On July 10 last year, I woke up to serve the brunch shift at Leopold’s Tavern, a neighbourhood pub in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Halfway into my commute, I felt a buzz on my wrist. Lifting my hand off the steering wheel, I glanced at the face of my Apple watch, which was glowing with a previewed Facebook message from my half-sister.
“Hi Emily, I know it’s been a while since we caught up, but I need to share some sad news…”
The rest of my 14-minute drive was a blank. I knew from that short phrase exactly what had happened. Still, I pulled into the back lane of the restaurant, parked, and read the remainder of the message.
At the age of 82, my father had died in a hospital near his home outside of Calgary, Alberta.
It had been over two years since I had last spoken to him over the phone, and 10 years since I’d seen him in person — even though we lived in the same city. Our final phone conversation had begun with him asking about my most recent studies and ended with him sobbing from his hospital bed.
Despite my anger and frustration towards our relationship, in that moment I felt like I needed to support him. I’d expected him to be charming, quick-witted, like he’d always been. I can still picture his tall and athletic physique. His brown moustache, the constellation of freckles splattered along his arms and legs, and a gold ring honouring a notable championship. I really couldn’t imagine him weak and bedridden. But he sounded old as he apologized for missing out on the milestones that strung together my life.
My younger self would have been outraged, filling his ear with angry remarks. Instead, I felt sorry for him. I was calm, reassuring him he was in the right hands. I gave him the address for my new place in Vancouver and explained that I was about to start a master’s program at UBC. But I didn’t expect him to book a flight, and we didn’t make any plans to meet up.
My father and I hadn’t had a functional relationship ever since he chose to cut off communication with me over a decade ago. Our relationship didn’t end instantly. It slowly withered away as I grew into my late teens.
My parents were never married and separated when I was a toddler; I grew up living with my mom and older brother. They were my immediate family. My brother, nine years my senior, took on the arduous task of being the man of the house. His high school life was coloured with babysitting responsibilities. My father was mostly absent and chose to estrange himself from me for financial reasons — he no longer wanted to support me and made many attempts to sever legal ties.
Receiving the news of his death made me feel confused about what should come next. Should I tell my boss that my father died? What would I tell my closest friends? How could I grieve a person that I could only remember through blurry childhood memories?
Losing a parent at 25 is no walk in the park, but this wasn’t like I’d lost someone I knew intimately. Surely, I lost something — but what?
As I began to reassess my relationship with my dad, I realized my situation wasn’t as unusual as I’d initially thought. A 2015 study by Kean University psychologist Richard Conti found that 27 per cent of Americans were estranged from a family member, and 40 per cent had experienced estrangement, especially from their fathers.
The reasons for severing ties can include emotional, physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, divorce and other forms of separation, political disagreements and lifestyle differences — during COVID-19, rifts arose as the pandemic became politicized, and families and friends became divided over mask-wearing, vaccination and the validity of COVID-19.
When it comes to losing someone we’re estranged from, these rifts — and the reasons that underlie them — can complicate the process of grief and make our responses to the loss unexpected. Instead of feeling sadness, we may feel anger. Or instead of feeling anger, we may feel very little at all.
Working through these feelings can be tough, as estrangement is often stigmatized.
“People often avoid talking about it altogether. It’s too uncomfortable,” says Dr. Lucy Blake, a psychologist at the University of the West of England. “There is an assignment of some kind of blame or judgement about that, as in, ‘Have you done something to bring that on?’”
The stigma surrounding estrangement is epitomized by the response to the decision of Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, to distance herself from her father. British tabloids depicted the duchess as cold for “ghosting” him since the Royal Wedding and the birth of her first child. This type of coverage tended to ignore the reasons that the duchess may have had to cut off communication, leaving the public to view estrangement through a taboo-like lens.
“That the idea of leaving behind a difficult or dysfunctional family is not in adherence to notions that society possesses towards forgiving and healing with family relationships,” says Becca Bland, founder of Stand Alone, a charity founded in the U.K. to support individuals who experience estrangement.
While around 43 per cent of estrangements are relatively short-term — lasting, on average, for four years — some extend beyond repair.
Losing an estranged person, as I did, tends to bring that estranged relationship sharply into focus, as there is no longer any opportunity for reconciliation.
Winnipegger Terry Goertzen was seven-years-old when his biological mother, Sally, left him and his three siblings to live with their father. Terry and his mom caught up on major events periodically, like his first wedding or when he received his Métis status. Nevertheless, the communication was random and inconsistent.
After decades of separation, Goertzen learned that Sally had died in Vancouver. He didn’t feel engulfed by an overwhelming sense of loss.
“I do wish I would have been able to just see her,” he says. “And then that was it. Like, there was not any other feeling. But I have had some awareness that I became kind of biologically alone in the world.”
The common assumption is that the biological ties to our parents signify an infinite connection. Yet in estranged relationships, this isn’t always the case.
“The concept of ‘You gotta love them no matter what’ — estrangement confronts that myth right there,” Terry adds.
Terry’s sister Tammy Goertzen felt a muted response to her mother’s death, which in turn made her feel out of place, abnormal and different.
“It was like, ‘Okay, now what? I don’t know how to feel about this. Am I supposed to cry?’ There were physically no tears coming out of my eyes,” she says. “Everyone would say ‘I’m sorry,’ and I would say, ‘It’s okay,’ but I truly didn’t know what else to say.”
Throughout much of her life, Tammy stayed in contact with her mother but says the two of them “were never that close.” Finally, with support from a registered counsellor, Tammy chose to cut off communication. The decision to estrange, she said, improved her well-being.
“My counsellor said to me, ‘You can love your mother, but you don’t have to like her, and you don’t have to talk to her,’” she says. “And I didn’t like her as a person.”
Estrangement is “beneficial for those that experience all different kinds of abuse,” says Dr. Blake.
“Just like not being physically safe, lots of people really aren’t psychologically safe in their relationships. So, when you step away from them, you can experience freedom and a sense of relief that comes from not engaging in a challenging relationship. You can then engage in personal growth and learn a lot about yourself.”
To better understand estrangement and estranged grief, I began participating in grief counselling sessions with Maryam Khademian, a registered professional grief counsellor with Village Grief Counselling in Vancouver.
We began by reviewing my childhood and the early years with my father. I made it clear to her that I barely remembered what it was like to have him around when I was young. That was when Khademian handed me a stack of around 100 laminated flashcards, all labelled with various terms and words: “love,” “beauty,” “safety,” “the need to feel seen,” “the need to feel understood,” “visibility,” “touch,” “humour,” “wisdom,” “confidence.”
She asked me to set the cards down in two piles: one for the things that my father did give to me and another for the things that he did not give to me. I began flipping the cards, creating a stack on the couch to the right of me.
The cards were piling up in a single mound. My cheeks turned red. I felt like a fraud for taking up Khademian’s time to grieve the loss of a person who had apparently provided me with nothing at all.
At the end of this depressing game of modified slapjack, I looked up at Khademian to ask what it meant. She explained that the loss of my father had begun long before we cut ties. My grieving journey didn’t begin during that morning drive to serve brunch at a local pub — it began when I was a child and continued as our communication reduced in frequency to splatters of random birthday cards and meaningless phone calls.
“In estranged relationships, you have been grieving all along,” she said. “You have been grieving in a non-grieving way on the surface, but you have been losing consistently. You just haven’t necessarily realized it.”
For the first time in a very long time, I felt understood.
“The need to feel understood” — it was a flashcard that I held for a few extra moments during my counselling session.
Some people that are estranged may experience the common symptoms of conventional grief, says Khademian. Others will experience little grief or be unable to acknowledge their grief.
Often, she says, the grieving process is disenfranchised — it goes unacknowledged or is not accepted, either by the griever or by others around them.
“Because that person was not really a big character in your life, the people closest to you also don’t see them as a big person in your life,” she says. “These people are definitely not going to understand if you want to cry. Then you, as the griever, become angry and shameful. That’s why we say that the griever is not recognized.”
This is something I identify with. In the six months since my father died, not one person has asked me how I’m doing. If I ever talk about my dad, I end up finding myself trying to escape the conversation to make others feel more comfortable. On the flip side, I become frustrated that I rarely have these conversations at all.
It’s easy to be angry at others for this. But how are people supposed to support someone for a loss that they never knew existed or knew very little about?
“I hope we can all grow a bit more sensitive about how we talk about family,” says Blake. “The main thing for people to feel is that although others may not know exactly what someone else is going through, it doesn’t make it less painful.”
In Joshua Coleman’s book Rules of Estrangement, he says empathy is the key to understanding what he describes as the “new and often uncharted territories of parent-adult relationships.”
As I grew up without my dad, I used to believe that being dealt that fateful hand of cards marked me as unique. I remember feeling afraid to share the deep secret of falling short of the nuclear family structure with a single mom raising my brother and me.
But perhaps my stack isn’t that much different from everyone else’s.
Loss is integral to human life. Though we grieve in our own ways, we will all create our own mounds of flashcards — some bigger, some smaller, some stacked with different terms outlining our fulfilled and unfulfilled needs.
Whichever way the mounds stack up, this game of life and loss is clarifying. It’s not strictly about which cards we are dealt, but also how we choose to play them.
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