I Was Estranged From My Mom For 11 Years — Then She Died. Here's How I'm Finding Peace.
Last week, "Succession" viewers were shocked by the death of Logan Roy, one of the show's leads and the Roy family patriarch. In April 16's episode, the fourth of season four, the show continued to explore the Roy children's experience of grieving their father, who was portrayed to be a mercurial and often emotionally, verbally, or physically abusive man — and who was also the sun around which the other characters orbited.
As the show depicts in such heartrending detail, grieving can be a much more difficult, nuanced, and confusing process than it's often portrayed. That's especially true when grieving someone from whom you were estranged, or had a challenging relationship with, as was the case with the Roy family. This type of grief is messy, scary, and bewildering, and can trigger self-doubt and even guilt.
I know; I've been there. Before my mother's death in January 2019, we'd been estranged for 11 years. During that time we never saw each other and spoke only a handful of times. When she died, I was left to grieve not only her but also the relationship we could have had — the relationship we should have had. The death itself was painful, of course, but it also brought up unexpected feelings around our initial detachment. It felt, at first, like I'd never be able to find peace or closure. And that felt terrifying.
Brittany McGeehan, PhD, a psychologist specializing in complex relationships and codependency, describes the feeling of it well: "Estrangement with your mother [or anyone] can feel like dying. It can also feel like being born again. It can feel like rage and it can feel like a relief," Dr. McGeehan tells POPSUGAR. "Those feelings can shift or become magnified when the person dies if you didn't have the opportunity to reconnect, or you tried to reconnect and the attempt failed."
Before her passing, my mother had a long battle with drug addiction that began when she was 13. As is often the case in families affected by addiction, this put a huge strain on our relationship as mother and daughter. I had to create space between us for my own mental health and safety.
But I also created that space because I was angry. I remember often feeling as if she chose her addiction over me. While I now know the complexity and extreme challenges that come with the disease, as a child, all I knew (or thought I knew) was that my mother wouldn't stop. It wasn't until much later, after a lot of inner-child work, that I finally saw her for who she was: a person with a disease. She died of an overdose when she was only 45.
My conversation with Dr. McGeehan affirmed my experience of grieving an estranged loved one. "It's like when they're alive they're already dead and haunting you, and then when they've died you feel lost all over again," Dr. McGeehan says, referring to estranged loved ones. "You're grieving the reality and the fantasy all at once, that you didn't have the mother you deserved."
As the Roy kids were quick to point out in episode three of this season, they weren't technically estranged from their father. But their relationship was strained, to say the least. And now, whatever opportunity the children may have hoped or assumed they'd have for reconciliation with their living father is gone. Seeing the adult children come to terms with that reality is almost overwhelming.
It's been four years, and with each passing year, I continue to do the work around my grief. Out of all the things I've learned about grief, I know that the inner-child work and grieving process doesn't truly end, but morphs into something else. Now, I see grief as our feelings of love for a person, living on.
But immediately after my mother's death, it was hard for me to let myself truly feel my grief: I had to contact the morgue to get her autopsy, I set up her cremation, I planned two funerals for my mother, who I hadn't really seen or spoken to in 11 years. The aftermath of death is already tiring and a blur, but for me, it felt like a whirlwind.
I saw myself in the Roy kids' behavior in episode four of "Succession." The way Kendall threw himself into establishing a foothold as the new leader of the family business; the way Roman insisted he felt fine and had "pre-grieved" his father's death; the way Shiv alternately fell apart and insisted she didn't need any help; even in the way Connor seemed preoccupied by buying Logan's apartment — somehow distancing himself from his dad's death while making plans to literally move into his house. I felt like I was constantly doing, doing, doing in the days and months after my mom died — but even though so much of that doing was wrapped up in her, it also allowed me to carefully hold my grief over her death at arm's length.
I knew I couldn't go on living in a state of denial and numbness, though. So a year after my mother died, I found a therapist who helped me to go through the initial stages of grief and understand perhaps the most essential part of this type of grief: just because you were estranged, it doesn't mean you aren't allowed to grieve.
Once I grasped this, I could finally breathe. Since then, I've continued my work and learned new ways of navigating my loss, including talk therapy, support groups, writing my feelings out, inner-child focus, family constellation therapy and other trauma work — and I think I've come a long way.
"In the beginning, one thing that might help someone grieving the death of an estranged person is writing an honest eulogy. If you can let your inner child write one as well as your adult self, this exercise is even more helpful," Dr. McGeehan suggests for anyone just starting the process of coping with this sort of grief. "Let yourself say that your relationship was complicated or they were incapable of loving you the way you deserved. Whatever it is that's on your heart, say that. And then find someone safe to share it with who can hold space for you. I also encourage you to practice self-compassion. Just because you were estranged doesn't mean you don't get to grieve," she adds.
Dr. McGeehan also says that "finding people who will validate your reality is so important. Therapy can be a resource but so can close friends or family — chosen family, or blood relatives."
When my mother was alive, I often felt confused. I missed her. I still miss her. But how can I miss someone I didn't know well for 11 years? This is the weighted, weird process of grieving someone who you were estranged from. I did know her, but I didn't know her for 11 years, and sometimes, the passing of precious time makes it feel as if maybe I never knew her at all. But deep in my bones, I know that we knew each other in many ways, and loved each other still.
I talk about my mother a lot. I acknowledge her place in my life. I watch things that remind me of her. As I age, we look more alike, and sometimes, when someone takes a photo of me, I glance up and it's as if I am looking at her, through the screen. I can still feel her around. I can feel her within me, I can feel her surrounding me, I see her every day, in the trees and the butterflies and the heartache and the joy and the bitter sadness. Maybe it is the grief talking, maybe it's the wanting. Either way, it's mine.