Grieving An Estranged Parent Is Hard AF

by Kimberly Zapata
Malte Mueller/Getty

It’s been 246 days since my mother died, or 5,904 hours, but who’s counting? I’m not. After all, I lost my mother years ago, to mental illness and alcoholism. To neglect, narcissism, and verbal and emotional abuse. But the loss of her, physically speaking, has complicated things. It has convoluted things. And it has admittedly made my life quite difficult. Grieving an estranged parent is hard as fuck.

Of course, before I can talk about the grief process, I should probably shed some light on our relationship — and her life. My mother was a stubborn and difficult woman. She was set in her ways. She was also a troubled woman; she had a tough life.

When my mother was 17, she was involved in a severe car accident. Seatbelts were not yet required, and she was thrown from her brother’s car. She suffered a fractured skull and was hospitalized for several weeks. The day my father proposed to her, she was being wheeled into surgery to have several cysts removed from her ovaries. She said “yes” minutes before being placed under anesthesia, and 14 years later she watched that same man die when he suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. She was 42 and had been left on her own with two young kids. These tragedies affected her. They changed her. My mother became a ghost encased in a shell of grief.

She slept frequently, neglecting my brother and me. At 12, I was forced to step up and care for the house. I cooked, fed, and (more or less) raised my brother. I was a middle schooler with adult responsibilities and an adult-like mind. My mom yelled constantly. When she was awake, her anger was slung our way. Her words were full of hate and vitriol. I was stupid, lazy, worthless. Once, she called me a mistake.

My mom cursed, at me and at the world, often. It was always “Fuck this. Screw that. To hell with you.” And while I understand (logically) where she was coming from — her childhood was tough and her adult life wasn’t any easier — I distanced myself as an adult. I moved out just after my eighteenth birthday and never looked back. But distance complicated things, particularly as she aged. Especially when, in her late 50s, my mother became an alcoholic.

I felt shame and guilt. I believed her problem was due to my lack of care. If only I was there, I could help her. I could save her. I could keep the bottles out of her hand — and the booze out of her body. I felt anger. I was being robbed of a normal, loving relationship. I (physically) lost my father at 12, and within weeks, my mother followed suit. Figuratively, I was an orphan. I was abandoned by those who were supposed to love me and protect me. I felt hurt, disappointed, lost. Because of my mother’s illnesses, I felt completely isolated and alone. And when she died, these feelings were amplified. There was relief and sadness, intermingled with rage, hurt, and joy.

“The loss of a parent is never an easy thing, but often the death of an estranged parent or one who has been absent from the children causes feelings that are difficult for the child to process,” an article on eCondolence, an online resource for grief and mourning, explains. “The delicate balances in a parent-child relationship coupled with the intense emotions that accompany the grieving process can be overwhelming to handle. Though we might expect to feel relief that an estranged parent is no longer a part of our lives, it is far more common to find that the death affects us intensely on several unexpected levels.” That has been true for me.

Some days, I mourn her death. It is finite. Absolute. Our relationship cannot be salvaged or fixed, and that breaks my fucking heart. Some days, I find solace in her loss. I am thankful she is no longer suffering and that I am no longer tethered to her. I am free of the guilt, shame, blame, and pain. And some days, I am numb. I know I should have thoughts on the matter — and feelings — but there’s nothing there, and the absence of hurt hurts. It makes me feel like a monster. My mother died, for god’s sake, and yet there is emptiness. Nothingness. My heart is a black fucking hole. But that is because grieving an estranged parent is difficult. It is complex and complicated.

“Grieving any death is a very personal, unique expression. Sadness is just one of many emotions that are experienced during the grieving process,” eCondolence explains. “[However,] in the instance of estrangement, because the relationship was so strained, sadness may not be one of the emotions that immediately comes to the front. Hurt, disappointment, and even anger may be the emotions that are the strongest at first… [what’s more, an] absence of sadness early in the grieving process is not unusual and does not mean that sadness will not eventually be something that you feel.”

The grieving process in general is not linear. When grieving an estranged parent, the “five stages” of grief may not apply at all. So what can you do? How can you cope? eCondolence recommends searching your memory for good things about the deceased person or parent. “Almost every estranged child can remember some pieces of the past that brought happiness and joy,” the article explains. “Remember those moments as the foundation for your feelings.”

I recommend therapy. A good psychiatrist or psychologist can make a world of difference. And, most importantly, have compassion for yourself. Give yourself space and grace, and know that there is no such thing as a right feeling or wrong feeling. All feelings are normal and valid.

Does this make things easier? Not necessarily. It’s been nine months, and I’m still struggling. I have good and bad days. But my struggles are getting lighter. The pain is lessening, and the shame is being shut down, slowly and gradually. I am grieving day by day. Bit by bit.