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Why a Family Cutoff Can Produce Both Grief and Relief

The challenges of ambivalent loss.

Key points

  • The topic of mourning and grief for those who have had a conflicted relationship with a loved one is rarely discussed.
  • Ambivalent loss—feelings of grief and relief—come at the end of a relationship when there are unresolved issues, abuse, or bad feelings.
  • The estranged feel ambivalent loss because a sibling is no longer in their life, and they realize reconciliation will never happen.
shvets production/pexels
Source: shvets production/pexels

Grief and relief. These two emotions make a strange pair, yet they’re often experienced together by those who have had a conflicted relationship with a loved one.

Ambivalent loss is the deeply confusing state in which grief and relief exist simultaneously. The end of a relationship marked by abuse, unresolved issues, or simply bad feelings frequently provokes ambivalent loss.

An estranged sibling may feel ambivalent loss when a brother or sister is no longer in their life, and they realize reconciliation will never happen. They’re relieved the immediate suffering is over—but they’re also mourning the hoped-for relationship they must now give up on.

In her bestselling memoir—with the arresting title, I’m Glad My Mother Died—Jeannette McCurdy illuminates this rarely discussed phenomenon. McCurdy’s heartbreaking book chronicles lifelong abuse inflicted by her narcissistic mother. The Nickelodeon star was pushed into acting at age 6. Her mother mentored her into an eating disorder, controlled every aspect of her life—and then died.

“Her death left me with more questions than answers, more pain than healing, and many layers of grief—the initial grief from her passing, then the grief of accepting her abuse and exploitation of me, and finally, the grief that surfaces now when I miss her and start to cry,” McCurdy writes.

Her words succinctly capture the confusion and chaos of ambivalent loss, which produces contradictory feelings of guilt, shame, relief, and longing. Many estranged siblings feel ambivalent loss after making the difficult decision to go “no contact” with a difficult brother or sister.

“I chose to go ‘no contact’ after I was treated terribly when my parents died a few months ago,” a 60-year-old woman wrote in response to a question on my sibling estrangement survey. She had cut off her older brother and sister. She “I’m so glad I don’t have to deal with the constant drama anymore, but I cry every day because I have no family.”

Some feelings of ambivalence are common in any relationship and aren’t especially significant, explains psychotherapist Joshua Miles in an article called, "Understanding ambivalence in loss and grief." (The article appeared on the website for Counseling Directory, an organization that promotes talk therapy.) “Few relationships are devoid of or not complicated by some level of hostility or difficulty at some point,” Miles writes.

Yet few resources exist addressing mourning and grief for those who have had a conflicted relationship with a loved one. “Where is the book on managing unsaid or unspoken feelings or emotions?” Miles writes. “Where is the book to help guide us through a eulogy or funeral where you wish to speak up, but do not know how due to unspoken ambivalence?”

Different varieties of grief

To Miles’ point, several books discuss other forms of grief, such as:

  • Ambiguous loss: Psychologist Pauline Boss coined this phrase, describing the experience of losing someone without an event establishing unequivocally that they’re gone. Ambiguous loss can occur after a death, miscarriage, or divorce, or when it’s unclear if a relationship is terminated.
  • Complicated grief: An ongoing, heightened state of mourning that prevents healing may be complicated grief. This condition is characterized by relentless sorrow and rumination over the loss of a loved one.
  • ·Disenfranchised grief: Ken Doka, a leading expert on grief counseling and therapy, identified this form of hidden grief. Disenfranchised grief is “a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.” Examples include infertility, the death of an ex-partner, and the death of a pet

Clearly, these forms of grief may overlap. Ambivalent grief, however, is exceptional: It is characterized by tension, as the individual must manage opposing beliefs, feelings, or behaviors after a loss, whether through estrangement or death.

Why does ambivalent loss occur?

Several experiences may contribute to ambivalent loss, including:

  • Unfinished or unresolved feelings; lack of contact before a death or a cutoff: Ambivalent loss may result from a lack of communication, contact, or relationship preceding a death or estrangement. “Grieving can be interrupted when there are unresolved difficulties or feelings towards the person,” explains psychotherapist Miles. “When loss is left unexplored, left unspoken or thought about, difficult feelings can surface, leading to ambivalence.”
  • An abusive or psychologically damaging relationship: As McCurdy learned, relief can accompany the passing or cutoff of an abuser. Some may feel guilty that they are relived by the cutoff or by the death. Reconciling two opposing feelings may give way to shame, as this type of grieving is not socially validated.
  • Remembering the deceased or the estranged differently from others: Among the complications of ambivalent grief is conflict arising when one person’s experience or memory of the estranged or deceased person differs vastly from the perceptions of other family members or friends. A sibling may begin to doubt his or her own negative feelings, resulting in an effort to keep these feelings hidden for fear of upsetting others.

How to manage ambivalent loss

Grief support specialist and therapist Jacque Amweg, who practices in Kansas City, Missouri, offers some recommendations for those faced with ambivalent loss after estrangement or death:

  • Put away ideas of what you “should” be feeling. There is no right way to feel or grieve.
  • Find someone you can talk to openly and honestly about difficult emotions.
  • Take care of “unfinished business” through rituals or activities that promote healing. Journaling and letter-writing may help release some conflicting emotions.
  • Keep in mind that relationships are a mixture of good and bad. While grieving, try to remember both.
  • Eat well, exercise, and get plenty of rest. Self-care greatly contributes to healing.

Estrangement and death can produce a swirl of conflicting, confusing emotions, as McCurdy writes, that can leave someone with “more questions than answers.” In her book, she has taken an enormous step toward healing by publicly acknowledging and accepting her mixed—even contradictory—feelings about her mother.

Although some readers will recoil at her cringe-worthy title, McCurdy’s memoir sheds light on the little-discussed but deeply painful experience of ambivalent loss.

Facebook image: - Yuri A/Shutterstock


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