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Estranged on Father’s Day

Tips for navigating a holiday when the relationship it celebrates is broken.

Key points

  • For fathers who are estranged from their children, Father's Day can be an incredibly painful time.
  • Stigma and shame exacerbate the pain and loss of those cut off from the people they love.
  • Acknowledging and validating feelings can be a powerful step in processing grief.
Source: BiancaVanDijk / Pixabay
Source: BiancaVanDijk / Pixabay

For fathers who are estranged from their children or children who are estranged from their fathers, Father's Day can be an incredibly painful time. It seems like the entire world is joyfully celebrating fatherhood while you struggle with a fractured relationship and grieve the bond you wish you had.

More than one in four Americans are currently estranged from a family member, and more than two in five have experienced family estrangement at some point. However, in spite of its prevalence, estrangement is still seen as taboo. Stigma and shame exacerbate the pain and loss of those cut off from the people they love.

Family members cut ties for many reasons, and sometimes estrangement can be for the best. But estrangement is also associated with a range of negative psychological effects, such as grief, depression, anxiety, trust issues in other relationships, and a tendency to ruminate over problems in relationships instead of enjoying their positive aspects.

In my case, relationships with my adult daughters were casualties of bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and divorce. We’ve been estranged for more than seven years. I hold onto the hope that we may someday reconcile, but in the meantime, I’ve had to learn to live with an open wound.

I asked Rebecca Feinglos, a certified grief support specialist, for some advice to help estranged fathers and children get through Father’s Day. She is the founder of Grieve Leave, an online community built to support grievers. Rebecca graciously shared the following tips:

  • Name the feeling as grief. “We can grieve the relationship we don’t have, or maybe even never had, with our father or our child, even if you or they view the disconnect as helpful,” said Rebecca. You might feel guilty you’re not in contact with your father or your child. You might feel relief, but the holiday puts an idealized view of a father-child relationship in your mind. Or you might wish for contact and not understand why the disconnect happened. “All of those feelings fall under the umbrella of grief, and particularly ambiguous loss,” Rebecca said. “Your person is still alive (or maybe you don’t even know that for sure), but your relationship with them has changed.”
  • Extend yourself some compassion. Let yourself feel what you feel. “Treat yourself with extra kindness and remember that there’s no particular way you ‘should’ be feeling,” Rebecca said. “Estrangement is complicated, and there’s no clear-cut set of emotions or pathway to follow in order to feel better.”.
  • Make a plan for Father’s Day. “Don't wake up on Father's Day with no idea how to spend the hours ahead,” said Rebecca. “That could send you down a grief spiral or get you lost in doom-scrolling through others' Father's Day posts on social media.” Instead, think intentionally about how you want to spend your day. Whether it’s rewatching your favorite movies or ordering some comfort food, you want to give yourself space to feel whatever you feel, without unrealistic expectations or toxic positivity. Rebecca also advised, “If you do plan to go out, be prepared that the world around you will be very Father's Day-focused, with businesses, social media, and more all celebrating dads. Restaurant specials, sales, and tributes could feel like emotional landmines.”
  • Consider creating a ritual for yourself. According to Rebecca, acknowledging and validating your feelings can be a powerful step in processing your grief. “When it comes to how we approach grief in America, the rituals that do exist to help us process those feelings tend to focus around when a loved one dies,” she said. “But when we’re estranged from someone, we don’t have particular outlets already designed to build space for our grief.” Rebecca advised building one for yourself. ”That could look like writing a letter to your father or child and feeling no obligation to send it ... Maybe you watch old home movies or look at old photos of times you spent together, and allow whatever comes out of you to come out—whether that’s tears, or anger,” she said. “You could do an act of service or make a donation to support fathers and their children as a symbolic gesture to honor your grief.”
  • Reach out for support and let people support you. While grief can be isolating, you don't have to go through the holiday alone. “Lean on your community—send a text to that friend who really gets it, or open up to a counselor or support group about the emotions you're feeling,” said Rebecca. “And, on the flip side, you might feel like shutting everyone out, but going at it totally alone could intensify the pain.” Consider accepting invitations from friends and family to get together, either in person or on a video call. “Let the people who care about you show up,” she said. “Having a few friendly faces around can provide moments of comfort and distraction from the heaviness. You don't have to white-knuckle through.”


However you spend Father's Day, it’s important to give yourself grace to feel however you feel. As Rebecca advised, “Your grief deserves to be honored, without judgment or pressure to ‘move on’ from people who don’t understand the depths of the loss of your relationship."


Ergenzinger, E.R. (2022). Estrangement: The Silent Epidemic. Psychology Today, August 12, 2022.

Jane E. Brody. When a Family Is Fractured. New York Times. December 7, 2020.

Paula Span. The Causes of Estrangement, and How Families Heal. New York Times. September 10, 2020.

More from Ed Ergenzinger J.D., Ph.D.
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