Grieving for an Estranged Relative – A Complex Process for Millions

A dude with a splitting headache

The process of grieving is a difficult one for all of us. When we lose a loved one, it’s difficult to cope with grief, knowing that they will no longer be around. But eventually, most of us come to terms with these unfortunate events in life and move on. Often, we enjoy tremendous support from friends along the way. We usually have other family members to share in these challenging times. But these resources aren’t necessarily available for those who lose a family member from whom their estranged. Estrangement comes with its own set of challenges that only become more difficult when the estranged relative passes.

(Project Bold Life has explored grief and loss before–read up on it here.)

Believe it or not, estrangement for a parent, child or sibling is incredibly common. Surveys have shown that about 27% of Americans are estranged from relative, and most are long-term in nature. Therefore, coping with grief (or the lack thereof) after an estranged relative dies presents a complicated yet common situation. On the one hand, it requires one to comes to terms with the finality of it all. But at the same time, it also includes dealing with the social stigma and judgment that often exists. While this process will vary for everyone, it’s worth exploring how estrangement and coping with grief intermingle.

Dealing with Estrangement in the First Place

With estrangement being so common, it’s important to appreciate the impact this can have on one’s life. There are many reasons why people choose to distance themselves or cut ties with a family member. In some cases, there may have been a toxic relationship of emotional, physical, or sexual abuse that led to the decision. Other situations may have involved substance abuse or disagreements over politics, religion, or lifestyle. And often, a divorce or separation in the family triggers family members to pick sides leading to estrangement. Any of these are valid reasons for estrangement if it’s ultimately decided that sticking around is more detrimental than leaving.

But just because it makes sense to distance oneself from a relative doesn’t mean life suddenly becomes rosy. Estrangement is associated with its own coping with grief that involves feelings of shame, guilt and embarrassment. The grief experienced with estranged family members, however, is often the loss of something imagined. For example, walking away may mean you’ll never have the loving parental relationship you wanted. Or you may be forced to realize a child simply doesn’t want you in their life. These are not easy situations, and many describe coping with grief after estrangement as silent type of pain. For most who have chosen to be estranged, these are the types of emotions that must be negotiated long before a family member passes.

Coping with Grief After an Estranged Death

For families who aren’t estranged, coping with grief tends to move through various stages. There may be first denial followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and eventual acceptance. This usually takes several months for most people, but the transitions help them effectively work through their loss. However, with estrangement, this process is much more complex. In surveying individuals who’ve experience the loss of an estranged relative, other emotions are common. These include grief and regret in some cases, but in others, a sense of relief may actually be experienced. Likewise, some people may feel absolutely nothing at all. These emotions vary depending on the person and the circumstances that led to the estrangement in the first place. But it’s important to recognize that the process of grieving is quite different in these instances.

For those feeling a sense of regret or guilt, the finality of death tends to play a role. The permanence of the loss of their estranged relative eliminates the hope that reconciliation may ever occur. The unfinished business creates a type of bereavement-related regret that complicates their coping with grief. In others who experience relief or no emotion, it’s likely they’ve already went through a process of grieving already. In fact, coping with grief usually starts with the estrangement since this is when they must deal with imagined losses. Thus, when the actual death takes place, they have essentially already worked through the necessary stages of grief. In any case, it’s evident that coping with grief is quite different in situations involving estrangement.

Overcoming Social Stigma

For many people dealing with estrangement, social stigma and judgment can be overpowering. When one no longer connects with a parent, child or sibling, a natural sense of shame and guilt often follows. Traditional culture expects us to love our families, no matter what. And even if disagreements and conflicts arise, reconciliation and reconnecting is valued. But what happens when distancing oneself from a relative is in our best interest? What happens when this is the healthiest and safest thing we can do? Unfortunately, society tends not to embrace this perspective, and in fact, can judge harshly against it. This is what causes the shame, guilt and blame in the first place.

If these social pressures exist with estrangement, you can imagine things can be even more difficult after death. Coping with grief on one’s own terms can be a challenge. But it becomes even harder when others cannot understand the difficulties an estranged relative may be experiencing. This is especially true for those who feel no grief at all or even have some feelings of relief. In these instances, it is important to recognize that mainstream society won’t likely understand what you’re going through. This realization is actually quite important in coping with grief in these situations in a healthy and realistic way.

Best Strategies in Coping with Grief

For those dealing with the loss of an estranged relative, there are some things that can help. Therapists encourage individuals to identify some positive attributes about that person, even if they are few in number. Everyone has some good traits and moments in life and finding these can ease the emotional pains. In addition, one should give themselves enough latitude in coping with grief in their own unique way. Many may not understand why you feel the way you do, but the bottom line is that you do. Give yourself the freedom to deal with the loss, past or present, by better understanding your feelings. Finally, it never hurts to seek professional help in making sense of death and estrangement. This can often provide greater clarity and help identify hidden emotions that might not be evident. These types of approaches tend to provide a healthy way to process everything you might be feeling. It might not be easy, but you’ll be better for it in the long run.


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Through timely and thoughtful articles, the book Project Bold Life: The Proven Formula to Take on Challenges and Achieve Happiness and Success, and other media, we deliver engaging content that educates, motivates and inspires you to live a Bold Life.
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