When an Estranged Relative Dies, Some Face Grief, Regret and Relief

When the phone call came from my mother’s nursing home, I knew there could be only one reason. She had died at 85, sitting in her armchair watching television.

I was her only child, but we hadn’t spoken, or even tried to be in touch, in the previous decade. She was a Mensa member, a world traveler of independent means and a voracious reader. She was also bipolar and an alcoholic. Worn out by decades of dealing with both, which meant years of chaos and broken plans, I had finally, reluctantly, exhaustedly, just given up trying to have a relationship.

For every anguished iPad farewell made to a dying Covid patient, or during another Zoom funeral or someone dearly loved and mourned, there are many people like me, estranged from their parents, children or siblings when those family members pass away. And because of this, we may not grieve the same way people typically expect. For some, the end of an unhappy and complicated relationship just comes as a relief.

When the Karl Pillemer, a gerontologist at Cornell University who wrote “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them” surveyed 1,340 Americans in 2019, he found that 27 percent of them were estranged from a family member. “Shame, isolation and embarrassment pervade family estrangements,” he wrote.

Now working on a new study of how estrangement affects grief, Dr. Pillemer sees among those studied “unfinished business” and “bereavement-related regrets.” “They have more complicated grief,” he said in an interview. His advice, when possible, is to consider reconciliation, especially if death is expected or imminent, asking the question: “Will I feel better if I do this?” He said “anticipated regret” is very common. “People talked about it a lot. Will I miss the chance to reconnect?”

For Harriet Brown, author of “Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement,” her mother’s death at 76 was emotionally complicated. Ms. Brown had left home at 16 and never returned. But the day we spoke, the ninth anniversary of her mother’s death, Ms. Brown said she had cried. “She wasn’t a good mother to me. I never felt mothered, so it’s a different kind of grief about what is never going to happen. I miss what I longed for and that I never had,” Ms. Brown said.

She did try to visit her mother in the hospital, where she was sedated and on a ventilator, hoping to offer moral support to her father and sister. But when Ms. Brown saw her mother again she “felt such terror” instead, realizing anew why she was estranged, and glad of her decision to end the relationship.

Kaitlyn Luce, an artists’ manager in Nashville, lost her father, then 64, in October 2015, when she was 25. He had suffered a massive stroke and was in a Florida hospital. “A 15-hour drive is a long time to think about what you’re going into,” she said. Her father, bipolar and an alcoholic, had been physically and verbally abusive to her for years, Ms. Luce said. “I hadn’t been speaking to him for about a year and had told him I didn’t want a relationship with him. I really couldn’t put up with it anymore.”

She went to his hospital room, but didn’t see or speak to him. “I immediately broke down,” she recalled. “One of the things I tried to figure out was how I was going to say goodbye to my dad since the possibility of him coming through this was slim to none. I didn’t have a good answer.”

Ms. Luce and her brothers and a paternal aunt did hold a funeral for her father, a former D.J., gathering up photos and playing some of his favorite songs. “What I wanted to remember was when life was good, when times were fun,” she said. “What felt right to us was remembering the times that were really good and he was really, really fun. It did make it easier.”

She has done “a lot of therapy” since his death and still struggles with “a sense of confusion” about how to process his death and her feelings about him. “He couldn’t help himself because he was so sick,” she said. “He was doing the best with the tools he had.”

Yet, “overall,” she added, “a very large feeling I had was a sense of relief. I’d spent all 25 years of my life holding my breath, waiting for the next unpredictable thing he would do or say.”

Estrangement splinters families, sometimes even more so after death. For the British therapist Bernadette Wright, her father’s death came as a relief. She said he had long been “a tyrant, very abusive in every way.” She left home at 18 and moved to Germany, never returning. More than 30 years later, she was on vacation in Spain when her mother called to tell her that he had died. His funeral was announced on the radio in the small town in Ireland where he was born.

“It was difficult for my mother because she was there without her four children,” Ms. Wright said. “A friend of his gave his eulogy. People thought we were absolutely dreadful that we didn’t come. We begged my mom to keep it low-key as no one knew us anyway. We were all brought up in London.” Her mother was angry and embarrassed by their absence, she said, but their self-protection mattered more.

“People have this obsession with forgiveness,” Ms. Wright said. “You can forgive, but you don’t have to forget. You don’t have to have that toxicity back in yourself.” Those who have never been estranged often judge those who are, and very harshly, Ms. Wright added. “But you haven’t lived my life. It made me ill every time I saw my father.”

Ms. Wright has, though, mourned her father, feeling “huge grief,” but less for the man he was than the loving parent she never experienced. “That’s what you’re grieving for. The childhood you never had, the mother you never had, the father you never had.”

Funeral directors also face their own challenges when someone estranged dies, said Kari Northey, a funeral director in Wayland, Mich., with 18 years’ experience. She has seen unattended funerals and their aftermath. “Every funeral home has a shelf of unclaimed ashes. Unclaimed individuals are becoming a bigger situation. Even if they pay for the cremation, they never pick the ashes up.”

Ms. Northey urges those estranged at death from a loved one to “take a moment of looking at that person with fondness. That one good moment is what you grieve. Everyone is a gleam in someone’s eye at some point. At some point in their life, they were a good person.”

It’s helpful to see a body or coffin, she added. “Seeing is believing. If you don’t get that, it can hold back a lot you need to process through.” But if an angry relative who is the one who is paying for a funeral refuses to allow others access, “we end up as gatekeepers,” Ms. Northey said. “We sometimes have to be the person inflicting hurt. We’re constantly saying no when we want to say yes.”

Even as vaccinations are helping to curb the pandemic, there are still hundreds of patients dying of Covid every day, often alone. Dr. Pillemer suggested that hospice workers, chaplains, doctors and palliative care givers ask each one: “When did you last see your child or sibling or parent?”

He added, “There needs to be professional level training since no one wants to talk about estrangement, we need more professional awareness and education. There’s a great silence around the subject.”

Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in private practice and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families, suggested finding a way to “make sense of these conflicted feelings.” His new book, “Rules of Estrangement,” is a guide for parents whose adult children have cut them off, the most common pattern of estrangement, he said.

“There’s a temptation to feel really misunderstood and hurt and also judged by society,” he said. “People have to reckon with it and make sense of why they have chosen to become estranged when they were treated in a cruel, excluding or hostile way by their family. You need to develop your own strong narrative and have people in your life who support that. Nobody who hasn’t been estranged really knows what it’s like.”

I fled my mother’s care at 14, frightened of her mental illness and worn out from coping alone with her breakdowns. I went to live with my father and I never lived with her again. Experience had taught me I couldn’t feel safe with her. In later years, living by choice many thousands of miles apart in different countries, we did enjoy some calm and loving visits, for which I am grateful.

In many ways, I am still very much her daughter — bold, adventurous and curious. Those are the memories I am glad to carry.

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