Feeling numb, dumbfounded, angry, and depressed over the angst of being cut off from a family member is expected. Estrangement can occur with adult children, mothers, fathers, siblings, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and grandchildren.
Descriptions include “feeling like I am dead” and “devasted.” What can we do to get our life back?
Research describes the ambiguous and uncertain nature of being cut off from the family. Many focus on how they can arrive at their desired outcome and get things back to where they were before the event shocked their world.
A repaired relationship is an ideal outcome when the circumstances warrant reconciling. In cases of abusive and toxic relationships, individuals estrange out of self-preservation. Reconciling is not recommended unless behaviors have significantly improved.
The experience of estrangement harms our emotions and thoughts and is traumatizing. Prolonged immersion in meditating on the traumatic experience can be stressful and overwhelming. Stress is emotionally taxing, but we can devise ways to manage the emotional strain. Let’s add that coping can be productive and detrimental.
Overwhelming is when we lose the ability to cope and cannot function. We respond with feelings of grief and potentially chronic stress. Being cut off is a lot to navigate as humans. It can break us for a while if we aren’t careful. Protecting ourselves must be an intentional posture we cling to.
I am aware of both sides of the estrangement condition. My severed relationship with my sister resulted because being with her was highly unmanageable. People around me were generous with their suggestions and “you shoulds” which only helped me feel more guilt.
Then my son decided to disconnect from his siblings physically and emotionally about five years ago. And later he disconnected from my husband and me. The ache and shock would not subside.
But I needed to continue living; I avoided dealing with the blow.
Compartmentalizing pain is a great coping mechanism. It’s akin to putting stuff in the attic for a day you might get to it in the future. Compartmentalizing is a defense mechanism used to avoid and suppress our emotions. Avoiding can be helpful when we are distressed but still need to show up for something important. But in the long run, avoiding prolongs the pain.
It is most helpful when we go back and sort through the box. The stuff I keep in my literal attic is mostly stuff I cannot part with for now. It has meaning and value. I saved some baby blankets in a box only to find they took on that musty smell.
When it comes to our figurative attic or the pain we want to avoid, we only get relief in the short term. Contents in the attic do not just sort themselves. We need to go in there and process. We move past so we can find relief and live despite the blow.
The wounds of estrangement require someone to come alongside us and be there to help share and bear the burden. Trained therapists guide someone towards healing.
A supportive therapist and friend will patiently listen as you ventilate and make meaning of what has happened.
They know how to help you feel heard and give nonjudgmental feedback. Therapy is where you can take that box out of the attic as it is, and someone skillfully enables you to process it.
Estrangement support groups will also provide an opportunity not to feel alone and gain insights. Therapy is where we talk about what’s troubling us and our desire to feel less distressed. Early in the estrangement and even lingering, we may experience grief, shock, denial, anger, guilt, and depression. But the shame one feels when their family rejects them keeps estrangement in the shadows. Shame also occurs when someone leaves a relationship.
The human need for connection is so great that when threatened by someone who needs to cut off, it shakes us to our core. Shame, differing from guilt, is feeling something is wrong with us. When we are ashamed to talk about what has happened in our family, it fuels our inability to move past and heal. Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, has amplified the necessity to be vulnerable as a pathway to courage.
To move forward and find relief, we need to honestly go into those attic boxes, even the ones that have been there too long, but take someone with us. The trouble with doing the work all alone is that we lose perspective on what has value.
If we have been in the throes of grief and are ashamed, we are likely critical and unloving toward ourselves. We might ruminate about our mistakes and condemn ourselves rather than forgive. Taking responsibility for our part is essential but being wedged in the mire of our shame leaves us stuck.
When someone witnesses these heavier places, they can reflect with an empathetic perspective. That friend, therapist, or group member can remind us that we are more than someone’s sibling, daughter, mother, or father.
You start remembering your strengths and values. Processing emotions and feelings help us build a bridge to who we are and feel more connected. We take the risk, feel heard, and find that connection.
Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.— Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
I know from those who write and speak to me that therapy has helped them to find a path towards healing. One woman was estranged from her daughter after she and her husband decided to divorce. When we first began, she could hardly get through a session without weeping over the loss of her relationship with her husband, daughter, and grandchildren.
Another woman navigated her anger over her two daughters “kicking her to the curb” with her desire to reconcile. The theme of those who have benefitted from therapy relay is empathy, and gentle guidance has helped them to move past the wounds and find relief.
As a therapist and wellness coach, I think self-care is probably one of the most misunderstood essential things humans require. Describing self-care as a practice of caring for oneself is part of the problem. Self-care is an attitude you commit to when you love yourself enough to know you are worth honoring. It’s more about knowing you are worth the effort and time to do what it takes to ensure you are well emotionally, spiritually, relationally, and physically.
As a society, we adore our pets. I will admit that I am guilty of loving my sorely missed little Lola more than myself. She went to her veterinarian appointments, was impeccably groomed, fed well, and adored.
On the other hand, I have avoided the dentist like the plague, forcing myself to listen to that cleaning tool. But besides self-care, such as getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods, exercising, and drinking enough water, we need to reach into our attitude about ourselves.
Do we make time for social engagements and fun? Are we engaging in downtime that allows our bodies and minds to pause from all the pressures of life? Resurrecting a hobby that pleases us is an excellent place to start. Positive regard for our well-being means we are building a bridge back to ourselves.
Especially when we are dealing with the wounds of estrangement and our focus is on an outcome with someone we can’t control. We can influence how we move past the awfulness and emotional pain of being cut off.
We can join a book club, take a pottery class, do volunteer work, and walk a trail with a friend. When we let accumulated intense feelings out, we begin to soften ourselves. Our self-care attitude is more than a manicure but an appointment with someone you care about. Cultivating self-compassion comes from self-acceptance and treating ourselves as we would a dear friend.
A daily self-care routine will help you build your reservoir to prepare you for the uncertain future. Breathing techniques, prayer, and meditation help us stay calm. Basic self-care is essential and so is having fun.
A spiritual practice helps us stay grounded. Journaling and gratitude practice are excellent mood lifters. The most significant predictor of well-being is gathering with those who love and value you. If it’s not your family, then connect with friends. Above all, it is the attitude that your life matters that will help you move past the wounds and find relief.
What have you done to move past your wounds of estrangement? What has helped you get unstuck from your estrangement? What self-care practices have been the most helpful as you move forward?
I brought out the family pictures and realized I missed that family and that family doesn’t exist anymore. So I can enjoy looking at the smiles of the past and prefer it to the cruelty all four children now heap on their parents.
The grandchildren are missing out – sorry new parents, you can’t just “elect” new faux family to replace REALITY family history and ties for VIRTUAL facsimiles.
Thank you for sharing here as others are also feeling similarly. I hear you. It does feel like cruelty. Many of those who I hear from and speak to express the magnitude of how adult children have changed from earlier generations. I think it’s a positive perspective of knowing we miss what once was and accepting what we can not change. I appreciate you joining this discussion.
My apologies for the late response as I was traveling all day yesterday.
Estrangement is very difficult. I was not allowed to contact my mother as she lay dying, nor was I allowed to attend her funeral and I have only guessed at the reason. I’ve rekindled my relationship with my father but recently, he made a trip with my two siblings and never asked me to accompany them and that hurts. But I don’t wish to dwell on what’s been lost so I continue to email him daily as he says he really enjoys reading my emails. However, I haven’t seen him in over 20 years.
My sister and I are on strained terms although we have communicated a few times in the recent past and those have been nice. I am comfortable with this for reasons I shall keep to myself.
My brother and I were at odds with each other for several years and then he reached out, which was very nice. But I think work and family demands have gotten the best of him and I haven’t heard from him in about two years.
I wish I knew why my youngest daughter does not communicate with me but I won’t push or nag. I do write short emails to her and send short notes via the post office so she knows that I love her. I honestly don’t know what accounts for this lack of contact but hopefully, she’ll move beyond it before it’s too late.
I wonder if this seeming estrangement is due to our present lifestyles that put career as a priority, and in such a fast-paced life that we lack the time to contact those we hold dear? I don’t know but I shall continue to make contact in loving, non-nagging ways simply because I care, I love, and I want to reach out to let them know they are loved.
thank you for sharing your story. I am so sorry for the mistreatment you have endured.
Your letter writing and emails is exactly what experts on estrangement suggest. Checking in regularly with our adult kids with a note that lets then know that you are thinking of them and still there for them lets them know that you are approachable when they are ready to reach out. I am grateful you wrote and I encourage you to continue to move forward. Be kind to yourself!! Thank you again for being a part of the community at Sixty and Me.
I would love to find an estrangement support group. I have compartmentalized my daughter, so now I barely remember that she has cut off all ties. I focus on my son who just started his freshman year in college. I know I caused her to have horrible trauma when I tried to take my life. My whole family (ex and 2 kids) had been treating me horribly and I couldn’t afford to live where they lived in San Diego after I had to go on disability. I had nothing. I was able to sub teach part time but then when Covid hit, I lost that job when school shut down. I couldn’t afford rent without that pay. I worked out a deal to break my lease. But then there was nowhere to go. I had lived in my car before, and I knew I couldn’t do it again. My depression took hold and my chronic pain got so bad. I just wanted rest from all of it. Nobody would help me move out. They just threw insults my way and walked away. I couldn’t believe this was my life. I was almost successful but my ex sent my daughter to check on me when i told him to feed my service dog and take care of her. She found me dying and took me to the hospital. I was in ICU for 5 days. Then, she wanted to stay with me at a hotel that my mom , in MA, paid for, not knowing the whole story but wanting to help. I was still depressed but she didn’t get it. She got upset because I wasn’t well. I left the state and came to TX. She stopped talking to me but then started again. She stopped again after my last trip there. Now, I worry that my forgetting her will stick. That I won’t be able to retrieve her at all from the attic.
Thank you for writing the article.
There is an estrangement support group on FaceBook that many find helpful. Ann, I am deeply sorry for all the hardship and hurt you have experienced. You’ve been through enormous life stressors. Being hurt by family and adult kids is awful. We do the best we can at the time. Sometimes it helps to detach from our kids for a season so we can heal.
It is a way to move forward and deal with the grief. I think if its possible for you talking to a local therapist would give you more support so you can cope with the loss of your daughter.
Maybe you’re not forgetting her right now, but need to pull back for a season. You can always go back to that stuff in the attic when you’re ready to tackle it. Are you speaking with her again now? I wish you well. Warmly, Marie
i am trying to find an “Estranged support group” not really finding anything. i have helped my daughter for years, (she my only one) helped her two kids and now helping the great grand kids. I have chosen to do so at times and other times it’s expected of me! my great grand son who is 18 has said some nasty things to me (i showed a friend as they were texts she couldn’t believe it) I’m very hurt from that but to top it off my daughter sticks up for him – that is hurtful! So i have a few hurts and also i’m angry bc I helped and could use that money now in my life! (yes I know what everyone is thinking) you have to understand that years ago my daughter did something that totally thru me over the top – i’d rather not say, a fews years after not speaking i guess i have tried to make up for my anger by helping her (she did need the help) 35 years have gone by and I have done a good job of putting my hurt behind until this incident with 18 year old and my daughter’s choice to stand up for him. i fight with the fact, that i don’t want to really be bother to not leaving this world in anger. I’em tired of pretending though and i’m stressed. Talking to a therapist over the years really hasn’t helped bc they can’t help matters of the heart, only the head. so that is my dilema at 76. Good Luck and take care!
Hi, I am 76 with an only child and after my divorce from my second husband two bouts of breast cancer, I lost touch with my own social needs. I don’t have grandchildren but my life revolved around family and my recovery from the trauma of cancer. I have experienced periods of estrangement and carried a lot of shame. I am learning how to love myself which feels awkward at times because the family put an emphasis on self denial. It sometimes feels awkward to regard myself with the same empathy and compassion I gave others
Hi Theresa: Thank you for sharing your story. There are estrangement support groups on facebook that some have found helpful. I hear you, and I am sorry you have had to endure such hurt and harm from your daughter and grandson. Therapists are skilled in helping people learn and process matters of the heart. May I suggest that you try a few more, you may find one that fits for you. . The trend now of adult kids being very hard on their parents is very real. We can’t change them, we can only work on changing ourselves. It sounds like you already know that you don’t want to be angry. Do you have good friends that you can talk to? I wish you well. Warmly,
My daughter and I have had a tenuous relationship since her teens. It’s a roller coaster ride. I saw a counselor because of my deep depression and anxiety. The result was rewarding. The thing that keeps me going (and I’m an atheist) is the Serenity Prayer. It’s posted on the wall behind my bedroom door and when I close my door each night and open it each morning, I recite it aloud. It calms me and helps me reach out everyday to a seek a satisfying day.
Hi P J: Thank you for sharing here. The Serenity Prayer is a lovely way to start your day. I am glad you have ben able to move forward. Wishing you well, Marie