The loss of a parent is never an easy thing, but often the death of an estranged parent or one who has been absent from the children causes feelings that are difficult for the child to process. The delicate balances in a parent-child relationship coupled with the intense emotions that accompany the grieving process can be overwhelming to handle. Though we might expect to feel relief that an estranged parent is no longer a part of our lives, it is far more common to find that the death affects us intensely on several unexpected levels.

There are many reasons the relationship with a parent becomes estranged. The parent may choose to create the distance. Seeking to escape the responsibilities of parenthood, the adult abandons responsibilities and connections.

Fighting over a particular issue is the cause of many estrangements. Most families endure fights, but some become very personal and linger. The small crack that divided a parent and younger children suddenly becomes a chasm that one or the other chooses not to try to bridge.

Counselors often point to divorce as the most common cause of alienation between a parent and a child. A divorce causes the parents to separate and new opportunities create a move. The sheer distance cuts down the frequency of visits. The more normal life goes on, the more the distance becomes greater than just physical miles. Resentment can occur from the feeling the child has of being abandoned, a dislike of the person that is dated or married, and an insecurity caused by the attempt to blend new children into the family.

Sometimes the hurt and hatred that one spouse has for the other creates the estrangement between the parent and the child. The custodial parent can influence the child’s perception of the divorce and non-custodial parent’s love and affection for the children.

Why is There Grief for an Estranged Parent?

  1. We grieve what might have been. We reflect on a time when we loved the parent, or wanted to love them. There may not be a longing for things to change, but there is a feeling of melancholy that things were not different. The death of the parent causes images in the mind to appear, conjuring ideas of how the relationship should have developed.
  2. We grieve that the relationship now has no chance of mending. Often at some level there is an unspoken hope that the relationship might be restored. Death closes the door on reconciliation. Words are left unsaid. Feelings are left open and bare. Dreams for a better relationship remain only that – a dream.
  3. We grieve for others. We can be sad not just for ourselves but with empathy for others whom we love. Caring about the feelings of others is natural and shows a healthy perspective on life.
  4. We grieve at the loss of a part of our heritage. Even though the relationship with the parent had been strained at best, the death involves someone who is a part of your lineage.

How to express condolences and mourn?

  1. Sending an expression of sympathy to the funeral home or the deceased’s home is a meaningful way of showing respect and sorrow. If there are other family members to whom you are close, make a personal call or drop a handwritten note in the mail.
  2. Probably the most important thing that you can do in expressing condolences – for yourself and your family – is to forget the past. Forgetting the past does not necessarily mean forgiving the past. Wrongs may have been committed that cannot be properly forgiven because of the death. But the past is over and you and the family need to move on. You deserve that privilege and chance.
  3. If there are those in the family that are uncertain about their relationship with you, an excellent way to express condolences is to take steps to mend those situations. Do not allow other family members to keep alive the hurts of the past. You make your own way for the healing of the future.

Should Grief and Sadness be Present?

Grieving any death is a very personal, unique expression. Sadness is just one of many emotions that are experienced during the grieving process. In the instance of estrangement, because the relationship was so strained, sadness may not be one of the emotions that immediately comes to the front. Hurt, disappointment, and even anger may be the emotions that are the strongest at first.

One may feel sadness as a result of empathy for the mourning of other family members. There may even be mixed feelings because others you care about feel sad, while you are not. Absence of sadness early in the grieving process is not unusual and does not mean that sadness will not eventually be something that you feel.

Search your memory for the good things about the deceased parent. Almost every estranged child can remember some pieces of the past that brought happiness and joy. Remember those moments as the foundation for your feelings.

What Happens if the Death Occurred Months Ago?

Communication in estranged family relationships is weak at best. It is not unusual for major events – even a death – to not be communicated. Do not assume that you were left out with evil intent. Some may have perceived that the relationship was so strained that you would not want to know.

Sending belated sympathy cards to some family members that you are close to would be appropriate. Gather a family member or close friend and have a private time, memorializing the better moments of your lives and honoring the death.