“There must be room in love for hate.” — Mary Peacock
Definitions of estrangement vary, but at its most basic, estrangement can be understood as the breakdown of a relationship between family members.
The experience of family estrangement is deeply personal, complex and unique, and there can often be a sense of secrecy and shame surrounding the experience. Individuals estranged from one or more family members, tend to feel the need to hide their situation from others, particularly in case of close family relationships such as parent-child estrangement.
Estrangement can be an intensely stigmatising process, with adult-children being condemned for estranging an ageing parent and similarly, a parent may be harshly judged for ostracising a child. Hence, disclosing their estrangement from members of their family is something that people usually go to great lengths to avoid.
However, the secrecy and silence surrounding the intense hurt of estrangement means there is a lack of support for those experiencing it, particularly within immediate social and wider support networks. Research indicates that family estrangement may not be such a rare occurrence as we might think and of course, estrangement is difficult to quantify since it tends to be such an isolating experience with individuals concealing or minimising their experience to others.
Estrangement between a parent and a child can be seen as particularly acute, given the uniqueness of this relationship, and the parent-child bond is often socially perceived as permanent and therefore unbreakable. The relationship between a mother and child is arguably one of the most emotionally charged and therefore the most wounding when it breaks down.
Notwithstanding the reasons leading up to a family estrangement, there is an inevitable experience of loss. Often, the losses are multiple and may be felt at different levels by those that are estranged, and arguably the loss is more difficult to reconcile when the one that has been lost is still there. These losses can also extend across the generations involving siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and grandchildren. This loss has been referred to as ‘disenfranchised grief’ – a loss that cannot be openly mourned or acknowledged (Doka, 1989). This can leave the grieving person feeling inhibited from seeking and receiving support.
However alone someone might feel, seeking support from close friends where possible, or from an experienced psychotherapist who is independent from your circumstances, can offer a way to make sense of your experience and move forward.
Doka, K.J. (1989) Disenfranchised grief. Jossey-Bass.