Grieving the Death of an Estranged Parent

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A difficult relationship between a parent and child can leave people with feelings of confusion, frustration, and even a lack of closure. Relationships grow apart for so many reasons. Whether it’s something like abuse or neglect, or just a slow distancing until there’s no connection left, strained or missing relationships hurt. Sometimes the only option is to cut off communication and try to heal on your own. Often, adult children feel like the death of an estranged parent will give them some closure and resolution. However, just because the relationship isn’t what you hoped for, doesn’t necessarily mean you grieve less when that person dies.

The Layers of Grieving the Death of an Estranged Parent

Initially, there’s mourning the relationship that will never be. Whether your parent left when you were a child or you moved out as a teenager hoping for a better life, most people hold out a little hope that one day the relationship will improve. When there’s a death of an estranged parent, reconciliation is no longer a possibility. 

Once you’ve grieved the loss of the opportunity to improve the relationship, you can start grieving the loss of the actual person. Sometimes both layers of grief hit you at the same time. Whether it’s remembering the good times you shared with them or grieving the idea of the parental role they weren’t able to fulfill, the loss of a parent can feel crushing.

Reasons People Grieve the Death of an Estranged Parent

Naturally, most people want to form relationships with the people around them. It’s instinct to connect with our parents. We want to grow up depending on them and trusting them. However, a study in the UK found that estrangement affects at least one in five British families. That’s 20 percent! Even though being estranged can feel lonely, it’s becoming clear that you aren’t alone in this situation.

There are many feelings when adult children grieve the death of an estranged parent:

  • Denial that the person has actually died.
  • Anger about the wrongs that will never be fixed.
  • Guilt for not making amends or trying to repair the relationship.
  • Isolation when people don’t reach out with condolences like you’d expect after the loss of a parent.
  • Confusion when people suggest you don’t deserve to grieve the death since you haven’t talked to the deceased person recently.
  • Sadness about missed milestones or memories.
  • Disappointment that your own children won’t have the opportunity to know their grandparent.
  • Frustration about the “what ifs,” “maybes,” and “someday” ideas.
  • Conflicting feelings about a lack of closure and the permanency of death.
  • Acceptance that there’s nothing you can do to change the situation.

How to Move Forward After the Loss of an Estranged Parent

Know that it’s okay to be feeling a lot of different things as you deal with the death of an estranged parent. It’s okay to grieve the loss, even if you haven’t had a close relationship in years. In fact, your grief may have more layers than that of a traditional child-parent relationship, since you’re also grieving the loss of what will never be repaired.

Tips to help you move forward include:

  • Hold on to any good memories you have with the estranged parent.
  • Forgive and let go of what led to the estrangement. At this point, there’s no chance of resolution or apologies, so the forgiveness is only for your peace of mind.
  • Allow yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling.
  • Know when to reach out to a trusted friend, religious leader, or grief counselor for guidance.

Coping with grief and loss looks different for everyone and in every situation. Know that you have the right to feel whatever you’re feeling and you’re not alone. If it gets to be too much to process and work through, please reach out to someone right away.

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