Unravelling Family Estrangement

Families. 

Whatever the issues are, however the consequences of one’s actions, why do people distance themselves within a family for prolonged periods of time? In the great schematic of life, at the end of the day, what does estrangement solve?

Before anyone coughs up a lung at the above statement and would like to correct me, please follow. Life is filled with toxic people – some are better off without those individuals. I’m well aware that not every family can or should mend whatever shattered mess they might be in. Nor do I believe every family can be saved through reconciliation. I DO, however, believe in the practice of love, gratitude, the gift of forgiveness, betterment of human kindness and self-preservation. 

Family dysfunction comes in all sizes; some more subtle, others sharply evident. I’m not even sure where or how to begin with any of this. Let’s just start at this moment, shall we?

In all my research and writing on estrangement over the years, I came upon a post written days ago by Jan Wilberg, of redswrap.wordpress.com. Her description of family complexity is expressed with grace, honesty and keen insight. It deeply resonates:

“One thought I had is that the magic of estrangement is that the estranged person is always oddly present without having to travel or take up a seat. And I think that is the intention although most estranged people would deny it. They want to cast a lifetime curse of puzzlement and self-doubt on their family members. They want to be the distant enigma, the planet found after Pluto, hardest to see but orbiting the sun nonetheless. They enjoy this image in their minds, hoping secretly that the people who were shunned gather to console each other and wonder why. And they get what they want, but because they’re not there to witness it, the joy is muted.”

I’m not certain this is how my girls feel. I’m not to judge. How can I judge something I know so little about? Yet Jan’s words make sense. Is estrangement not some sort of punishment, a way in which to contain the choice of silence?

And this….

“Another thought is that shunned people, though damaged by having been estranged, figure out how to mostly close the original wound of having been left. Notice I say mostly. The bleeding stops and a scar eventually forms but there’s always a tiny area that stays inflamed, a little swollen, it’s the place absentmindedly touched several times a day, just to remember that, however good life may seem, it’s never going to be entirely right. It’s like a small sliver of pencil lead I had in the heel of my hand all through grade school. It stopped hurting but I could always see it there, shadowy gray under my skin.”

For me, this rings true. During the first few years, life was one on hold. Functioning on a daily basis was not my default mode. After some time, I learned to walk and breathe again, albeit differently. Loss is loss is loss. The death of my mom, followed by my dad-in-law, followed with the decision to divorce, followed with the reality of divorce; thus began a new frontier I had no idea how to navigate. Though the pain is much less and I’m carrying on, the wound is always apt to split open with each trigger, a reminder that it’s never going to be entirely right. 

Then this…

“Estrangement is the nuclear option in family relationships. It is the most powerful weapon, the most feared. ‘I sentence you to my absence forever.’ It is the last word and an unanswerable one. There is no arguing with being shunned. Once someone pulls the plug, they take the outlet with them, the light and all the power. However, eventually, death trumps estrangement. Unless one believes ardently in an afterlife where all the estranged can meet up in one giant reconciliation coffee shop, death ends the contest. There are no tender spots left, no pencil lead under the skin, the old wounds are buried, cremated, gone.

Mostly.

Some, just a tiny bit, is left to the next generation as their inheritance.”

Yep. 

Now going into my fifth year without any connection to my girls, acceptance brings new life. People don’t quite know what to do with estrangement, how to approach the topic, as if talked about too openly, it might be contagious. As I learn to live with other people’s choices to disengage, I’m here to tell y’all, I’m not afraid to share this ongoing chapter of my life anymore. It’s part of my impermeable story, one in which has changed my perspective on family relationships, community, humanity, shame, empathy, gratitude, trust, listening, dialogue, vulnerability, love and self-care. Spiritual awakening has reshaped my beliefs, as what is one to do with so much pain but to feel it surge, keep it alive long enough, so as to release to an entity higher than us, when that pain no longer defines who we are? 

I share to help. I share to listen. I share because I love my girls with all my heart. I need not share life with them in order to love. They have their own story. I applaud them. This is mine. 

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You are welcome to participate and share. Dialogue is encouraged, if so inclined. More soon, kids. 

We’ll find each other soon. ❤

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11 thoughts on “Unravelling Family Estrangement

  1. Thanks for sharing Carin. That takes courage. I don’t know the details but I know what I saw in the early years…a loving, devoted, caring mom. Sending you a big hug.

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    1. Thank you, Debbi. Your words are comforting – a reminder, the kind of mom I was, the kind of mom I am today. It’s good to let go of the shame I’ve carried for years. Slowly, coming to terms with decisions I made in my life. I feel your hug and sending one right back at ya.

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  2. Carin, very beautifully expressed. Yes, writing like this takes lots of courage. I applaud you. Your writing is filled with such truth. You wrote, “some… Is left for the next generation as their inheritance.” I realized this in April, after I learned of the birth of my first grandchild through a Facebook photo. She is being stripped of so much and her parents choose to keep stealing her legacy from her. No one wins in estrangement. It has been 14 years since I have seen my sons. The last time was in the courtroom during my divorce. I have written a bit about my story on my blog, but this is a difficult thing to write about without causing more trouble from them. You do a wonderful job at this. I wish you the best.

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  3. Baby steps in a big girl’s world. Courage takes practice. I’m still using training wheels, though feel the glide is less rocky all the time. Your comment touches me. 14 years is a lifetime. Thank you for sharing your story. I applaud your courage to comment on something so difficult. Keep writing as you feel comfortable. We’re here for each other. ❤

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