“You’re Dead To Me:” Why Estrangement Hurts So Much
Understanding the pain
Posted Oct 03, 2014
During the early stages of researching family estrangement, I received a phone call from a woman named Cathy.* She didn’t want to be a part of my research. She needed to tell me something. I didn’t realise how important or memorable it would be until I interviewed more and more people and the same theme emerged.
She told me that she was a mother of two children — both were lost to her. One had died from cancer in his teens and the other had estranged in her early 20s. I will never forget her words: “The pain of your child dying is incredible, but losing a child to estrangement is unbearable — it hurts so, so much more."
When a person is estranged by a family member, they generally experience a range of immediate grief, loss and trauma responses. Bodily responses such as shaking, crying, and feeling faint are common, alongside emotional responses such as disbelief, denial and anger. People often ruminate over the estrangement event or the events that led up to the estrangement. Over time, most acute emotions and bodily responses seem to decrease in intensity, and generalised feelings of hurt, betrayal and disappointment might emerge.
Even when the estrangement has continued for years or decades, many people suggest the pain persists or re-occurs at particular times. Triggers such as birthdays, Christmas, Mother’s Day, and funerals are difficult. So are sightings of the estranged person, or hearing about them from others. Triggers can sometimes cause a person to re-live and re-experience the initial grief, loss and trauma responses, while other times they can be managed.
Most of the people I have spoken to suggest that being estranged by a family member is one of the most painful events across the lifespan. It is intensified by: (i) its unexpectedness, (ii) its ambiguous nature, (iii) the powerlessness it creates, and (iv) social disapproval.
First, when a person is estranged by another, they generally do not expect it to happen. Indeed, Sichel₁ suggests that trauma is increased when it is enacted by humans rather than an act of nature, and this is even more so when that human is a family member.
Remember Cathy, whose son was lost to cancer (nature) compared to her daughter who chose to estrange from her (human design). We are biologically attached to family and socially acculturated into the idea of family togetherness. We do not expect an estrangement.
Second, estrangement is ambiguous. It has lacks transparency, and it cannot be readily understood. Boss₂ would suggest the loss is ambiguous because the estranged person is physically absent, but psychologically present (in the memories of the estranged person, and the triggers discussed above). It is not certain if the family member will ever return, so there is no finality or closure to the event.
Third, people who have been estranged by a loved one often describe feelings of incredible powerlessness. When someone has been cut off, they cannot tell their side of the story, ask questions, or apologise. Without interaction, the estranged person is often left wondering and ruminating about the truth, with no means of discovering it.
Finally, the pain of estrangement is often exacerbated because it is disenfranchised or poorly recognised by society. Many people who have been estranged feel an internalised guilt and shame about the situation, and this can affect the way that they interact socially. They might reduce or modify social interactions to avoid people finding out about their estrangement. This can be exacerbated by very real instances of social disapproval, misunderstanding and judgment, ranging from insensitive comments to actual exclusion from particular events.
Of course, there are a few things missing from this portrayal. Some people claim not to feel such extreme responses to estrangement and this should be acknowledged. Additionally, there is another important side to this story: I will examine the experience and pain of the person who decides to estrange from family in an upcoming post.
In closing, however, it is important to recognise the very real pain that many people experience when they have been estranged by a loved one. It is in this recognition that self-healing and social acceptance commence.
*Note: Some family details modified for anonymity.
See my new book, Family Estrangement: A Matter of Perspective.
Agllias, K. (2013). Family estrangement. In C. Franklin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Social Work: National Association of Social Workers Press and Oxford University Press.
Agllias, K. (2013). The gendered experience of family estrangement in later life. Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, 28(3), 309-321. doi: 10.1177/0886109913495727.
Sichel, M. (2004). Healing from family rifts: Ten steps to finding peace after being cut off from a family member. New York: McGraw Hill.
Boss, P. (2005). Loss, trauma and resilience: Therapeutic work with ambiguous loss. New York: W.W. Norton.