Family quarrels are bitter things. . . . They're not like aches or wounds, they're more like splits in the skin that won't heal because there's not enough material.
F. Scott Fitzgerald
This picture of my mother's family was taken in Kentucky during the summer of 1950. Nearly all of my mother's 11 brothers and sisters are in the picture. Missing: her oldest sister Kathleen and her brother Junior. My mother, my uncle Wesley, and my aunt Eve had moved Up North and were home for a summer visit. My grandfather is standing in the back row wearing a hat. My grandmother, mostly obscured by my uncle Joe, is standing beside him. What no one in the picture realizes yet - because how could they - is that none of them will see their middle brother Junior again, at least not alive. Junior left home at 16 because, as his siblings say, "he didn't think he was done right by Dad." His disappearance wasn't a melodramatic one; his absence stretched into months, then years, then forever. My grandparents never spoke of it, but I'm sure they felt their middle son's absence and thought about it when they couldn't sleep at night. That's when I think about my own estranged daughter and wonder if I'll ever see her again.
The last time I spoke to my oldest daughter was on her birthday in July, 2010. I phoned her to wish her a happy birthday and the conversation seemed to be going well until she suddenly burst out, "Oh, bad accident!" and I knew she was driving on the freeway again while talking to me on her cell. It was raining hard, she said, and, so, the accident. I didn't want to talk to her while she was driving and I told her good-bye and said that I'd phone her later. I tried, but she didn't pick up her phone when she saw my number and finally sent me an email saying, "I'll phone you when I'm ready to." Nearly two years later, she's still not ready. I don't know why. I have my suspicions, but I may never know for sure. That's how family estrangements are. The original cause of the estrangement might have been a dramatic fight or the relationship may have just slipped away. There are probably as many ways for family members to become estranged as there are for them to get back together.
My father-in-law became estranged from one of his sisters when his mother died and he didn't get back in touch with her until years later when he wanted a pickle recipe he was fond of and figured she had. He hemmed and hawed over visiting her, then, one day, he just did it. When she opened her door, the first words out of my father-in-law's mouth were,"When are you going to clean your damn driveway?" "You're not my brother Al are you?" his sister asked and started laughing. And, just like that, the fractured relationship was repaired. The funny thing was that all the years they weren't speaking the two siblings lived about a ten minute drive from each other's homes.
Not that there's much to laugh about when it comes to estrangement. Dealing with family rifts is one of the hardest things people have to handle in life - some even say that such ambiguous open-ended losses are worse than death and can result in deep and complicated grief.
This is the first in a series on estrangement. Since I first wrote about my estrangement with my daughter in November 2011, I've had many visitors who read that posting. I sense that there's a hunger out there to know more about this difficult thing, this relationship where a loved one is alive to the world, but not alive to us. In this series, I will cover the following topics:
- What is estrangement?
- How and when does it happen?
- Who is more vulnerable to estrangement?
- Parent and adult child estrangement
- Sibling estrangment
- Consequences of estrangement
- Stories of estrangement
- How to cope with estrangement?
- Stories of reconciliation and hope
I would love to hear from you. What are your stories? Are you estranged from a family member or members? How did it happen? How do you cope?