How To Heal From An Estranged Parent

Photo by Katherine Chase on Unsplash

Grieving a parent who has died is hard, but grieving a parent who is still living is even harder.

Sometimes they leave when you are still too young to remember. Sometimes they fail to be present when you most need them. Either way, it leaves a scar that never seems to fade. It sets you up to wonder what you did wrong. You may find yourself waiting for the moment when your best friend, lover, or partner will decide to leave too. If the person who helped create you no longer makes an effort to be in your life, then there must be something wrong with you, right?

No, no, and no.

I have found helpful ways of approaching this through the years and wanted to put them all together. This is by no means a comprehensive guide, but it is a start to accepting an apology you never received and moving forward.

Accept that there is no getting “over” it, but you get better at moving through it.

Sometimes we put far too much pressure on ourselves to get over things. Life goes on, things could be worse, and we know everyone is fighting a silent battle. We get frustrated at ourselves for how we feel and how we choose to express those feelings. After all, we are adults. We shouldn’t need our parents anymore.

This is especially true if we turn to others for support and they don’t know what to say. The bottom line of their advice seems to be to get over it or distract yourself from it. This is when you must remember that others may not have had the experience you’re having, or they did have it but don’t know the answer to it either.

I’m not over who I have lost in my life. I don’t know that I ever will be. I say this after years of experiencing the pain and trying several different methods to overcome it. While many have been helpful or provided insights, I would not say they got me “over” the experience. They are getting me through it.

No matter how old we get, we still feel a connection to our parents. We may or may not want them involved in our lives, but we never forget the people who brought us into this world and raised us. If they reject us in some way, it cuts deeply. You cannot force or be on a timeline when it comes to healing.

Grief is a spiral. Sometimes you can be having a great day years after the loss occurred or was recognized, but then something reminds you of it. Someone in the coffee shop looks like your mother, or someone on TV sounds like your father. You run across an old photo from when times were better. Thinking that this should be over by now, that you should be “over” it, only adds unnecessary stress to the situation. When you can accept how you feel but know that it does not define you, you will be able to move through this.

If a step-parent encouraged them to reject or leave you, or is jealous of you, it isn’t your fault. It isn’t personal. You deserve better.

Feel free to skip this if it is not relevant to your situation. I had a feeling it would be, for a lot of people with estranged parents. If it is relevant, go back and read the header for this section again. Read it until it sinks in.

Step-parents who feel threatened by their partner’s children from a previous relationship need a lot of therapy. For some reason, they never got the help they needed. They may lack the self-awareness to understand they need help. It could be the financial aspect of healing that keeps them stuck where they are. I’m not saying that this excuses their behavior or that you should feel sorry for them. It can help you understand when I say it isn’t personal.

Everyone who has ever hurt someone needs a hug. You don’t have to be the one to give it to them. Isn’t that a relief?

Chances are, they had terrible experiences with their own parents and previous partners. They feel insecure. Maybe they have strained relationships with their own children, if applicable. They likely experienced abandonment in their own lives, or a parent who was controlling or passive. They are not good at being by themselves and are jealous of almost everyone in your parent’s life, even when it isn’t logical.

They won’t tell you this. They can’t even admit it to themselves. And hey, let’s not put it all on them. We still haven’t talked about the fact that your parent has allowed another person to come between them and their own flesh and blood.

If this scenario resonates at all, you might benefit from reading Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay Gibson. Gibson talks about the parenting styles that contribute to a child feeling abandoned, betrayed, or that their needs were not met in some way. What’s more, she explains the reasons behind a parent’s passive or dismissive behavior in a way that makes sense for many different circumstances. If you feel like all that has happened between you and your parent is your fault somehow, you need to read this book.

You deserve better, but sometimes people are not capable of doing better. This is when you must accept an apology you never received. You may not wish to understand someone who has never put effort into understanding you, but you aren’t doing this for them.

It is time for you to put you first and do this for your own healing.

Sometimes, it’s better not to talk about it.

Talking about an issue can be productive on occasion. When it’s not, it keeps problems alive.

When I first realized I was going through this, I wanted to talk about it with those closest to me. I wanted therapy for it. I wanted the validation that came from talking to those who understood and cared for me. Sometimes, people got angry on my behalf, and that felt validating as well.

The validation was short-lived. People meant well, but when they asked me about the situation, it didn’t help. “How has it been between you?” I rarely had any progress to report, but the unpleasant memories and emotions were activated. After a while, you’re not talking about the problem — merely venting or repeating things that have already been said, dredging up all the feelings that go along with it.

Only you can decide if talking about what you are going through is helping or hindering you. This point is not to discourage you from opening up, but to ask you to consider what is serving you. Talk therapy can be great, but there are times that we are only reopening our wounds and not doing anything to heal them. If you don’t want to just be venting or repeating the same story all the time, stop to consider what makes a productive, beneficial conversation and what does not.

Some examples of what I mean by a productive conversation — one that opens you up to another point of view that feels a bit better than the one you hold now. One that validates your feelings but allows room for growth and moving forward.

You can always thank people for thinking of you or remembering to ask about something, but you don’t have to talk about something painful if you don’t want to.

Watch for patterns of self-sabotage in your other relationships.

I used to assume that people I loved were going to leave or somehow not choose me, so I did everything in my power to push them away before they could get too close.

The problem was, I was already close. I was already attached. When the feeling was reciprocated, I didn’t know what to do with it, because I didn’t trust it.

When a parent leaves by choice, and you do not yet understand that it was from no fault of your own, it can lead you to do some damaging things in your other relationships. You feel broken. Even if you are getting that it wasn’t your fault, you may still look for your loved ones to leave unexpectedly or turn on you somehow. You may do things to try and trigger this response or subconsciously seek out unavailable people.

If you have a fear that you will lose someone, that does not mean it will come true, especially with a little self-awareness and effort at communication with your loved one.

Tell your friend or your partner, “I still have some deep-seated pain from something else that happened in my life, so I may need you to be patient with me.” That’s different and feels much better to say than a statement like, “Everyone leaves me in the end.”

Instead of trying to get your loved ones to “prove themselves” to you, help them understand you and ask them for their patience. Instead of flying off the handle about an unpleasant emotion or situation, try to wait until you can calmly explain your experience to the other person. Rather than using accusatory statements such as, “You always make me feel…” try taking responsibility for your feelings: “I feel this way when you do that, because I…”

The ones who are meant to be in your life will be able to listen and communicate in a healthy way as well.

I know it can feel vulnerable to talk about what is going on inside. It can feel easier to push people away and assume they will be like the ones who hurt you. It may seem counterintuitive that we fear connection and love. But sometimes we do, especially when our idea of love is something that is finite and painful.

If you keep in touch, mentally prepare yourself for their behavior before you reach out or respond to them. Pay attention to timing.

If you are no longer on speaking or texting terms, feel free to skip this as well.

The last time you communicated with your parent, how did it make you feel?

If the answer is anything other than “great,” you may want to give it a considerable amount of thought before you try to talk to them again. This does not mean to agonize over what you say; it means pick your timing carefully, and be ready for however they may respond.

I used to hold out hope that I would magically get a caring and thoughtful response instead of a dismissive one, despite the pattern I have observed for quite some time. I sent a message without considering how I would feel if I got the usual treatment. Even if it goes against everything you know about the law of attraction, it is best to mentally prepare for the usual. “Can I be okay if he/she treats me like that?” If the answer is no, you may want to table the contact for another time and focus on other things.

If a conversation has the potential to upset you, you may not want to start it before you go to work or during an important day.

In my experience, you do get to a place where it does not hurt as much. It is no longer debilitating. You must allow the wound some time to heal first. If you continually pick at it and test it, it won’t.

Whenever possible, resist the temptation to compare your relationships with those of others. Focus on what you can control.

I’m getting married in June and facing the likelihood of neither of my parents being at my wedding.

As a girl who used to daydream about things like her father giving her away at her wedding, of course it hurts. I watched my sister dance with her dad at her wedding. While I felt happy for her, it nearly made me cry. Not from tears of joy.

I don’t think I have ever danced with my father.

However, looking at what others have and feeling like I am missing out doesn’t serve me. It is natural to feel sad about it and think on it from time to time. As I have been planning my wedding, I have tried to think as little as possible about this or focus on what I can control. It still comes up. I know it isn’t likely to change. Getting my hopes up for changed behavior in the past has only led to misunderstandings and heartache.

You can have your feelings. Just try to care about yourself enough to have a little wisdom along with them. Hold expectations of your loved one that are realistic. If you do not expect Donald Trump to be like Mother Teresa, then you stop feeling outraged when you read the latest article about him or his recent Tweets. The same principle applies here — no offense to your person or to the President. The hyperbole here is meant to be humorous, but I digress.

Know there is no singular way to heal.

Healing is a nonlinear process. Going through it may not make much logical sense, and you’ll try a lot of different things. I have done just about everything, from Emotional Freedom Technique to banging a gong while clicking my heels together in a yoga studio. Kidding about that last one, but it does sound interesting.

If you are looking for a cure-all, there is nothing wrong with that. True healing takes an investment of time, energy, and resources. Once you have made that investment, you leave the wound alone so it can heal.

It is not an escape. It is not a numbing agent. It can be messy and confusing at times, but you come through it a better and more compassionate person.

You never truly get over some losses.

You don’t have to.

I am passionate about storytelling, spirituality, and music. “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” — John Lennon

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