When I first became estranged from my youngest daughter 10 years ago, I did what I always do when faced with a question that needs an answer: I went to the library. Guess what? There were no books about family estrangement in the library. None. There was one book about difficulties in parent-child relationships, but it didn’t have much about estrangement.
I was at a loss. I knew no one else whose child had cut them out of their life. I was confused, hurt, and above all, deeply ashamed. How could this have happened? It was the last thing I ever believed would happen to me. I spiraled into a depression, sitting on the floor night after night, weeping with the grief only a mother who has lost a child can understand.
Friends Don’t Always Understand
I learned early on that talking about it was not a good idea. Friends who loved me assured me that she would come around. “Kids do these things,” they said. Their words were little comfort. They wanted to help but they were at a loss, though they at least acknowledged the depth of my pain.
Some did not want me to talk about it. They moved on in the conversation leaving me to feel dismissed. I found this hurtful.
Others would just look at me incredulously, and while they didn’t say it out loud, their eyes would ask me, “What did you do?” This question cuts like a knife. If you are struggling to make sense of your child’s estrangement, this response can send you into a spiral.
Estrangement Can Be So Lonely
I had nowhere to turn to find comfort, understanding, or relief from the agony of shame that I was experiencing. So I hid it. I never talked about it to anyone. No one understood, so it was best to keep quiet.
This is the hardest part of estrangement. The isolation that a parent feels can be crippling. What I wish I had known then, and what I want parents to know now, is that you are not alone. As more psychologists and researchers are turning their attention to this issue, it is becoming apparent that family estrangements are not as rare as we think. We are just not talking about it.
Karl Pillemer, a family sociologist at Cornell University, has recently published “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them.” While there have been a few others who have begun to give voice to this issue, Pillemer gives actual data. In a representative national survey where he asked 1340 people if there was a relative they did not have contact with, an eye-popping 27% answered yes. And half of those reported being estranged for four or more years.
While this number is sobering, I am not surprised. When I started writing about my experience people came out of the woodwork to share their own. I found out I was not only not alone, I was part of a big group of parents, all hiding behind their shame, guilt, and grief. They were so relieved to find someone describing their own struggle, and I was relieved to find that I was not shouting into the void. We are out there, and we are many.
But the problem is, we still feel alone. When we can’t talk about our pain with our friends, where do we turn?
Why Aren’t My Friends More Sympathetic?
Recently, someone who is estranged from two of her adult children shared with me several encounters with friends who not only do not understand what she is going through, but one stands in judgment and the others dismiss her pain as inconsequential. These types of incidents with friends or family can add to the crushing pain of the estrangement. She is wondering if distancing from these friends is the right thing to do. But if we lose friendships, too, we can spiral into a pit of despair, never to emerge again.
I think one of the tragedies of family estrangement is the social taboo against admitting that our family is anything but perfect. A lot of us grew up with “Father Knows Best,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Brady Bunch.” These were all picture perfect families who had garden variety problems that were solved with a calm and steady hand, a sense of humor, and love and respect. All’s well that ends well, and happily ever after, and all that stuff.
The reality is, few families look like that. But because we have been conditioned to believe they should, it makes us feel that we have failed in a fundamental way. The shame of failure is real, and the judgment meted out by others — and ourselves — is like pouring acid on an open wound.
We all work very hard to hide our failures from the prying eyes of others. When we do dare to share, and we get blank stares, or dismissal, or judgment, we have to remember none of those reactions is about us. It is about the other person’s discomfort. This topic sends parents into a state of anxiety. They fear that something similar could happen to them. Even if they would never admit it, even if they are smug in their assurance that none of their children would do such a thing, somewhere deep in the recesses of their parental brain an alarm is going off. Their need to minimize or judge your experience is their way of not admitting it could happen to them. It strikes terror in any parent’s heart to even entertain the idea.
One of the reasons there is a lack of understanding about parent-child estrangement is because none of us are talking about it. That makes us think it is rare, even though it is not. So our friends have no tools to help us deal with it. If someone you love dies, they know how to handle that. But this is not a death — not like the ones they are used to, anyway. They can’t relate to your grief. And many times, when people don’t know what to say, they either say the wrong thing or they say nothing at all. Most of us aren’t well-equipped to deal with uncomfortable situations.
We are faced with a dilemma. We can either break ties with our friends, or we can make the choice to continue the friendship but choose not to share about the estrangement. When we push away those who don’t understand, we are whittling our life down to the most painful denominator. What happens all too often is that we go from being a multi-faceted human to being an estranged parent. That becomes our entire identity. This is the danger of cutting out friends who don’t understand, but who add value to our lives in other ways. Those friends can keep you in touch with the real you, because they are the ones who know what you love to do, will call and invite you to lunch, or will let you know when the yarn shop has a sale.
If a friend is cruel, judgmental or totally unsympathetic, you may want to rethink the value of that friendship. But if they are just having a hard time finding the right response, and are otherwise kind and loving, you may want to give them a pass. They may just not have the right words.
So Where Can I Turn?
There are more and more resources for estranged parents. These are things I wish I had had access to at the beginning of my estrangement. It would have made such a difference to me. It would have assuaged the loneliness that was piled on top of the grief. If you can plug into these resources, maybe you can let your friends off the hook. If you can stop expecting them to give you the support you need (because they don’t know how) then you can enjoy their friendship for all the reasons you always have.
Carefully choose a group to be a part of that offers not only support, but helps you work on yourself, guiding you gently through the self-exploration that is needed at this time. Groups that bash estranged children are not helpful and will certainly not help us become better parents with the possibility of reconciliation.
There are two support groups I recommend. The first is called the Reconnection Club. It was created by Tina Gilbertson who is a psychotherapist and author who specializes in family estrangements. There is a support group and a cache of resources that will help you navigate the journey of estrangement. There are a lot of free resources, but you can also join a private group and get access to even more, and the support of other parents. Her podcast is wonderful — and free — and I have found it to be very helpful. You can listen on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or on her website.
Gilbertson’s book, “Reconnecting with Your Estranged Adult Child: Practical Tips and Tools to Heal Your Relationship” sets the right tone of compassion, and at the same time, helps parents see where they can change and how to start the process of reconciliation.
The other support group and cache of resources I recommend was also created by a psychologist, Dr. Joshua Coleman. He is an expert in family estrangements, and actually experienced estrangement from his own daughter for several years before they reconciled. He has a weekly newsletter, podcasts and webinars that I find valuable. Some of his sessions have a fee, but he does free call-in sessions every Monday.
There are support groups that are led by mentors who have been trained by Dr. Coleman. You can go to his website to sign up for his newsletter. He also has a book coming out in March called “Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties & How to Heal the Conflict.” You can pre-order from Penguin Random House.
I could not have made the progress I have made without my trusty journal. When you need to pour your heart out, but there isn’t anyone who understands, pick up your pen and write it all out. You are your best advocate and you should never downplay the importance of supporting yourself through this time. Many times I made great discoveries about myself, my child and the relationship by pouring my thoughts out on the page without censoring myself. When I look back at how far I have come, it gives me a sense of my own strength and resilience.
You Are Not Alone
Please know that you are not alone. I hope that some of these resources will fill your need to connect with others who understand, whether you join a support group or just use these resources to find your way forward. Don’t toss your friends away because they can’t understand what you are going through. You will need those friends to bring joy, stability and normalcy to your life. Let them do what they have always done. Find your support amongst those who are experiencing what you are, either in books, podcasts or support groups. If you make friends in a support group, you can be sure that they will understand and be empathetic. Then you can love your other friends the way you did before estrangement rocked your world. And maybe, one day, they will finally get it, too. That would be a bonus.
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