Grief is the natural response to loss, whether from death or estrangement. The five stages of grief gifted to us by Elizabeth Kugler Ross and co-authored by David Kessler are meant to guide one through the varied individual response to grief. Everyone’s experience is unique, with no best or typical way to get to an endpoint. One’s experience will change over time, and the described stages can come in waves.
The pain of grief is heart-wrenching, and although one may pine for an end to these emotions, there is no endpoint or shortcut. Over the years, the experiences of others have influenced changes to include shock as a shared experience to grief. The stages of grief include shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, guilt, and acceptance. This article will discuss the Stages of Grief in Estrangement and its unique relationship to being estranged from someone you love.
Culture of Grief Avoidance
Typically, individuals are uncomfortable with grief and the emotions around loss. Even when someone dies, many, if not most, people do not know what to say to the grieving individual. The tremendous personal experience can include feelings of despair, sorrow, and anguish. Strong emotions aren’t feelings we are eager to experience. Commonly, others aren’t eager to walk beside another during their painful and prolonged grief. Estrangement is misunderstood and, unfortunately, further alienates those who suffer from being cut off or choosing to cut off.
For example, the estrangee, the person who has been cut off from another family member, may feel embarrassed that their family member chooses to detach from them. The estrangee may keep their grief private and suffer alone without any attempts to gain support. Maintaining the condition of estrangement will further complicate the grieving experience by not allowing the comfort of someone to soften the sting of family relational loss. The estranger, who decides to detach out of necessity or self-preservation, also suffers loss.
There are no ceremonies for others to pay their respects or provide support when one is estranged. Well-meaning people may not know how best to respond. Support groups exist; however, the tendency for the estranged to isolate and feel shame may make some reluctant to air their pain publicly. Unfortunately, there is no set resolution date, so the condition is ambiguous and uncertain surrounding when you will see your loved one or if you will reunite.
Estrangement for either the estranger or the estrangee can suffer feelings of grief. Complicated grief can be present when there has been a closeness and dependence on the estranged other, a tendency to focus on negative emotions, and an inability to make sense of loss. Dr. Karl Pillemer, in his book Fault Lines Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, includes a portion of a poem to describe the essence of grief within the estranged experience.
For Grief by John O’Donahue
When you lose someone, you love,
Your life becomes strange,
The ground beneath you gets fragile,
Your thoughts make your eyes unsure;
And some dead echo drags your voice down
Where words have no confidence.
Your heart has grown heavy with loss;
And though this loss has wounded others too,
No one knows what has been taken from you
When the silence of absence deepens.
Family estrangement hits more than one-quarter of the U.S. population, and with all the shame and secrecy it causes, the actual number is likely much higher. The condition of being cut-off causes physical and emotional harm. Maybe you feel abandoned, shunned, scorned, alone, guilty, or shame, which causes chronic stress. Processing is vital to grieving each aspect of the stages, meaning permitting oneself without self-judgment to experience the gamut of feelings and following them through.
Emotional visits require careful compassionate appointments to explore and then return to your courage to move forward. Journaling can be part of these visits with simple writing. There is no right or wrong way. Just let it flow. Handwritten journaling is best, so you slow down, think, and feel. Using your computer will work too. The idea is to pause so you can express and process. Think of it as an opportunity for intimacy where you accept what you feel and allow it to be.
Estrangement from family, especially during the holidays, can be excruciating. When adult children separate, parents may blame themselves and feel guilty about their words and deeds. Parents may feel shame that their child no longer seeks their company, especially if their friends appear to have intact families. Journaling thoughts and feelings allow you to develop your hearts’ contents slowly. If tears come, welcome them. If it hurts badly, reminds yourself you can, and you will get through. Each time you visit, experiment with more self-compassion.
You may want to get a particular book, light a candle, or sip on your favorite tea. Honor yourself with time to survey the quiet places and noisy places. Above all, bring a heavy helping of self-compassion, and remind yourself that you are doing the best you can and did the best you could. If there is a history of harmful behaviors, recognize them, and consider making amends when you are ready. The ultimate act of forgiveness begins with accepting where you are, what you lost, and what occurred. Taking responsibility for your actions is necessary, but the need is best done with self-compassion. Visiting your emotions is an exercise in patience and determination—practice patience in letting the contents inside unfold. Determine to come through knowing yourself better. Process and release gently; journaling is a powerful tool to allow emotions to ventilate and heal.
Stages of Grief
Grief is a healthy response to suffering experienced from estrangement and death. The grieving process includes difficult emotions, including shock, anxiety, depression, deep sadness, and confusion. The passage of grief may sometimes last a lifetime while changing character towards acceptance and the ability to move forward while still feeling the loss.
Shock is the overwhelming natural pain, sadness and feeling horrified. If it is unexpected, it is undoubtedly more confounding. Feeling shocked can include confusion, emotional paralysis, and numbness.
Denial is a means to protect oneself from the enormity of strong feelings.
One can minimize it and profess that it did not occur to avoid the intensity of the loss.
When grieving, denial allows time to pass to grapple with the reality of the loss.
The loss of a loved one can cause one to be angry at their loved one or themselves. Anger is a method of expressing powerful emotions such as fear and deep sadness. Anger can also protect one from feeling sadness and, in some way, serve as a distraction from more uncomfortable feelings.
Loss and grief can cause one to feel out of control. One might resort to bargaining with a higher power to gain control. One might make promises or deal with a higher power to others or themselves in hopes of getting the outcome they want.
It is natural to feel deep sadness when one experiences loss when estranged. Prolonged deep sadness can occur as the reality of the loss becomes more evident. Clinical depression includes hopelessness with avoidance of socializing, preferring seclusion, and withdrawal. Sometimes thoughts such as “I don’t think I can do this” or “what is the point?” may preoccupy one’s time. Depression impacts one’s ability to function the same way before the loss. It is imperative to seek professional help when one is depressed and has lost motivation to act, do self-care, and do other usual daily activities. Also, if you experience any suicidal thoughts, please seek professional help.
Feelings of guilt can arise from sensations of relief. If the relationship was strained and challenging, there might be some relief from the cessation of high-tension behaviors. Also, one may feel guilty about words and deeds before the estrangement. One may feel guilty about opportunities missed as well.
Acceptance is not resisting the reality of the loss, and that one will have a different life for a while. When there is estrangement, acceptance is not about accepting you are resigned to not ever seeing your family again as in death but instead accepting the current loss of the relationship status. Kylie Agllias, the author of the remarkable book Family Estrangement A Matter of Perspective, describes how acceptance is a mindful decision to move forward, continue to live, and reframe how one thinks about estrangement. Agllias encourages one to behave differently and focus more on caring for oneself.
Grieving over the loss of an estranged loved one can be heartbreaking. However, as in death, the survivors make a conscious effort to remember their loved ones and live again. While it looks different, life continues. It is not an easy task, but possible. The cost of loving others is the certainty of losing them through death, and as humans, we manage to pick up the pieces and move forward hopefully. When one is estranged, as in the experience of death, there is still hope that the estranged relationship will change and improve. During this waiting period, moving forward includes resuming ordinary life and intentional nourishing practices.
Intentionally Living Again
It is wise to practice daily self-care throughout your grieving journey. At the very least, eating and sleeping well, practicing prayers, intentions, and movement will support your efforts to resume your new life. Resisting the temptation to isolate and agreeing to gather with others when you are ready will help move you forward. The loss and grief felt for those we want to connect with may linger. Wake up and remind yourself that you aim to accept the current loss of the relationship for today.
If your grief is so severe that you cannot function and you’re not doing the things you once did, speak to a mental health clinician. Getting grief support during this period can be very important to help you express emotions in a safe, non-judgmental environment.
There is no substitute for having someone in your corner who understands and knows how to respond and can offer a compassionate place.
Estrangement for some is worse than losing someone to death. Complicated grief is ongoing, unrelenting mourning that stalls you from healing. It exacerbates stress to epic proportions. There is no shame in getting help. Support is having someone in your corner to have a safe place to vent. Your secret will find a safe place to express. They will help you make sense of what has happened, guide you gently, and offer non-judgmental assistance. You will learn communication skills, assess and treat anxiety and depression, and guide you toward healing.
Grief is the natural response to loss, whether from death or estrangement. The five stages of grief gifted to us by Elizabeth Kugler Ross and co-authored by David Kessler are meant to guide one through the varied individual response to grief. Everyone’s experience is unique, with no best or typical way to get to an endpoint. One’s experience will change over time, and the described stages can come in waves. The pain of grief is heart-wrenching, and although one may home for an end to these emotions, there is no endpoint or shortcut. Over the years, the experiences of others have influenced changes to include shock as a shared experience to grief. The stages of grief include shock, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, guilt, and acceptance. This article will discuss the Stages of Grief in Estrangement and its unique relationship to being estranged from someone you love.
- Agllias, Kylie. Family Estrangement A Matter Of Perspective. New York, Routledge, 2017.
- Coleman, Joshua. Rules of Estrangement. New York, Harmony Books, 2020.
- Morin, Marie. Feeling Heartbroken and Alone? How to Pick Up the Pieces When You are Estranged. eBook. 2022.
- Morin, M.L. [Morin Holistic Therapy]. (2022, January 4 ). What is Family Estrangement? You Are Not Alone.
- Morin, M.L. [Morin Holistic Therapy]. (2021, September 8). Diaphragmatic Breathing: 5 Minute Deep Breathing Exercise for Beginners.
- Morin, Marie. How to Deal with Estranged Family During the Holidays (2021, November 21) Sixty and Me. https://sixtyandme.com/estranged-family-holidays/
- Pillemer, Karl. Fault Lines Fractured Families and How to Mend Them. New York Penguin Random House, 2020.