk often of feeling their presence in their body or consciousness, the same capacity is absolutely true with estranged relatives. Both may leave a significant void in someone's life where physical presence used to be.
Loss to death can be complicated, as can loss to estrangement. Clarity is ideal when it comes to personal relationship endings, and it's also ideal if both people follow an empowered process of trying to change the relationship before deciding it’s unworkable. Yet so often life falls short of these ideals, and people may not have the skills, energy, capacity or the trust in the other person to talk clearly and openly about the reasons behind them pulling away. They may not want to enter any kind of process to heal and grow.
This unclear notion as to the reasons for estrangement can make the grief of losing touch with someone all the more complicated. Many are also left undecided if the relationship could indeed be different, if someone would hear out what they needed or gave them a chance to change.
Endings to estranged relationships can be messy, unsaid, mysterious, silent. The research I conducted with Dr Lucy Blake at Cambridge University around family estrangement with 800 + estranged adults supports this. Many people experiencing estrangement stated they didn’t know who exactly initiated the estrangement, and for many it wasn’t openly declared. Many respondents did reconsider the estrangement periodically, stimulated by life events.
With loss to death we get a very definite diagnosis of when and why someone passed, which we can form a human story around. However traumatic, these facts exist. This story supports our grief and the re-building of a new identity and reality without that person. We have something to say to people, and a collective and societally accepted path through the pain. Such a path for the grief we feel with estrangement doesn't exist in our wider consciousness. This means our struggle isn't as well understood, even by helping professionals.
Estrangement: The Stages of Grief
I'm proposing there are five stages of grief when it comes to family estrangement. The stages of grief I propose are not exhaustive, and much like grief from passing, I see that people may experience these stages out of order. You will also notice that there is a strong intersection with bereavement, trauma healing and addiction recovery practices in what I theorise here. I want to say as a caveat that more research on the journey that long-term estranged adults take would be powerful.
Stage 1: Disassociation
This is a stage that I see often in my practice when people first start looking for support and information. It is a stage where people feel considerable challenge in the relationship and have moved away from it, or are struggling with no contact.
There is much to learn from looking at the literature from communities who help families with addiction at this stage. Dysfunctional family dynamics are said to exist on three dissociative principles: don’t feel, don’t speak and don’t trust. I would say these principles apply beyond the addiction community to families where strong authoritarian parenting patterns are or have been present, and where shaming, physical punishment, ostracising and gas lighting was a normal pattern of behaviour in family life.
This culture of don’t feel, don’t speak, don’t trust is an inbuilt form of disassociation from an authentic relationship. Most importantly, it is not only an insidious framework for interacting with others, but also how we come to interact and be in relationship with ourselves. We don't feel our feelings, we don't listen to our own inner voice and we don't trust our truth. It doesn't feel safe to be me.
This is one of the patterns of inter-generational trauma that is being transmitted in families, and many estranged parents who are members of the baby boomer generations will have experienced this pattern of dysfunction as they grew up. Particularly if their own parents lived through the world wars, or served in them. There was little room for anything but survival.
I don't want to stigmatise or problematise disassociation. It's often a life-saving tool for surviving trauma at a young age. The body did this for a reason. Addictions may help us through feelings that are too hard to feel when the body isn't ready, and the mind doesn't have the tools or maturity to support itself. Yet it's relevant to ask how much it's impacting our present life, and how much of it do we need now.
What are the consequences of this disassociation with others?
We may fear feeling. So we push others away when they raise issues and we deny and rebuff their truth and experiences. We don’t want to feel imperfect, guilty, bad or wrong. It may not feel safe to feel these types of feelings, and it may be linked to deep shame and/or fear of punishment that isn’t conscious. We may not allow others to speak and minimise their perspective and deny their separate reality, as we fear feeling the consequences of their truth. We may even be deeply afraid of talking about and expressing our imperfections to professionals.
If we are the one disassociating from a relationship, we will get away from the stimulus that is causing us to feel pain and difficulty. We protect ourselves from feeling potentially overwhelming feelings of harm. We don’t want to feel these.
We often don’t speak our reasons fully and express our feelings, as we may be deeply afraid to speak our truth.
Research shows that many people hide family estrangement from others around them, which is another form of not speaking. We don’t want to feel judged and we deeply fear disapproval and abandonment from those around us. We can’t trust them to hold our truth with their own. This can be linked to the stigma around family estrangement. Thus, we often don’t truly trust others.
We may fear rejection so much that we override how we authentically feel to please others, and may not trust others with our real experiences and desires. For many, and I include myself, it was hard to even know for myself what were my authentic feelings, after so many years of behaving to feel safe. We hide as we are used to hiding in relationships, and it feels safest. The side effect of shame, and fearing we are intrinsically bad, is often hiding.
We may also further disassociate with our own forms of addiction. This could involve drink or the use of drugs recreationally to numb the feelings or we may become addicted to love, sex, shopping, sugar, work or other numbing agents to stop us from feeling. We may shut down any time alone, where we might have to face the feelings inside.
Stage 2: Feeling Anger and Sadness
The next phase of grief and healing is to do quite literally the opposite of the first stage. We start feeling, start speaking and start trusting in a safe space.
When it comes to feeling, it is healthy to start with safely expressing our anger. Anger is a natural human emotion to tell us that something isn’t right in our system. If we’ve been hurt, if we have been disrespected, if we have been taught we don’t matter, it is very natural to feel anger. Yet for the majority of people, it will be pushed down and it will live inside the body, sometimes for decades.
To work with anger, we first have to overcome the judgement and stigma of feeling it. Many of us will have been hurt by anger, and so it may feel very unsafe to process this energy or even admit we have it. We want to be the opposite of what we experienced.
Yet there are healthy and unhealthy ways to express anger, and if we don’t tend to our anger mindfully, compassionately and lovingly then it will come out sideways and be expressed towards others or ourselves in an unhealthy way.
Women may feel very undesirable and invalid expressing rage and anger, as it has been so stigmatised in the feminine. Men many feel like they’re inhabiting a toxic part of masculinity. Yet, I will say it again, if we don’t tend to our anger responsibly, we risk becoming sick in body, mind and soul. It is essential to let the little people inside us have the voice they perhaps never had when they experienced trauma. For many, the silence of estrangement and disownment also means we don’t get an authentic space to respond and have a voice.
How can life be this way?!
Why did I get this family?!
This generation is wrong - they have it all wrong!
I didn’t get what I needed! Everyone else has a loving family and I don’t!
You hurt me! How could you?!
You disowned me! How could you?!
You neglected me! How could you?!
Why do I always have to do things on my own!
My life is so hard because of all this.
It’s so unfair.
This isn’t what is meant to happen!
I wanted things to be different!
Anger isn’t always a red-hot, raging emotion that turns us into chaos. It can form around deep resentments that we hold and never process, and deep grudges that we keep. It can be helpful to think about it on these terms. What resentments am I holding? You can’t control the actions of others, or the past. These weren't your fault. But it is your responsibility to hold and process resentments and anger responsibly for you and others around you.
What is anger protecting us from? It is often sadness that lives underneath anger. After releasing anger we often move into sadness and the expression of it. This can also be a hard feeling to inhabit. Many of us seek approval, and sadness isn’t an emotion that is approved of in the same way as joy or happiness. It can also be debilitating and overwhelming to feel alone with it.
Yet again, deep sadness, if not expressed will also cause us illness and pain. Sometimes we have to move through a depression to process hard aspects of life, and we sometimes need to allow the inner children inside us to feel the anger, injustice and sadness they weren’t allowed to feel when living in the don’t feel, don’t speak, don’t trust pattern in childhood. Having safe people around you, who can help you authentically feel how you feel and support anger and sadness can be really important. This includes professionals.
Stage 3: Letting go of the family members we didn’t have
The pain of estrangement is often drawn most acutely from the comparison between what we have been taught to expect and what we ourselves have. Comparing ourselves to others and ideals can cause us so much pain.
There are many societal codes at play in this phase of grief that we need to become aware of. There are messages that exist in government policies, the media and from helping professionals that means we can feel totally abnormal to not have ‘the ideal’ when it comes to family relationships. This can have a cultural and emotional resonance, and also a material resonance when policies assume a certain amount of support that a family member will give you.
For many of us, we believe that our family member is that ideal underneath the complexities of their life experience, personality and environment. It means we are holding out considerable hope that they would, with the right help, miraculously change into this more ideal person. We then would feel a lot less pain and have what we need.
I feel that this third and potent stage of grief with estrangement is saying goodbye to these Greek statues and archetypes of family that inhabit our mind and trigger us into drawing comparisons.
Can I let go of the need for my family to be in the perfect image of what I was taught to expect? Can I accept that I needed healthy relationships in a very valid way but I didn't get them?
We have to gently let these ideals go, if we are to embrace life on life’s terms, and understand and accept what we did get. It can be hard. It can mean accepting life itself is as full of pain and injustice, as it is joy and love. We may not want to accept that we can’t control life, make it better, and change others to live in the image of an ideal. We may simply not want to accept that life is disappointing. It is a grief in an of itself to let this go.
If we are going to care for ourselves, and live with serenity, we need to get wise to what we can and can’t control. We can’t control the past, we can't control others, but we can control how we see life and situations in this stage. We can work with ourselves to realise that the deficit of the family we needed wasn't related to our worthiness to love or acceptance.
I want to caution that if anger hasn’t been processed sufficiently, then this can be a very hard concept to work with. You might feel more anger reading this! It’s natural to want to feel, express and have validated the anger of injustice before we can accept it is part of life. We may have to re-visit anger processing as situations develop and we get thrown back into feeling how unjust the situation is. This is where estrangement is unique, as people are capable of returning into our lives directly or indirectly and creating more anger to process.
Stage 4: Feeling strength
When we move on in this stage of estrangement grief, we can begin to feel what strengths that this life experience has afforded us. How is life challenging me to develop with this situation?
I want to spend a moment outlining the powers that we are given when we come from a dysfunctional family. We are often given powers of empathy, sensitivity, creativity, insightfulness, and intuition. We are often very resilient, courageous, strong and capable of understanding the pain of others. We also are very intentional with our own family and how we raise children, and the decision to have them, and we often go through a journey with understanding who our friends really are. We really know what values we want from our lives.
These are just a few qualities. When we get to this stage of grief and healing we can begin to relinquish the lust and longing for something different. We can accept how this experience has uniquely shaped us in the world. The estrangement can challenge us to have a much healthier life, surrounded by more nourishing people in the end.
Humans can often endure great suffering if we can see that it has a greater meaning for our lives or the lives of others. Many people have said this before, but I think it's wise to remember it in this section.
Stage 5: Peace
I receive a lot of questions about feeling peace and serenity in estrangement and moving on. I also get asked what does ‘healed’ look like? Interestingly, a lot of people who come to my private practice feel that healing and peace is not feeling anymore. I think we can loop full circle back to the not feeling, not speaking, not trusting pattern that is rearing its head.
I feel that peace is achieved when we can accept we can feel, we can speak and we can trust others and ourselves. In short, we can be fully and authentically present in our truth. The gas lighting can't work on us, as we believe and trust ourselves and know our worth.
We have compassionate awareness of the shame-based limiting beliefs that can and have pervaded our lives, and we can recognise resentments, societal coding, perfectionism and unrealistic expectations when they appear. We can make sense of them and be present with them, and with compassionate awareness, we can smile to them as part of life and let them go peacefully.
Peace doesn’t mean we won’t feel anger, it doesn’t mean we won’t get attacks of shame, it doesn’t mean we won’t feel sad, it doesn’t mean that life won’t sometimes throw us an estrangement curve ball or that we’ll break up with partners and friends. There will just be a lot more space and time to process these aspects lovingly and to get on our own side.
I don't want to bring out a cliche but I feel this one is important. The most guaranteed aspect of our human experience is change. I am sat here writing this piece in North America, and I grew up in a village in Yorkshire. My grandma worked in a travelling fairground and couldn't go to school everyday, and I hold a DLitt. The last thing my grandma said to me before she died was 'never trust anyone'. Here I am writing about how peace comes in trusting the right people. Life, culture, society, values and opportunity have changed considerably. All this change may not be to our satisfaction and it won't always feel easy. When we feel life on its terms, we will accept and love ourselves through the crunchy moments of realising the greater journey we are on.
We will ask for help from trusted people who can guide us to weather these storms compassionately. We won’t label ourselves as good or bad, judge or need to hide. We recognise what we can and can’t control, we know what we deserve as a human, we know what we can give, we know when we need to take, and we know what we can and can’t be in relationship to. It is this more mature outlook that I want to gift my family. It takes times to get there, but it is worth the journey.