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Grieving the Emotionally Estranged Parent

Healing the relationship you never had.

We often think of grief as a straight line. Grief is, in fact, more of a spiral, continuously cycling us through a myriad range of emotions. It’s important to recognize no one person’s experience of grief is the same as another’s, particularly should we find ourselves grieving an emotionally estranged parent.

The Emotionally Estranged Parent

Emotional estrangement from a parent or caregiver has many different starting points, ranging from poor attachment, on the developmental side, to bad behavior, on the social side, or some mix of both. No matter the genesis, the outcome for the child is typically the same—psychosocial disconnection and a sense of rejection, often leading to resentment and animosity. When conditions are ripe enough, this sensibility can even evolve into a sense of hatred.

Focusing on poor attachment—particularly when it’s connected to ongoing bad behavior—grieving an emotionally estranged parent can be more reactive, rather than situational. We typically expect grief to be in the moment and momentary—a hill we climb and "get over." By contrast, when confronting the grief connected with an emotionally estranged parent, it’s more often that we are grieving the relationship our younger self never had, rather than grieving the actual parent.

Lost Relationship

Attachment is a complex dynamic better left to a more comprehensive discussion, but the bottom line is it describes the reciprocal relationship we develop with our parent or primary caregiver when we are infants and toddlers. Basically, it sets us up with a set of expectations, assumptions, and ideas about how the world works—the genesis of our worldview—which we carry forward with us, not only into our relationship with our parent, but with the people, places and things we encounter throughout our lives.

When this initial attachment dynamic is somehow distorted or not whole, it often foreshadows a splitting from the parent that, for the child, results in emotional estrangement. The notion that the relationship was never genuinely whole is important to recognize from the perspective of later grief, as the individual ends up grieving something they never had, rather than someone they’ve lost.

Attempting to Fix What’s Broken

For those who have experienced an incomplete—or even broken—attachment dynamic, there develops a drive to repair the break. As a result, we often choose social and emotional relationships mimicking the primary parental relationship in an unconscious effort to repair it. The paradox here is the secondary relationship tends to reinforce the brokenness, rather than providing a platform to repair the original dynamic, leaving the person once again—and repeatedly—stranded in a barren emotional landscape.

Grieving an emotionally estranged parent can bring this paradox into focus, particularly in light of the rehearsal, rumination, and remembrance accompanying any grief experience. This often brings into relief the original genesis of the dynamic and, by association, the recognition that the grieving of the emotionally estranged parent is not about the parent, so much as the lack of genuine, original relationship and attachment.

Grieving as Interior Growth

Clearly, the social relationship with the emotionally estranged parent can’t be practically resolved because they are no longer there. Without a tangible presence, the social dysfunction remains. On the other hand, resolution can come when the focus shifts from grieving the lost parent to grieving the lack of original relationship. This change in perspective moves us away from the original wound of distorted attachment and toward a reconciliation with our own interior landscape.

As we move through this aspect of our grief, we can better address self-attachment. In the face of emotional estrangement, we are confronted with imposed deficits in self-esteem, self-worth, and social valuation. In reconciling our grief around the relationship we never had, we can begin to heal the relationship we have with ourselves.

© 2021 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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