Losing a parent feels insurmountable at any age. Our series helps you face it ― from the practical logistics to the existential questions about death and dying today.
When Sabine Schmidt’s mother died from leukemia in the fall of 2017, the emotional intensity of the loss rocked her. Schmidt, who writes for the blog Mom in Music City, hadn’t seen her mother in 16 years or spoken to her in nearly eight years.
Schmidt had thought that because she was estranged from her mother — a woman whom she described as frequently cruel — she wouldn’t necessarily grieve her death. She was wrong.
“I was under the impression that I didn’t have the ‘right’ to grieve because of our strained relationship,” Schmidt, 49, told HuffPost. “It’s actually the opposite, in my opinion. When you have unfinished business with a loved one, grief is unbearable at times because you know you aren’t able to resolve your issues. That feeling can eat you up inside.”
Experts have called parental estrangement a “silent epidemic.” Although there are no hard numbers, one study out of Britain found that 8% of adults there are estranged from their parents, which translates to about 5 million people nationally. In another study, just over half of parents in the United States said they had a harmonious relationship with their grown children, which suggests parent-child discord is rampant.
There is no emotional road map for those people who are grappling with the loss of someone they may not have liked all that much, and who may have been the source of extreme pain in their lives. But experts say there is good reason to speak more openly about this experience, which is far more prevalent than society tends to recognize.
“One of the big things is that the more people talk about how normal this is, the more normal it becomes,” said Megan Devine, author of “It’s OK That You’re Not OK.”
Losing any parent is difficult. But grief experts agree that it’s common for people mourning the death of a parent with whom they didn’t have a strong relationship to confront an additional layer of complexity, like the one Schmidt described: the loss of the relationship that might have been.
“There are really two separate losses,” said Dan Wolfson, a New York City-based psychologist and a clinical director for Experience Camps for Grieving Children. “There’s the finality of there no longer being any room for repairing a relationship the person may wish could have been different. That is very different from grieving the loss of the person themselves.”
Often, those mourning the loss of an estranged parent will get hung up on the “what ifs” and “what could have beens” — What if our relationship had been better? What if he or she had been more understanding? Could we finally have developed the strong, healthy connection I wanted so badly?
The challenge with those hypotheticals is that they make it more difficult to move toward what experts call “integrated grief”— that is, the kind of grief that never goes away (grief never does, Wolfson emphasized), but doesn’t dominate a person’s life.
“There can be a freedom or relief when that person dies, and then what immediately comes is the guilt.”
“What can happen when people do a lot of ‘what if?’ thinking is that it can get in the way of them being able to accept the reality of the loss — which can be an additional barrier in terms of being able to adapt,” Wolfson said.
Another typical complicated emotion is guilt.
“When there is a relationship that was draining or hard, there can be a freedom or relief when that person dies — and then what immediately comes is the guilt,” said Devine, adding that the ancient taboo of speaking ill of the dead is still surprisingly powerful. “It’s like, ‘I can’t believe I feel that way about a person who died.’ But sometimes, it is a relief.”
“We ought not assume that relationships are or are not strained,” said Alysha Lacey, program director at The Dougy Center, which supports grieving children and families. “All human relationships have some challenges or strains or conflict at some point.”
Experts say it’s essential for grieving parties — and those supporting them — to remember that humans are emotionally complex, and that we are fully capable of feeling multiple emotions at the same time as well as cycling through them. Feelings like sorrow, anger, relief and happiness can coexist. When it comes to grief, there is no “should.”
To make it less taboo for people to be transparent about grief in the face of a strained parental relationship, friends and family should remain open to the wide, messy truth of that loss. Avoid speaking in platitudes, Devine said, and if someone opens up about their difficult relationship, don’t make comparisons by saying anything along the lines of, “Well, at least he or she did or didn’t do XYZ.”
“The very first thing to do to support someone is to recognize that you’re not going to take their pain away,” Devine said. Instead, acknowledge the person’s pain and express curiosity about it. If it’s a friend who has lost an estranged parent, say something like, “I want to acknowledge that I know your relationship wasn’t always great, and if things feel weird, I want you to know that I’m more than happy to listen.”
“You’re opening a door,” Devine said. “But you don’t push it.”
Friends and family may worry about knowing the right thing to say, Wolfson said, but there often isn’t one because grief is painful, mutable and hard.
“It can be as simple as, ‘I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you,’” he said. “That is honest. That’s real. That’s not trying to sugar coat anything.”
It’s been two years since Schmidt’s mother passed away, and the grief still comes on suddenly and unexpectedly. She’s written about her experience and said she has heard from several readers who have been through something similar, although she has not heard from any of her family. The grief hasn’t necessarily become easier, but Schmidt believes she has become stronger in the face of it.
“Just today, I came across a photograph of my mother holding my then 6-week old daughter,” Schmidt said. “The joy and love in my mom’s face is real. I still can’t believe she is gone.”