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Estrangement

What to do about running into a family member that you haven't had contact with in almost 20 years? I literally ran into my father at The Pettit Center in West Allis on a recent random weekday morning. Bitter cold was the reason I decided to run indoors there for the first time in five years, and there he was, with my stepmother. They also hadn't been there in years. Coincidence or _______? I hugged them both, my body leading the way on that automatic response. Weird, hearty chatting then ensued for about 15 minutes at the track's edge: "How's everything? You look good! Selling the boat? What's next for you?" and then I got back on the track and continued my run with them trailing behind me for eight long laps.


What starts estrangement? What fuels it to continue even for decades? The answers are as varied as are families. Familial estrangement is on the rise in this country, according to Joshua Coleman, a psychologist specializing in family estrangement. The dictionary defines this situation as "having lost former closeness and affection; being in a state of alienation from a previous close or familial relationship." Being in this alienated state can be a relief for some and a source of pain for others. Estrangement is more than just distance. "Divided, split, embittered, soured, antagonized, and severed" are the strong words that describe this chasm between family members. While there is often anger behind estrangement, there can also be significant grief--referred to as "ambiguous grief" regarding an estranged relationship. This is a loss that is "unresolved"---there is not a physical death, but the person is physically gone from your life without the closure that death provides. Emotionally this can be very painful whether or not you were the one to choose the severing of the relationship. The pain associated with this loss is often unacknowledged and lonely. It's not like people send cards or flowers for this type of loss.

The person can be "gone" due to other unresolved issues, such as ongoing mental illness, dementia, or addiction. The person may be physically present in your life but emotionally absent. Years can go by where family members may not have physical and/or emotional contact. Similarly, friendships may wane and even die over time as the chapters of our lives come and go. Friend estrangement can be just as or even more distressing, especially as we get older.


The traumatizing impact of estrangement is being discussed and studied more in the field of psychotherapy. I'm seeing more of this type of grief in my work with clients. I use many of the same interventions for my clients who suffer from the pain of estrangement as I do when working with clients who are mourning the death of a loved one. The estrangement can be a heavy sorrow, even if they participated in the severing of the relationship. One of my clients described feeling "frozen" between cooperating with the estrangement and wanting it to stop but not knowing how to take a first step.


How can estrangement end? As a therapist who believes emotional difficulties can often benefit from a spiritual solution, I sometimes explore with clients how God provides a way to take a first step. But I did not expect that God would do the same for me regarding my estrangement with my father. I had been having dreams in the past few months where out of the blue I emailed or called him, or drove to his house (about an hour away) and knocked on his door and said, "Hello!" I never knew what I said after "Hello" because my dreams always ended there. So, God handily arranged our meeting.


A week later I reached out to my dad and suggested we meet for coffee. He agreed and we met. It is a first step. A step toward possible re-connection. A step that doesn't require solving the initial reason for our distance, but starts with a simple chatty conversation and a smile. The walls of estrangement may begin to lower a bit.


Whether your estrangement journey travels toward reconnection or toward processing and making peace with the grief of the loss of the relationship, there can be healing to be found on this journey.


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