photography by The Gender Spectrum Collection
Earlier this year I lost my grandmother. Upon her death I was greeted with a series of countless “sorry”s, “I’m here for you”s and “condolences” for the person I’d lost. Numb yet still shaken, I accepted the pity and care – unaware of how to feel. My grandmother and my mother have been estranged for 10 years. At the time of my grandmother’s death, I was 20, meaning she was only a part of my life for 10 years, she only acted as my grandmother for 10 years.
Though her death was sudden and shocked me, what shocked me the most was how I felt. After the initial numbness died down, the pain of a 10-year-long estrangement finally hit me like a ton of bricks. She died whilst we were still out of contact, she died knowing a prepubescent me, she died and left me with unresolved feelings. People always talk of the five stages of grief – a process of denial, anger, depression, bargaining and finally acceptance, as per the original model by Kübler-Ross. But, I didn’t feel like these stages reflected the nature of my situation accurately.
Though family estrangement is one of the hardest of human experiences, it is not uncommon – in fact, one in five British families are affected by estrangement. Families are made up of regular people, comprised of flaws and toxic characteristics alike – so it’s possible for them to fall apart. It may not be easy to live apart from estranged family at first, but eventually, the dust settles, and you get comfortable in your life without them. You may start to think life is better without them and they no longer have such a hold on your emotions. The problem with this kind of comfortability is when death hits, you can come to realise that it was all a smokescreen and your stages of grief are complex. Though there may be some similarities, every situation is a completely different, unique and complicated healing process. These are the four stages of grief for an estranged family member that I experienced and how I dealt with them:
Denial. I was numb. I remember saying thank you to those giving their respects, but it hadn’t hit me yet. In this stage of loss, it probably just doesn’t feel true. The family member you left was fine and still had time ahead of them when you last saw them – it’s hard to comprehend that this person is the same person you’re receiving respects for. It’s especially hard if it is a situation where you left that family member healthy and they died of illness. It can’t possibly be the same person? In this stage, I struggled with trying to figure out how to feel. You may ask yourself: will this numbness continue? Or will I feel something, anything, at some point?
Perhaps your memory is jogged back by a single phrase or the remembrance of a specific moment – and it sinks in that this is the same person who has passed. Once the tears finally welled up in my eyes, I felt my heart sink and finally felt the sadness of loss. It’s perfectly okay to cry for the version of you that knew them, the version of you that loved them. It’s normal that all you can think about are the good times, the sweet words exchanged, the embraces shared. I vividly remember sharing a bed with my grandmother during visits and feeling soothed by the sounds of her drifting off to sleep. When she died, all I could think of was that closeness I felt to her in that moment, and how I longed to feel that just one more time. You start to miss them, even if it is not the same version of them that died. For me, this stage was fleeting, because then I had to come to terms with the fact that my memories weren’t complete. Like me, you may find you can barely remember the features on their face, you have no idea what they smell like, the feeling of their embrace is a feeling you can’t remember. There was so much I wanted to tell her but suddenly I didn’t have the chance to anymore. It is at this moment the third stage overpowers you.
At this stage you may suddenly realise maybe you weren’t as comfortable with that estrangement as you led yourself to believe – this was certainly the case for me. Maybe you owed it to them to reach out or at least make an effort to. In some cases, circumstances might not even have allowed you to do that, but you may find yourself constantly asking if you could have done more? Did you let them down, or did they you? Perhaps you feel guilty for feeling that they let you down and you shouldn’t feel at fault just because they’re gone. You still have unresolved feelings of course, but you beat yourself up because how can you be mad at a dead person? How do you hold them accountable for the unfinished state they have left you in?
It is important to find ways to care for yourself during this juncture because it is probably the most challenging part of the process and can leave you pretty broken if you are too hard on yourself. In this stage try not to beat yourself up for feeling the way you do. This was certainly the most challenging stage for me, but what helped me get through it was writing her a letter. Writing letters to a deceased loved one is often cited as a very helpful tip in grief therapy, but I think it can be equally beneficial to use it to heal from the grief of an estranged family member. If like me, you feel yourself stuck in this stage, try writing a letter (that you will never send of course) in which you talk to the person and detail how you feel and try to talk through all of the things you wish you would have said. This may not 100% fix the problem, but it will be a good step towards it – it certainly was for me.
Finally, with patience, effort and time, forgiveness comes like a blessing. You may start to let go of all of the pain that caused you or your family to cut ties – none of it seems to matter as much now. You may forgive them for the wrong they did to you. But this stage doesn’t always have to mean forgiving the dead family member, but it may mean forgiving yourself. Forgiving yourself for the guilt you feel. Giving yourself the benefit of the doubt because, of course, you couldn’t have possibly known you’d be left in this situation. It is essential that you forgive yourself if you still harbour anger and resentment – just because someone is dead, it does not mean everything you felt towards them will automatically go away. You should not feel guilty for taking time to deal with the unfinished feelings they left you behind with. Understand that though you may still be hurt, you can forgive yourself for feeling the way you do. Grief is a very complicated process, and these symptoms may differ for you in terms of which ones you experience and the order in which they come. And of course, if you can talk to a specialist, that should be your first port of call. Dealing with unresolved emotions takes time and a lot of patience. One day you will heal from this.
This is part of the #SELFCARESUNDAYS series