Grieving the Emotionally Estranged Parent

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Dec 7, 2021, 2:21:13 PM12/7/21

Grieving the Emotionally Estranged Parent
Healing the relationship you never had.
Posted December 6, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

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We often think of grief as a straight line. Grief is, in fact, more of a
spiral, continuously cycling us through a myriad range of emotions. It’s
important to recognize no one person’s experience of grief is the same
as another’s, particularly should we find ourselves grieving an
emotionally estranged parent.

The Emotionally Estranged Parent

Emotional estrangement from a parent or caregiver has many different
starting points, ranging from poor attachment, on the developmental
side, to bad behavior, on the social side, or some mix of both. No
matter the genesis, the outcome for the child is typically the
same—psychosocial disconnection and a sense of rejection, often leading
to resentment and animosity. When conditions are ripe enough, this
sensibility can even evolve into a sense of hatred.

Focusing on poor attachment—particularly when it’s connected to ongoing
bad behavior—grieving an emotionally estranged parent can be more
reactive, rather than situational. We typically expect grief to be in
the moment and momentary—a hill we climb and "get over." By contrast,
when confronting the grief connected with an emotionally estranged
parent, it’s more often that we are grieving the relationship our
younger self never had, rather than grieving the actual parent.

Lost Relationship
Attachment is a complex dynamic better left to a more comprehensive
discussion, but the bottom line is it describes the reciprocal
relationship we develop with our parent or primary caregiver when we are
infants and toddlers. Basically, it sets us up with a set of
expectations, assumptions, and ideas about how the world works—the
genesis of our worldview—which we carry forward with us, not only into
our relationship with our parent, but with the people, places and things
we encounter throughout our lives.

When this initial attachment dynamic is somehow distorted or not whole,
it often foreshadows a splitting from the parent that, for the child,
results in emotional estrangement. The notion that the relationship was
never genuinely whole is important to recognize from the perspective of
later grief, as the individual ends up grieving something they never
had, rather than someone they’ve lost.

Attempting to Fix What’s Broken
For those who have experienced an incomplete—or even broken—attachment
dynamic, there develops a drive to repair the break. As a result, we
often choose social and emotional relationships mimicking the primary
parental relationship in an unconscious effort to repair it. The paradox
here is the secondary relationship tends to reinforce the brokenness,
rather than providing a platform to repair the original dynamic, leaving
the person once again—and repeatedly—stranded in a barren emotional

Grieving an emotionally estranged parent can bring this paradox into
focus, particularly in light of the rehearsal, rumination, and
remembrance accompanying any grief experience. This often brings into
relief the original genesis of the dynamic and, by association, the
recognition that the grieving of the emotionally estranged parent is not
about the parent, so much as the lack of genuine, original relationship
and attachment.

Grieving as Interior Growth
Clearly, the social relationship with the emotionally estranged parent
can’t be practically resolved because they are no longer there. Without
a tangible presence, the social dysfunction remains. On the other hand,
resolution can come when the focus shifts from grieving the lost parent
to grieving the lack of original relationship. This change in
perspective moves us away from the original wound of distorted
attachment and toward a reconciliation with our own interior landscape.

As we move through this aspect of our grief, we can better address
self-attachment. In the face of emotional estrangement, we are
confronted with imposed deficits in self-esteem, self-worth, and social
valuation. In reconciling our grief around the relationship we never
had, we can begin to heal the relationship we have with ourselves.

© 2021 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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About the Author

Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., is a psychotherapist, teacher and
writer. He is an Initiate in the Shankya Yoga lineage of H.H. Sri Swami
Rama and the Himalayan Masters.

Online: Michael J. Formica, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter
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