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?
Oh you guys.. thank you for being here! An estranged mother! 😭
I don’t understand living in limbo! I despise it
My heart is broken and I have NO control? I have lived this life many years.. My problem is my 2 children were my LIFE! I AM LOST. I read about finding my passions. My interests. YOU KNOW WHAT? I am literally not interested in ANYTHING. I feel so sad to say tht. Please if anyone has suggestions, ideas I am certainly open. I thank you and truly appreciate you all..
I am estranged from both my daughters. This happened 12 years ago. While raising my youngest daughter I never realized that her father has a narcissistic personality. He took advantage of my older daughters resentments and over time I ended up losing the 2 most important people in my life. These past 12 years have been a living hell. I go to sleep each night hoping I don’t wake in the morning. My psychiatrist told me 10 years ago that I just needed to get over it. Really….
Dear LeslieAnne: I’m so sorry you endured this horrible behavior from your husband and then the loss of your girls. It’s sad and unfortunate that your psychiatrist was unable to direct you to grief counseling. Especially in estrangement, grief can become complicated and it requires a lot of support to help move forward. I know for certain we do not just get over it, we learn how to live again knowing the loss of the relationship status. I hope that you will reach out to a local therapist to assist you. Thank you for sharing your story here. You are not alone. Warmly, Marie
My husband and I cut ties with our daughter eight years or so ago, after years of supporting her emotionally, physically and financially. We were just tired of being blamed for everything that was wrong with her life. She suffers from being bi-polar, has a borderline personality disorder and P.TSD. She was medication resistant and had 36 electric shock treatments but nothing seemed to help. She did try and I believe she continues to try and get better however she just can’t break free of that which hinders her balanced look on the world. Two years ago my husband became critically I’ll and passed away in two weeks. I called her and made arrangements for her to visit with him although he was intubated and unconscious. This was during Covid and we were only allowed to see him one hour per day. I have not heard from her since. She will not allow me to see our granddaughter who is now 15. Her two brothers and their families are wonderful to me, but I do miss her. My whole brain is compartmentalized and losing my husband was unexpected and devastating but with the remaining family and good friends I have managed hip replacement surgery with complications and the purchase of a new house in a new town and a lot of other firsts. I fear the longer the estrangement the less likely we will ever see her again. I still have hope that our granddaughter will someday visit us out of the blue. Thank you for your wonderful article. I, as well, will keep it and reread it in the further.
Hi Linda: I am so deeply sorry for the loss of your husband and your daughter. You mention a very important facet of estrangement, mental illness. bipolar disorder is so destabilizing for the individual and the family. The research is hopeful about reconciling in terms of individuals softening and changing. It is possible that if your daughter is medication complaint, she may come around. I hope this is the case. Mental illness profoundly complicates relationships. Linda, I hope you are getting support and are caring for yourself. Thank you for sharing and being a part of this community. Warmly, Marie
In 1995, my mother passed away and my adult brother who has Down’s Syndrome came to live with my family. We had 7 kids already so one more mouth wouldn’t be noticed and we live near most of the family so he could see almost everyone. My wife was a nurse at a special needs facility so he got a job there and they got him working in the community several days a week. He would would in the facility on the other days. He was proud of his job and his work.
I lived with my brother for 11 years at mom’s house and another 22 years at our home with my family. We sent him to visit my sister who lives in Wisconsin once a year for a month.
When he started going into a cognitive decline, I tried talking to my 3 sisters but all 3 of them instantly shut me down when I broached the subject of making our brother a full time resident in the same facility he had been working in for 21 years.
We finally had to do it because he was having so much trouble that my wife and I couldn’t care for him. My wife was frustrated and I watched her deal with this exact situation with her mother 20 years earlier.
All 3 sisters stopped talking to me. The sister in WI. started telling everyone that we threw our brother away.
My dad is still alive. He is not my brother’s father. He didn’t want to get involved.
Then about 2 months later, dad shows up at our door telling us that our brother hasn’t gotten out of bed or eaten for 2 weeks. It reminded me of chicken little.
We had been checking on him regularly and saw him at the facility only the day before.
I knew the sisters put him up to this and he didn’t want to get involved.
Needless to say, it pissed me off and I told him to call those girls and they could do whatever they wanted as long as they promised to keep not talking to me.
So the sister from WI moved him out with her only to discover, he had cognitive issues.
So 3 days short of 7 months, she put him in a nursing home in some place in WI where no family lives.
Then a few months later my dad stops by to tell me that my brother has been attacked in a psychiatric ward in Tennessee.
He died a day later and I only got texts from my dad telling me.
I really don’t want anything to do with any of them.
I don’t blame them for what happened. I blame myself. I don’t want to see them because it’s obvious they don’t care about me so I won’t make them pretend.
I nearly hung myself dealing with my brother’s cognitive decline and they laughed about it. I am better now with them out of my life.
I think about my brother every day and he deserved better. I let him down and I let mom down.
Hi Mun Dane:
Thank you for sharing your story here. I am so deeply sorry for what you endured from your family. You were an extraordinary support for your brother and family. You and your wife took on a huge responsibility that was loving and extremely generous. It’s very sad and unfortunate that your family did not agree to have your brother cared for in the same facility that he worked.You did all you could do and then matters were not in your control. May I encourage you to reflect on all the time you were an exceptional sibling. You were there for your brother providing him with support and love while your siblings and your family benefitted by you taking on this enormous role. I understand how you feel. Please remember that you did the best you could. I believe your brother and mom are grateful for everything you did. I hope you extend as much compassion to yourself as you did for your brother all those years.
My apologies for this late reply, I was traveling all day yesterday. I wish you peace.
I got help which slowly allowed me to face what happened that triggered reactions. And then I started seeing the real truth underneath the layer of guilt for my humanness. I can hold the truth and even experience my anger. Then I can even feel grateful for not being subjected to people that yes I am biologically related to but do not have similar values. The price of dummy-down was too much. I am better off alone unless there is a new way of interacting and connection. I will not accept verbal, psychological, and or emotional abuse.
So I walked on. Not without moments of sorrow and wanting it to be otherwise but then the truth is here within me. I lost 10 family members.
In response, I developed many new skills. I enjoy many friendships and book studies. My life is rich in many ways. Developing a spiritual life has given me a new wind. I focus on the quality of interaction in each moment. I am grateful for all the help I sought and received. Dark clouds come and go, even the storm passes. Always behind the darkness, the energy, the loudness, the wetness, and the cold is the bright blue sky. Regardless of whether I see, feel it, or can claim it, the vast blue sky is there! That’s God’s promise.
Underneath the muck was my authentic self. Without such messiness I don’t know if I would have unveiled my true self!
Thank you for sharing your experience. I am grateful you are processing your feelings and hold fast to what you will not accept. That takes a lot of personal growth. Yes, losing ten family members is a blow. Families should be loving and supportive. Unfortunately, as we know, they are few and far between.
I am so glad that you have found new friendships and have developed a spiritual walk.
Like many of us who have these family rifts, we feel the messiness and then move forward.
I appreciate your honesty and willingness to share. It helps us know we are not alone.
My apologies for this late response, I was traveling all day yesterday.
Donna, I wish you well. Warmly, Marie