When an Estranged Relative Dies, Some Face Grief, Regret and Relief

Ms. Wright has, though, mourned her father, feeling “huge grief,” but less for the man he was than the loving parent she never experienced. “That’s what you’re grieving for. The childhood you never had, the mother you never had, the father you never had.”

Funeral directors also face their own challenges when someone estranged dies, said Kari Northey, a funeral director in Wayland, Mich., with 18 years’ experience. She has seen unattended funerals and their aftermath. “Every funeral home has a shelf of unclaimed ashes. Unclaimed individuals are becoming a bigger situation. Even if they pay for the cremation, they never pick the ashes up.”

Ms. Northey urges those estranged at death from a loved one to “take a moment of looking at that person with fondness. That one good moment is what you grieve. Everyone is a gleam in someone’s eye at some point. At some point in their life, they were a good person.”

It’s helpful to see a body or coffin, she added. “Seeing is believing. If you don’t get that, it can hold back a lot you need to process through.” But if an angry relative who is the one who is paying for a funeral refuses to allow others access, “we end up as gatekeepers,” Ms. Northey said. “We sometimes have to be the person inflicting hurt. We’re constantly saying no when we want to say yes.”

Even as vaccinations are helping to curb the pandemic, there are still hundreds of patients dying of Covid every day, often alone. Dr. Pillemer suggested that hospice workers, chaplains, doctors and palliative care givers ask each one: “When did you last see your child or sibling or parent?”

He added, “There needs to be professional level training since no one wants to talk about estrangement, we need more professional awareness and education. There’s a great silence around the subject.”

Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in private practice and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families, suggested finding a way to “make sense of these conflicted feelings.” His new book, “Rules of Estrangement,” is a guide for parents whose adult children have cut them off, the most common pattern of estrangement, he said.


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