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“How do I move on, and not have sibling estrangement affect my life through a constant emotional ache?”
A reader posed this frequently asked question last week. It’s undoubtedly the most vexing, most persistent problem the estranged face: How do I mourn the loss of my sibling relationship?
Grieving an estrangement is never an easy process, especially for the rejected. It’s difficult to accept that someone you love, someone you expected would accompany you through life, still walks the Earth—but wants nothing to do with you.
Essentially, sibling estrangement requires mourning a living person. Unlike in death, however, this mourning process fails to bring acceptance and gradual recovery. We experience all the emotions of grieving but can’t reach a resolution.
In her book Ambiguous Loss: Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief, psychologist Pauline Boss describes losing someone without an event that absolutely establishes they’re gone. Think of death, miscarriage, divorce, or a relationship explicitly terminated.
Estrangement is a non-event: indefinite, open-ended, and often unexplained. It’s an ambiguous loss—an enduring absence without closure.
Boss offers specifics on addressing ambiguous loss, starting with the need to consciously hold in mind its distressing lack of clarity. Those who suffer must recognize the reality and pain of uncertainty.
But humans hate uncertainty. We have a deep need to know where things stand and what they mean. That makes this first step counterintuitive—and difficult.
Despite and within this ambiguity, Boss explains, those who suffer must find meaning in what seems senseless or meaningless. The pain of estrangement lies in the significance we assign to it, which may or may not be accurate. Far from being a deliberate rejection, a cutoff might be rooted in an alien’s need for distance. Maybe it’s a silent plea for change in the dynamics of the relationship. If, for example, you’ve always bickered when you’re together, the stranger could be signaling a wish for more peaceful, tolerant interactions.
Still, living with ambiguous loss is hard. The estranged often fluctuate between hope and hopelessness, desire and despair. Boss says those emotions “suffered too long … can deaden feeling and make it impossible for people to move on with their lives.”
This describes my own experience. When I was estranged from my only sibling, I was stuck in frozen grief. I felt the estrangement capped my ability to be happy. I struggled with a vortex of questions: What did I do? Why did this happen? How can I fix it? Throughout 40 years of separation from my brother, I couldn’t find a way to live with the loss—and I never found peace.
Unique symptoms of ambiguous loss
While the experience of ambiguous loss resembles other types of grieving, it is distinguished by key differences. Its hallmarks include:
- Sadness about a situation/event, without knowing why it happened
- Feeling unheard and unsupported
- Feeling others are minimizing your experience
- Thinking you’re “being dramatic,” “overreacting,” or “making a big deal of nothing” (You aren’t.)
- Thinking you’re going crazy
- Experiencing guilt for feeling so sad, especially if the absent person is still alive
- Vacillating between hope and hopelessness
- Survivor’s guilt
- Being consumed by uncertainty
Psychological symptoms can include:
How to cope with ambiguous loss
After researching and writing my book, Brothers, Sisters, Strangers: Sibling Estrangement and the Road to Reconciliation, I understood how Pauline Boss’s advice could have helped me. Here are her suggestions:
1. Finding Meaning:
- Making sense of the loss through naming it;
- Talking with peers;
- Continuing, but changing family rituals and celebrations.
2. Adjusting Mastery:
Modify the natural desire for control and certainty through:
- Acknowledging the world isn’t always fair;
- Managing and making decisions;
- Addressing the internal experience through mindfulness, exercise, music, etc.
3. Reconstructing Identity:
Know who you are now through:
- Finding support from family, friends, or chosen family;
- Redefining your family’s boundaries;
- Being flexible as family roles are redefined;
- Identifying who is in/out of the new family system.
4. Normalizing Ambivalence:
Manage the anxiety from mixed emotions by:
- Knowing conflicted feelings are normal;
- Discussing them with a professional.
5. Revising Attachment:
Let’s go without certainty of loss through:
- Recognizing that a loved one is both here and gone;
- Grieving what has been lost;
- Acknowledging/celebrating what you still have;
- Finding new human connections.
6. Discovering New Hope:
Find hope when your loss remains ambiguous by
- Imagining a new way of being;
- Imagining new future plans or dreams;
- Identifying your spirituality;
- Seeking encouragement through family and friends.
Personally, I did make some progress in accepting estrangement from my brother. Writing 20 minutes a day allowed me to release some of the deep hurts that plagued me. Putting those feelings on the page relieved me of constantly carrying around the pain.
I also learned to recognize that the estrangement was not my fault. I stopped personalizing it, realizing that my brother may have had hidden reasons behind cutting me off. (When we reconciled, I learned this was true.)
I also set boundaries with other family members, insisting that they do not share information with me about my brother and his family. If I hadn’t done this, others could have been pulled into the rift.
If all this seems too daunting, Stand Alone, the British organization that serves estranged family members, offers an invaluable list of concrete ways to cope. These include: regularly visiting a therapist or counselor who provides a safe space to explore emotions; practicing meditation to feel more in control of emotions and gain a sense of perspective; exercising regularly to combat negative feelings associated with estrangement; leaning on a partner for perspective and support; accepting feelings as they present themselves.