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Death of estranged parent

Death (or impending death) of an estranged parent or relative

One of the most feared and traumatic situations adult children often face post-estrangement is the (impending) death of a parent or relative.

In this community we often see posts from estranged adult children who are facing the following situations:

  1. Finding out about the recent death of a parent or relative
  2. Being informed about a soon to be expected death of a parent or relative

When this happens, more often than not our users experience some of the following:

  • Guilt
  • Complex grief
  • Compelling pressure (either from family or society) to reconcile
  • Overwhelming feelings ranging from sadness to anger to futility
  • Relief

But if you feel nothing, that is fine too. There’s no right or wrong response.

It can be hard to know what to do if you find yourself in such a situation.

Visiting an estranged parent or relative on their deathbed one last time

Firstly, you may feel pressured to visit an estranged parent or relative on their deathbed. Every situation is different with its own set of complexities. Therefore, to help you to evaluate your situation there are some questions you may find helpful to internally answer.

Estrangement

→Is there a history (or likelihood) the ‘deathbed’ news is just a ploy to get you to break no contact rather than a genuine terminal situation?

→Do/did you have a functional relationship with your parent or relative before the estrangement?

→Would you be wanting to speak to your estranged parent or relative if you didn’t have news of their health?

→If they weren’t a parent or relative – and knowing what they have put you through – would you want to see them again?

→Did the estranged person do anything to protect you / help you when you were abused? See sections “Extended Family Estrangement” and “Gaslighting of Estrangement” on our Estrangement wiki page.

→How far have you come in your healing, and will reaching out put your progress in jeopardy?

→Other than wishing for a happy ending, what exactly do you want out of resuming contact? What is the realistic prospect of that outcome?

→You may be in a situation where your estranged parent still lists you as next of kin. If this is the case, you may need a prepared line or two to let professionals know your estranged parent isn’t your responsibility (except in some states or countries where there are filial responsibility laws).

Learning your estranged parent or relative has died

Sometimes the way EAKers find out about a death is less than ideal, which causes even greater hurt. From delays, to the way news is delivered, to the delivery medium, to who delivers it, to even if it is delivered. Broken boundaries elicit contact attempts – particularly when involving the death of a distant relative. This is all on top of the actual death.

We experience complex grief for the parents we wish we had, and idealise the family that never existed but was profoundly needed. As you can see, we react to the death of idealised role rather than the individual. So when one of these roles no longer conceptually exists it is a lot for us to process.

Due to experiencing complex grief through estrangement, what we experience through a death can be even more complicated.

Funerals

One fear EAKers experience often involves the funeral. From whether they want/should/shouldn’t attend, to the fallout from attending/not attending.

Your instincts will often be a more reliable indicator than any advise ‘random people from the internet’ can provide, so listening to these instincts will serve to protect you from further harm.

Some notes to consider:

  • There is no requirement to announce you will/won’t be attending the funeral.
  • Funerals are for the living: there is no requirement for you to go, particularly if the funeral is that of your abuser.
  • A funeral attended by family members who minimise your abuse and/or gaslight your trauma is not helpful to your grieving - let your instincts guide you.
  • You will have done a lot of healing to get to where you are, and will most likely still need to do some more healing as many estranged adult children may never fully ‘recover’. Given that, you will need to ask yourself whether attending the funeral will set your healing back; will it have consequences to your mental wellbeing?
  • If you need an excuse not to go, ‘covid’, ‘illness’ or ‘work commitments’ can be helpful.

But if you do decide to go, it may be advantageous taking an ally who has your back and can bat off any unwanted attention or comments.

Complex Grief

Our grief is complex. As discussed before, we grieve for the parental and familial roles we needed, so it’s understandable if our grief catches us off guard, even questioning whether estrangement was the right choice, or even the validity of our experiences. We grieve once at our estrangement, and again for their physical death.

It’s possible that you may even be mourning the loss of the chance of an apology from the person who should have loved you unconditionally.

We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t experience some sadness for someone passing. However, don’t let that sadness replace the knowledge you have of the abuse you suffered. It’s possible – and fine – to feel multiple and conflicting emotions at the same time.

Don’t feel worried if you experience unexpected or confusing emotions – that’s perfectly normal. For example, you may feel relief. But understand that the relief isn’t rooted in the death of your parent or family member, but rather relief that they can no longer hurt us.

Healing

In summary, losing (or imminently losing) an abusive parent / relative can be very triggering and exacerbate any pre-existing cPTSD. As such, you may need to actively seek professional help from a therapist who can guide you through the bereavement.

The good news is that surviving estrangement gives you the (unfortunate) tools necessary to heal from this additional loss.