Note: This is the first of a two-part series. Click here for part two

Are you estranged from a loved one in your family?  Someone who doesn’t want to see or even speak to you?  Or perhaps it’s a group of relatives who want nothing more to do with you.  There are myriad reasons for family estrangements—a messy divorce, an in-law problem, an interracial marriage, someone leaving a religion or joining another one, a family business that fails, conflict over an inheritance, an adult child’s announcement that s/he is gay, one sibling taking on the sole burden of caring for aging parents while another sibling does nothing, even the break up with a dear friend who was as close as family.

There is no hurt quite so painful as an estrangement from the people who are closest to you.  Often family members hurt one another because they don’t control themselves—a son who shouts hurtful words in anger, a parent who’s never there because s/he is a workaholic, a father who can’t express his love, a mother who can’t offer praise, a daughter who wants more than the family can afford and berates them for their lack of means.  Parents are often hurt by children who take their love and generosity for granted.  Parents hurt children by neglecting, abusing or shortchanging them.  Siblings hurt each other by disloyalty, rivalry or abuse.

And yet none of these need to be unforgivable hurts.

Almost everyone either has an unhappy family estrangement, or knows of someone who has one.  The problem is very pervasive—and more common than most people think.  Equally disturbing is the number of families who are left with the inexplicable loss of a loved one—who offers nothing more than the vaguest reasons for abandoning their families.  “Why are you doing this?” is a question they seem incapable of giving a satisfying answer to.

What circumstances are painful enough to promote subterranean emotions that ultimately lead to estrangement?  A son loves his father but grows to hate the Dad after the parents divorce and the father remarries, has another family and loses touch with his son.  A son loves the mother who nurtured him, but grows to hate her for not accepting his spouse.  A daughter loves the mother who gave her life, but hates her for being drunk most of the time.

A sister loves her brother, but then he marries, moves away and never contacts her again.  How could he do this to her, when they had always been close?  She hates him for abandoning her.  These situations, along with emotions of homosexual “coming out” issues and interracial or interfaith marriages, are all complex enough to create family estrangements.

Not to be in contact with your parents, or with your children, or with a brother or sister or other important person is a profound loss, because our families are so deeply related to our sense of who we are.  We feel heartsick about our families when they cannot acknowledge us, love us and support us.  If they don’t, who will?  No matter how far we travel in distance or success, no matter how old we are, our family belongs to us and we belong to them.

I will offer suggestions in how to begin to heal family estrangements in next week’s column.

Source: Family Estrangements by Barbara LeBey (Longstreet Press) 2001.

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