Family Estrangement: 3 Stories and the Advice You Need to Hear

“Home is not a place, it’s a feeling.” ~Cecilia Ahern

This post is written by three people from different parts of the world who came together to share their story of family estrangement and their choice not to reconcile.

To the outside world, it seemed none of us were neglected. Our parents were well-educated. We grew up in decent homes, were given good educational opportunities, and had financial support. We looked like we came from perfect families, but….

Jen’s Story

On March 24, 2019, I received a chilling text from my sister that Grandma was found unconscious in her home and rushed to the hospital. Her pancreatic cancer had progressed, and it seemed the time Grandma had left was like grains of sand in an hourglass.

From that moment on, all I could think about was how much I wanted to tell my grandma I loved her, to hold her hand, and to share how grateful I was for all of her love despite being estranged from my parents.

Without thinking, I quickly jumped into action. As my husband helped me book flights and accommodations, I canceled appointments and made arrangements to make up the work I’d miss so I could spend my grandmother’s final breaths with her.

At the airport, I made notes about all the things I wanted to tell Grandma. Would I get to see her, or would I be too late? While these thoughts raced through my mind, my sister continued to text me a very grim picture. My thoughts punched me in the stomach as I reminisced over the ways Grandma had made my life wonderful.

When I was growing up, Grandma was the parent I looked up to. She always had a creative solution for everything. I called her when I felt down, when I needed advice, or when something good happened in my life because she always shared my joy. I always felt encouraged, and so I truly aspired to be like her.

Because I was so focused on reminiscing on our wonderful times, I didn’t stop to consider the reality of seeing my parents again. At that point, I had not seen them since 2004, had grieved the loss of them in silence as if they had died, and had tried to heal the wounds of an abusive childhood.

When I entered my grandmother’s hospital room, her eyes were closed, and she looked very gray. I took this moment in, just being alone with her, and then suddenly she opened her eyes. I could see her face fill with so much joy, but then just as quickly it suddenly turned to intense rage.

“You are the last person I wanted to see!” she exclaimed, pulling the blankets around herself. “What if you run into your mother—what if you upset the family?”

I was stunned. I hadn’t thought of any of these things because my mind was so focused on her.

“Would you like me to leave?” I whispered.

“No dear, I am glad that you’re here, but I don’t want you upsetting the family.”

My grandmother was right. I hadn’t taken the time to reflect on how I would respond to seeing my parents again, what I’d say, or how I’d choose to engage with them. I also hadn’t considered how they might engage with me.

No sooner than I realized this, suddenly, my mother walked past my grandmother’s hospital room. Without thinking, I rushed over to hug her. I asked her if she was okay with me being there, and we had a short, respectful conversation.

But, after our interaction, I began to feel physically ill. My body tightened, and I found it hard to breathe properly. Feelings of deep longing washed over me, and I found myself fantasizing about having a supportive adult relationship with both of my parents again.

Later that day, in a flight of emotion, I called my parents and had a decent conversation with my father. I gave him my phone number and told him I would be willing to reconnect again. Looking back, I see this was a detrimental mistake—a mistake that filled me with hurt and longing.

During my visit, I noticed when I was not with my grandmother, I became preoccupied with false hope. A strong desire came over me wishing my parents would call me. I was hoping they’d also apologize for the hurt that they had caused me over the course of my life, and that this time, maybe things would be different. I fantasized about my parents taking an interest in my life without judgment.

Had I really taken the time to reflect on how I would respond to the situation away from the emotion of the moment, I would not have gotten caught up in false hope or fairy-tale notions of reconciliation.

I would have thought back to why I made the choice to cut off contact with my parents in the first place, and that door would have forever remained closed. I would have accepted that behind that door is a past that has shaped me, that continues to haunt me, and still has some power to hurt me in the present if I were to open it again.

Magdalena’s Story

My phone pinged in December 2019 notifying me of a text message. I jumped a little, and then even more so when I realized that the message was from Dad. I pressed the “Read” button cautiously:

“Is it possible we can meet up face-to-face to talk about this situation?” the message asked.

For a moment, I thought it sounded like a reasonable request, but then all of a sudden, a million emotions raced through my body like fear, hope, anger, longing, and worry.

Prior to receiving Dad’s text, I had become increasingly aware over the years that my relationship with my parents hadn’t been healthy. My parents’ reactions to challenges had ranged from threats of suicide and physical threats of violence against my partner and me to emotional manipulation.

Since I had become a parent myself, it became abundantly clear that my ideas on parenting clashed with theirs, which is not necessarily uncommon; however, I became more aware of the dysfunction within our family and decided to do something about it by choosing limited contact in March 2019.

As I sat there, pondering Dad’s text, I considered lots of scenarios: Could things be different this time? Could we possibly compromise? What could I do to make this easier? But, I also noticed just how cautious I was because, sadly, previous attempts at reconciliation had disintegrated badly into unsolved drama, severe insults, and horrible disrespect.

I regularly felt my parents diminished and ridiculed my concerns. Their sense of entitlement was always so overwhelming, which simply made balanced discussions impossible.

Over the years, I’d been patient with my parents’ dysfunctional behavior and my mother’s mental health, which had significantly deteriorated, but she refused to admit it. My therapist has highlighted several times that, while having a mental health problem is common, it doesn’t excuse poor treatment of others, and therefore, my mother will always be responsible for her actions, both good and bad.

Meanwhile, my father has clearly crumbled under the weight of my mother’s emotional instability, yet he continues to support her unhealthy and dysfunctional behavior as a means of safeguarding himself.

Again, I thought that if I agreed to respond to his text and meet, I would resolve not to engage in any provocations, but rather calmly listen to what they have to say while attempting to positively direct the focus of the conversation. As I sat in trepidation, I felt somewhat hopeful yet wary.

I decided to respond to my father’s text and ask to meet somewhere public to minimize the risk of great drama. My parents agreed and I started to feel hopeful.

Unfortunately, it became clear almost immediately that my mother had an alternative agenda. Almost immediately, she told me I am a disgrace and my own children will one day turn on me as I have on her. She called me an evil witch and a marble-hearted fiend.

The insults she bombarded me with slipped out of her mouth easily and effortlessly leaving me to shake while lowering my head. It was obvious she hated my cool response, and it felt like my father was clueless as to what was happening in front of his eyes.

True-to-form, my father accused me of insulting my mother due to my silence. I explained I had genuinely come to meet them with the hope of starting to build some bridges, and that it felt like, just as my father and I were starting to make those tiny steps, my mother decided to deliver some killer blows, which ultimately derailed everything.

My father told me I am a waste of space and I never had any intention at reconciling at all. Together, they both agreed they’ve created a demon while dramatically walking out of the café. That pretty much concluded the “peace negotiations.”

I sit in a shocked state again. I question, why did I do this to myself again? The answer is, I had fallen prey to my dreams of wanting joyful Christmases with my whole family, as well as wishing for simple picnics in the garden where I had played as a kid.

Now, I just feel stuck. I realize I miss not having parents with all my heart but, I can’t have any contact with them because it is too damaging. It’s time to acknowledge that while relationships can be difficult, healthy relationships don’t play out like this.

CJG’s Story

“Could there ever be a genuine chance of reconciling with my parents,” I asked my therapist in January 2020.

He reminds me, “If you want to reconcile with your family, remember there’ll always be a ‘hit’ for every kiss you get. So, keep in mind, it’s kiss-hit, kiss-hit.” Taking that in, I say, “I’m just too old to take the hits anymore. I only want kisses.

I’ve been estranged from my family since 2018. It’s been an ongoing vacillating back-and-forth of wondering how it would be to reconcile. Estrangement has been the hardest decision I’ve made, but choosing not to reconcile is harder. Despite this struggle, I’ve chosen to remain estranged.

I didn’t think I was unloved as a child because my father was extremely affectionate, said “I love you,” and attended my sporting competitions. Nightly, my mother made sure my homework was done correctly, and we sat down as a family to have homemade dinners cooked by my grandmother or mother.

My household felt every bit “family,” but it was also a place full of tension, unsaid thoughts, extreme stress, debilitating confusion, radical rage, and countless secrets.

Growing up I overlooked the weeks my mother would ignore me for no reason, despite me begging her to tell me how I could fix whatever I’d done. I’d apologize profusely while sobbing and pleading with her to speak to me so I would feel loved again.

Instead, she prided herself on knowing she could ignore an eight-year-old child without any reason. Suddenly, she’d just start talking to me as though nothing had ever happened. And, like most children, I’d forget the pain she’d caused over those weeks.

Nightly, my father watched the Playboy channel on the family television. He’d rush me and my sibling off to bed very early so he could get his fix.

Most nights, I’d have nightmares, groggily walk down the stairs in hopes of some comfort, but would be yelled at instead because I’d caught glimpses of the explicit images my parents were watching. Confused and not soothed, I’d walk back up to my room and wet the bed. The following morning, my father would shout and degrade me for yet another bedwetting incident.

I’ve always been mindful not to shame my parents. I was trained to “never air our dirty laundry.” Yet, it never dawned on me just how much “dirty laundry” we actually had. I didn’t realize what they were so afraid of and why it was imperative to condition us to ensure we were never exposed. I just assumed all the stuff happening in our home happened in everybody’s else’s homes, too.

Parents like mine are more concerned with what the “neighbors think” than how their children feel. They work hard keeping up appearances rather than emotionally supporting their children. They live out the fantasy of having the perfect family while destroying it with double-standards, hypocrisy, betrayal, and cognitive dissonance.

I was actively a part of this family-fantasy till 2018. I ignored physical and emotional cues, as well as frightening memories for years, to be loyal and loving to my family. I focused only on the “good times” and suppressed abuses, covert sabotaging, and extreme enmeshment.

I feel heartbroken and ashamed this is the truth of the family I grew up with and wanted to know for the rest of my days. Despite admitting these truths, I’ll always love them, and that’s what makes it hard not to reconcile.

Our Advice to Readers

If you’re struggling over reconciling, you’re not alone. Your parents helped make this inevitable choice with you through whatever behaviors they exhibited that ultimately brought on the estrangement.

Some advice to remember:

Keep your “why” handy. Write a list of reasons you feel can’t have a relationship with your family. Review this “why” list often. Your “why” may include displays of stonewalling, silent treatment, feeling physically ill after contact with them, severe abuse, covert sabotaging, betrayal, gossiping, enmeshment, and triangulating, for example.

Leave out the “shoulds.” If you’re saying things like, “I should reconcile with my family,” or, “I should reunite because society tells me I should,” then try to feel twice.

Feeling twice is tuning into your body rather than your logic. Here are some ways to help you do that: Close your eyes, place your hand on your stomach or heart. Notice your body’s cues when you think of reconciling. Are your palms sweaty? Is your heart racing? Do you swallow heavily? Do you feel a sense of dread and panic or do you feel a sense of joy and fulfillment over reconciling?

Take your time. It can be hard if you have a family member who is ill, aging, or dying, but it’s important to remember that estrangement did not happen overnight. You made this choice after years of ongoing toxicity and dysfunction. So, go slowly with this process, too.

Be realistic about what could happen if you reconnect and envision honestly the best- and worst-case scenarios. Take time to reflect over a period of weeks. Consulting with a therapist can help, as this process can bring up feelings of pain and longing.

Ask what’s “value-added?” What’s the emotional value added if you reconcile with your parents? What’s the value added if you don’t?

Tune into the truth: Do you see any evidence that the person or people you’re estranged with have grown? Do your values and their values align or not? Will reuniting with them compromise your healing plan?

Lastly, make a list of non-negotiables. Reconciliation can only happen if your family agrees to committing to your list and understands the consequences if they violate your deal-breakers.

We have all walked away from our families of origin, let go of the hope for fairy-tale ending, and fought to discard society’s romanticized notions of reconciliation. We have found peace, our health and well-being have improved, and we all lead happy, meaningful lives. You can too.

About Jen A Hinkkala, Magdalena Silverman, and CJG

The three authors met in the Facebook group Estranged: Support for People Who Do Not Talk to Their Parents. They connected because they noticed in each other a compelling need to share with others that estrangement need not be stigmatized but rather considered a healthy option in order to move forward in life. The authors of this piece have backgrounds in education, mental health, psychology, and the arts.

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