Grief and loss can be complex, even when our relationships with the deceased are pure and uncomplicated. Typically, we expect to miss the presence of the dead in our lives, even after we are well on our way to adjusting to the loss. But what happens when someone from whom you are estranged dies? Someone you don't miss, or someone you haven't interacted with in years because they walked away from the relationship? Such “estranged” losses require a different kind of adjustment, not least because they may evoke feelings and emotions that do not feel permissible to discuss with others. You may also be impacted by how you received the news of the death – finding out through an impersonal channel like social media or a newspaper report can leave us with a sense of shock, disbelief, and alienation. But estranged losses are not uncommon, and we are entitled to acknowledge and process the feelings they evoke.
Generally, there are two types of estranged relationships – ones that ended because you were rejected by the other person, or those that ended because you walked away. Your responses to these two kinds of losses may bring up feelings not typically associated with grief. Primary feelings might not be sadness; they might be relief, discomfort, disgust, anger, shame, embarrassment, or regret. Society tends to support sadness-based grieving but doesn’t do a very good job of validating other complex emotions that can arise. If you thought you had thoroughly grieved the loss of the relationship when the estrangement began, you might be taken entirely off guard by your reaction to the news of the death. Let's take a closer look at the two kinds of estranged losses.
“Estrangee" losses. These are losses where the other person terminated the relationship with you. You may or may not feel resolved about the ending. The estrangement can be the source of ongoing pain, or it may be well in the past. News of these losses can bring up many feelings, such as regret for words not spoken or actions not taken, or may re-activate feelings of rejection, hurt, and shame. We may grieve for a potential reconciliation with the person that is now impossible. We may wish (for our consciences or the person's benefit) that we had one last chance to talk with them, apologize, and ask to work it out. It is also entirely possible you may mourn the opportunity to show the person you have moved on and are doing just fine.
“Estranger” losses. These are losses where we are the ones who ended the relationship. They will generally evoke much more negative and uncomfortable feelings, such as disgust or anger. These emotions can be as strong or stronger than sadness associated with less ambiguous losses, but we may feel unable to express them to others. "Not speaking ill of the dead" is such a firmly held societal belief and superstition that we may worry that we will be interpreted as disrespecting the deceased rather than trying to process our own emotions. We may still grieve for lost possibilities, but absent a desire to reconcile with the person we may not even feel sure how to connect these emotions to the news of the loss. We may also worry that others will believe we don’t have the “right” to grieve a person we have rejected. The news of the death may also reawaken memories of dysfunctional experiences with the person and can raise unresolved feelings of trauma.
With estranger losses, you may even have additional grief around not feeling sad about the death, especially if the person played a significant role in your life, such as a parent, sibling, husband, or child. For example, Ann Pederson, who ended her relationship with her mother without regret, writes, "I want the grief of daughters who felt loved by their dead mother. I want to find letters my mother wrote me and weep with happy-sad tears at the trivialities described and her desire to connect." Feeling deprived of the ability to grieve in this way may increase feelings of anger and resentment towards the deceased.
The shock and intense emotion that may result from either type of estranged loss is real and probably far more common than we acknowledge. In addition to all the feelings that may arise, we may also become suddenly aware of lost parts of ourselves, especially if the person represented a pivotal time in our lives (such as a college boyfriend), which may add other layers of complexity to your experience. To move towards resolution, start by honoring all your feelings, including those that accompanied the original estrangement, whatever your role in it. Talking with someone who can lend a sympathetic, non-judgemental ear will help you feel less isolated. Writing a letter to the person may also help, as it can help clarify your feelings about the ending of the relationship and the emotions their loss has brought up for you. It may also help you acknowledge the finality their death brings. Creating a ritual to bid farewell to the person, or visiting the person's grave, place of internment, or ash scattering are also possibilities, if you think they might help you accept the finality of the loss.
Human relations are multifaceted, and so is grief. We are always entitled to our feelings about loss, no matter the relationship's status. The loss of someone who played a role in our lives, even if the relationship ended before their death, will evoke feelings precisely because we crave and value deep connection with others. This is just the nature of being in relationship. Allowing yourself "space and grace" to honor all your feelings around an estranged loss can help you say your final goodbyes to those we may not mourn in traditional ways.