Grief is the outward manifestation of an individual's feelings and emotions after suffering a significant loss. Different types of grief affect individuals and families even when they've experienced the same loss or event. If someone has an estranged family, the stages of grief present very differently.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What Is Estrangement Grief?
- How Is Estrangement Like Death?
- The Stages of Grief for Family Estrangement
- How Can You Deal With Family Estrangement?
- How Can You Help a Loved One Deal with Family Estrangement?
As people get older, it's not uncommon for family dynamics to shift due to new ways of perceiving past experiences. Their relationships with one another inevitably change. The grief experienced during family estrangement can feel lonely and isolating, making it more challenging to heal from the pain of profound loss.
Conflicts within families are inevitable after loss leading to sibling estrangement, especially after the death of an estranged parent or another close family member. The way individuals grieve is often directly affected by the support they get from their family and loved ones. When those support systems break down, the grieving process is often exacerbated, delayed, or worsened, leading to complications in healing. Let’s take a closer look at the stages of grief during family estrangement.
What Is Estrangement Grief?
First, what is estrangement grief and how does it differ? Family conflict and disruption lead many individuals to suffer negative emotions and strained relationships. Estrangement happens when at least one family member distances themselves from their parents, siblings, or both. This can be for a lot of reasons, including ongoing conflict, past trauma, or discourse within the family dynamic.
Estrangements happen in many different ways. Some individuals remove themselves from family conflicts by limiting or stopping communication with family members altogether. This is called going low or no contact. In more extreme cases, others choose to move far away or even change their name to disassociate themselves from the rest of the family.
The resulting manifestations of feelings of loss and bereavement are what's known as estrangement grief. The physical, mental, and emotional losses accompanying estrangements within the family mimic the effects of suffering and bereavement, much like when a person you know dies.
The stages of grief for family estrangement also resemble the stages of grief for any other type of significant loss. Similarly, they can take years to work through. Some of the physical manifestations of estrangement grief might include:
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty concentrating
- Isolation and withdrawal
- Feelings of anger and resentment
- Irritability and inability to sleep well
While nobody experiences grief in exactly the same way, it’s helpful to understand these stages so you can support yourself and your loved ones. Research has come a long way toward helping us understand our most complex reactions to life’s complicated relationships.
How Is Estrangement Like Death?
First, how is estrangement like death, if at all? The physical distancing and loss of affection between siblings, parents, or other family members is a unique type of loss that can affect all family members, especially older parents or siblings that may already suffer from loneliness and isolation.
Estrangement can and does often feel like death. It can mimic much of the same responses to loss as when a close loved one dies. In many cases, estrangement is worse than suffering the death of a loved one because there's no opportunity for closure when family members stop talking to one another.
While there's always room for reconciliation so long as family members live, many families choose to keep estrangements neatly swept under the rug, refusing to talk about the causes or possible solutions. Additionally, when someone chooses to go no-contact because of past trauma or abuse, it might be easier for both parties to separate entirely.
When families refuse to acknowledge the separation or breakdown in relationships, the lack of open communication makes reconciliation even more challenging. Because everyone reacts to grief differently, some family members are affected much more profoundly than others, especially those in vulnerable positions or who lack outside social support. These individuals must learn to cope with their loss as if their loved one has died and sought outside help whenever they have difficulty dealing with their loss.
The Stages of Grief for Family Estrangement
Throughout the past several decades, the results of various studies by researchers and prominent psychologists in death and mourning teach us that bereaved individuals process their losses in stages. While these stages of grief look different for everyone, they have many common factors in how individuals experience distress.
Some people may experience all of the effects in the order presented below, while others will only suffer some of the adverse impacts of grief, but not all. The most telling factor that a person’s grieving is how they experience their losses and how they communicate their mourning to the outside world. The following are the five stages of grief presented by the famed Swiss-American psychologist, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.
If you’re looking at the stages of grief from a family estrangement perspective, denial takes on a different outlook. Ordinarily, when a grieving individual is in denial over the death of a loved one, they find it challenging to accept that their loved one’s gone.
When families become estranged, there are usually underlying issues or trauma that the family refuses to acknowledge, talk about, or reconcile. Often, an individual or individuals suffer some form of abuse, neglect, or mistreatment at the hands of another family member and find it painful to revisit the trauma.
Perhaps some family members refuse to accept the claims as true or don’t want to admit to having the same or similar experiences. Denial can come in many forms, depending on where the blame or guilt lies.
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Second, harboring unresolved anger and resentment towards family members usually accompanies a family estrangement. The person or persons who suffered through traumatic experiences or another type of setback within a family dynamic often removes themselves from the rest of the family to shield themselves from further pain, guilt, and shame.
They may feel angry that their parents or siblings refused to acknowledge the wrongs they suffered through. Anger often manifests when a parent or caregiver victimizes a child or the child unduly suffers trauma without the help and support of parents, caregivers, or siblings.
These children grow up distrusting others, and their adult relationships suffer. However, while the victim may feel angry and unsupported, other family members may also feel angry that their relationships within the family also suffer because of this.
When siblings and parents fall apart, they usually take some time to regroup and reconcile later. While having internal family conflicts resulting in disagreements is a normal part of many families' dysfunction, not every family suffers from long-lasting or permanent estrangement. They can bounce back from these setbacks, usually around the holidays or other special occasions when families ordinarily come together to celebrate or grieve their losses.
For families that experience long-term estrangement, the bargaining stage of grief can look, feel, and sound like having internal conversations about how they would make things better between them and their parents or siblings. For example, a mother might think, "If only I could see my son one more time, I'd tell him how proud of him I am instead of always putting him down."
Grief-related depression can be challenging to overcome when dealing with family estrangement. It isn’t easy to accept that a loved one has chosen to distance themselves from the rest of the family and has closed the door to the possibility of reconciliation.
Depression sets in either because a person doesn’t understand why they were cut off or because the estrangement feels like death with no closure. This type of loss can lead to significant mental health issues for the person who’s cut off, especially if they aren’t allowed an opportunity to discuss what led to the estrangement.
Similarly, the person who chooses to go no-contact might feel depressed at having to make this decision. It can be complicated and complex, and these decisions are never easy, even if they’re done for the wellness of the individual.
Finally, accepting a family member's decision to remove themselves from the rest of the family isn't always simple. There will almost always be someone demanding to know why they made the decision or trying to force reconciliation with the estranged individual even when it's against their will.
Often this is the case when there's a breakdown in communication among family members or when individuals refuse to acknowledge the validity of the other's grievances. Finding acceptance of another person's decision to leave the family dynamic or being the one needing to accept your decision to leave will come with time. It requires self-reflection and awareness of the circumstances leading to the decision.
How Can You Deal With Family Estrangement?
When dealing with family estrangement, it helps to look at conflicts as opportunities to have deep-rooted and meaningful conversations to resolve issues and understand each other’s goals, wants, and needs. Mismanaged conflict communication tends to lead to higher levels of dysfunction within families, making it even more challenging to reach agreements on important caregiving, medical, or end-of-life decisions when the time comes to make them.
While open communication isn’t always possible, it can help mend some old wounds that contribute to estrangement. When other family members have chosen to cut off communication entirely, there’s nothing much that another person can do other than an attempt to reach out to their estranged loved one by phone, mail, or social media.
Sometimes, you have to accept that communication is no longer possible and remain hopeful that circumstances will one day change. Until then, you can focus on rebuilding the remaining family ties that you do have and try to make a different or more positive impact in their lives, even if you are unsure of where you went wrong, if at all. You don’t have to task yourself with reuniting the family as this places an undue and often overwhelming burden on any family member trying to play peacemaker for the group.
How Can You Help a Loved One Deal with Family Estrangement?
Lending support to a loved one dealing with family estrangement begins by listening to them and acknowledging their pain and suffering. In most cases, there's nothing you can do to change the circumstances for your loved one.
Offering your support can go a long way in making them feel better about their situation. However, don't feel pressured to help them develop a solution. Most of the time, people want to be listened to and acknowledged, not coddled or made to feel better by simply agreeing with them.
Let the advice that you offer come from a place of love and not one of hatred, envy, or retribution. What can be most helpful to your loved ones is allowing them to voice their concerns and complaints while steering them to look within for the most appropriate solution to resolve their family conflict.
If they've indicated that they may benefit from professional grief counseling, help them narrow down a list of well-qualified counselors for them to choose from. Make yourself available to lend support without dragging yourself into the middle of their family discourse.
When Families Fall Apart
Family estrangement is a complicated issue affecting many families, often covertly. Most often, families don't like to air their dirty laundry and keep hidden the things that happen behind the closed doors of their homes.
Deep, dark family secrets aren't reserved only for the rich and famous. They can affect everyday lives and people. Getting families to get past their pain and suffering after a significant traumatic event isn't easy and takes the work and effort of everyone involved.
1. Gregory, Christina Ph.D. “The Five Stages of Grief: An Examination of the Kubler-Ross Model.” Stages of Grief, Psychom. Psychom.net.