Grief Due to Family Estrangement: The Pain of Broken Ties

Sometimes, we're forced to grieve for people who are still alive. It happens when, for example, a son, a brother, or even parents decide to move away and stop having contact with us.
Grief Due to Family Estrangement: The Pain of Broken Ties
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

What happens when an adult child distances themselves from their family? It’s a reality that many people have to deal with. It involves silenced and often ambivalent suffering that’s disconcerting and extremely difficult to manage. Indeed, grieving due to family estrangement is a complicated process, whether the break in the bond is justified or the result of something unexpected.

In recent years, much has been written about how recommendable it is to distance ourselves from nearby figures that hurt us. It’s true that it’s often necessary to take this step to safeguard our mental health. However, in the game of chess that represents the family, there are movements and dynamics that aren’t always easy to understand or even justify. It’s not just a matter of good and bad.

For example, a child might start a romantic relationship and stop talking to their family. In addition, economic issues often fuel the fire of many disputes and bitter distances. There are also cases of people who, due to a mental problem, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), can make inconsistent impulsive decisions.

These are really complex experiences of great complexity that are usually painful. For this reason, in many cases, people are forced to go through a process of mourning, but the kind that’s not talked about much. A mourning for loved ones that, even though they’re alive, they’ve stopped seeing.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

-Leo Tolstoy-

Happy family away from mourning due to family estrangement
There are increasing numbers of families breaking up. They’re more common in parent and child relationships.

Grief due to family estrangement

Although establishing distance with a family member is becoming more frequent, it’s also a silenced and even taboo reality. After all, the family still tends to be seen as a sacred institution in which there’s never any friction, and everything is rosy. However, in Western countries, there’s more distance between parents and children.

Karl Andrew Pillemer is a sociologist and gerontologist who’s studied this phenomenon in depth. In his book, Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, he documents the high prevalence of the breakdown of ties between members of a family group.

For example, he suggests that almost 27 percent of Americans have cut ties with a parent, child, sibling, etc. That kind of distancing hurts, causing chronic stress and suffering that’s not, as a rule, psychologically addressed.

Family estrangement mourning defines the emotional discomfort experienced when a loved one moves away from the family. Often, even if the act is justified, it doesn’t stop provoking certain contradictory feelings, causing emptiness and conflicting emotions that are difficult to define.

Strategies to deal with family estrangement

The reasons that lead to the breaking of a link are multiple and highly complex. Sometimes, the origin lies in certain disagreements. For instance, parents who don’t accept their children’s partners. Or, children who run away from their parents after a series of traumatic experiences. There are also economic conflicts as well as mental ones.

Grief due to family estrangement is frequently due to friction experienced with a family member who suffers from mental health problems. Indeed, it can be difficult to live with an individual suffering from certain psychological disorders or with some type of addiction.

How can these situations be dealt with? Let’s take a look.

Beyond the stigma: accept that they’re common situations

Severing the bond with the family is usually viewed as a stigma. We tend to take a dim view of the child who doesn’t talk to their parents. We criticize the siblings who, for ten years haven’t wanted to know each other. However, we need to understand that these are common and widespread situations.

The problem is that family disagreements and estrangements aren’t talked about enough. Furthermore, we need better specialized professionals to help people in these experiences. As a matter of fact, many want to reconcile and lack valid strategies to do so.

The importance of communication to clarify the problem and make a decision

Much of the difficulty of grieving due to family estrangement lies in communication problems. Research conducted by Utah State University (USA) claims that in this type of situation it’s key to know how to communicate assertively, clearly, and respectfully.

Whether there’s a need to reconcile or to continue with the estrangement, it needs to be expressed and opinions must be aired. Only in this way is there a possibility of rapprochement or the ability to handle the mourning. All too often, parents, siblings, or children find themselves with an unexpected and traumatic absence of a loved one.

It’s imperative to always make things clear. Living with constant uncertainty about the state of the relationship can be devastating and generate volatile situations.

Adult daughter arguing representing when narcissists play the victims
Estrangements cause ‘collateral damage’. They force family members to take sides with one or the other.

Grief due to family estrangement can arouse ambivalent emotions that range from sadness to anger. Sufferers might feel pain over the situation, but also bewilderment and even shame. For example, social shame, for having a son who doesn’t speak to them. Or, having siblings with whom they have no relationship.

Each person will experience this situation in a unique way and every reality is normal.

Emotions mustn’t be repressed. That said, it’s extremely common for people not to want to talk or even think about it. This emptiness is full of discomfort and unpleasant words, some said and some unsaid. They’re dimensions that need addressing.

We must delve into every emotion and painful thought. Talking with valid support figures about everything we feel will be of great help.

Estrangements often cause a form of chronic stress. These broken bonds of attachment become latent wounds that sufferers carry with them for life.

Reformulate ties and try to live in the present

The family isn’t a sacred institution that can overcome everything and always stays afloat. Sometimes, it disintegrates. It may even be reformulated in another way, with other more significant members. Be that as it may, mourning due to family estrangement forces us to reflect on our ties and shape a new stage.

Many people who are separated from a family member live their reality with sadness and long for reconnection. They’d like to go back and resolve certain issues. However, this isn’t always possible. Grief forces us to heal the past and focus on the present.

If you have a son, brother, father, or mother who doesn’t want to see you, you should accept their decision. Focus on those who are close to you. Love and care for the bonds that are rewarding and reciprocated, whether they’re your family or not. That said, it’s also perfectly understandable to miss those who are no longer in your life and to long for happier days gone by.

On the other hand, if you’re the one who decided to distance yourself, remember your reasons for doing so. You made them for your own well-being. Again, it’s understandable that you still feel a certain sadness for what couldn’t be.

Nowadays, there are increasingly more people who carry the burden of misunderstandings and discomfort due to family estrangement. This reality needs to be addressed in a specialized way. Sufferers need to be directed toward a space of greater tranquility and acceptance.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Scharp KM. “You’re Not Welcome Here”: A Grounded Theory of Family Distancing. Communication Research. 2019;46(4):427-455. doi:10.1177/0093650217715542.
  • Pillemer, Karl (2020) Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them.  Avery

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.