How to Mourn the Loss of an Estranged Parent

Millions of Americans are estranged from a parent or family member. Read on to learn how to cope with this loss.

Woman looking out a window

David Prado / Stocksy

When most people think of grief, they think of death. The concept and act go hand in hand. But some grieve the living. Some mourn relatives before they are lost, and some, like me, lament those who are still alive. I grieved my mother years before she died. And while the reason is both private and complex, I am not alone. At least 27% of Americans are estranged from a family member. But what does it look like to say goodbye to still-living parents? How do you mourn the loss of an estranged family member?

We asked several experts to weigh in. This is what they had to say.

What Is Family Estrangement?

Estrangement occurs when at least one family member distances themselves from another. This can be due to numerous reasons. Some individuals “step back” due to personality conflicts. Narcissism is a key example. Others find physical distance a barrier, with space creating a literal (and figurative) wedge. Growing up in an abusive situation is another reason for parental estrangement.

What Causes It?

Familial and, particularly, parental estrangement can be “caused” by several factors, including:

  • Mental illness
  • Addiction
  • Abuse in childhood
  • Serious neglect or insensitivities
  • Rigid, controlling, or harsh parenting
  • Distant parenting 
  • Alienation
  • Negativity
  • Family conflict or rivalry
  • Lying or manipulation
  • Narcissism
  • Physical distance

Influence from a third party, such as a controlling or abusive spouse, can also contribute to family estrangement, as can a severe difference in values, i.e. some individuals are estranged from their parents due religious beliefs, political beliefs, and/or sexual orientation.

What Makes Grieving the Loss of a Still-Living Parent So Complex?

While grief is a complex experience, grief associated with the loss of a still-living person—particularly, a still-living parent—is complicated in its own right. “Grieving the loss of a still-living parent is complex because the absence of a parent can be confusing, uncomfortable, and/or difficult to come to terms with,” explains GinaMarie Guarino, a licensed mental health counselor at PsychPoint. It can cause feelings of abandonment and rejection, sadness and shame. According to Guarino, guilt is another common emotion.

“Grieving for an estranged parent is particularly difficult because our culture is quick to blame children for the loss of the relationship,” Kara Nassour, a licensed professional counselor practicing at Shaded Bough Counseling in Austin, Texas, adds. “We often hear messages like ‘When was the last time you called your mother?’ and ‘I'm sure they really love you after all,’ from strangers who don't know how complicated our relationships really were/are… but adult children rarely cut off contact with their parents unless it’s a last resort.”

“This kind of grief is also difficult because it usually isn't acknowledged as grief,” Nassour adds, “It is a real and painful loss, one that shouldn’t be minimized or ignored.” 

Of course, it's worth noting that not everyone will feel this way. Some find estrangment to be a breath of fresh air while others find it empowering. They find happiness and peace with the "loss." Whatever your reaction, know it is normal and OK.

What Are the Best Ways to Deal With Estrangement from a Parent or Family Member?

If you find yourself struggling with the loss of a still-living parent, remember: You are not alone. Even if you intitiated the estrangement, the situation can be difficult. Feelings can be both overwhelming and intense. That said, you do not have to navigate it on your own. Nassour recommends reaching out to others for an ear and support.

"Reach out to people who will hear your experiences without judgment, including friends, relatives, and support groups. Read books about parents with mental health issues, such as addiction, abuse, or personality disorders, to help put your experiences in perspective, and seek the assistance of a counselor or therapist." Finding someone who you can open up to during this difficult time can be the support you need to get through it.

Of course, you can do other things, too. According to Nassour, you can practice developing healthy boundaries, both with your parents and other people in your life. These should be reflective (and protective) of your needs. They should also be both clear and firm. You can and should remind yourself you are not responsible for your parents' actions, behavoirs, or well-being. They are adults. You cannot control or change them. It's also important to identify what you are feeling and accept that, no matter what it is, you are right where you need to be. Grief is not linear. There is no right or wrong way to process this loss.

"Give yourself time to grieve and time to feel—be it sadness, frustration, shame, and/or relief," says Nassour. "You are not a bad person for feeling those things. You are simply a person who needs time to heal."

"Allowing yourself the opportunity to grieve and feel your feelings is intergral," Leanna Stockard, a couple and family therapist at LifeStance Health, adds. "Your emotions are valid, and it’s okay to feel the way that you do about the situation, regardless of what that feeling is."

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