The challenges of estranged grief

My late mother. Elegant, complicated.

By Caitlin Kelly

There are times that a deeply personal and private experience intersects with the larger culture. In journalism, it’s called the hook or the news peg, i.e. since everyone is now talking about it or thinking about it, it’s worth discussion and an assignment.

And my primary goal, often, for writing about a topic, especially a difficult and painful one, is to be of service, to comfort and to connect people to others who know their journey and who truly understand.

To explain to those who don’t understand and might become less judgmental as a result.

My mother Cynthia died Feb. 15, 2020 in a nursing home in Victoria, B.C. a seven-hour flight from our home in suburban New York. We had not spoken in a decade and even though I sent cards every Christmas and included a newsletter, no reply.

We had had some good years and some good visits.

But we had also had some very very bad ones.

She had been through so much in her life, including divorcing my father when she was 30, traveling through Latin America alone for years, living alone in such places as London, New Mexico, Mexico, Bath, Montreal and Toronto, surviving multiple cancers. She never re-married.

Intimacy was not her strong suit.

So, have I grieved this loss? Yes and no.

Which is why I wrote this story for The New York Times, probably the most revealing and personal words I’ve ever published there.

I was scared.

I’m actually a quite private person, and choosing to discuss painful issues before millions of readers worldwide is objectively somewhat frightening.

Here’s some of it:

When the phone call came from my mother’s nursing home, I knew there could be only one reason. She had died at 85, sitting in her armchair watching television.

I was her only child, but we hadn’t spoken, or even tried to be in touch, in the previous decade. She was a Mensa member, a world traveler of independent means and a voracious reader. She was also bipolar and an alcoholic. Worn out by decades of dealing with both, which meant years of chaos and broken plans, I had finally, reluctantly, exhaustedly, just given up trying to have a relationship.

For every anguished iPad farewell made to a dying Covid patient, or during another Zoom funeral or someone dearly loved and mourned, there are many people like me, estranged from their parents, children or siblings when those family members pass away. And because of this, we may not grieve the same way people typically expect. For some, the end of an unhappy and complicated relationship just comes as a relief.

As I write this, the story has gathered 49 comments, and they are so so painful to read, as so many others share their stories.

I was stunned to see how many people — through Twitter and Facebook — praised the story’s honesty about such a difficult topic and how many people struggle with estrangement in their own families. I had no idea.

It’s very hard to be estranged from a family member, as I still am from a half-brother who is 23 years my junior and father of year-old twins, a boy and girl I may never meet.

It’s also hard because it’s really taboo to admit you don’t speak to your mother or father or siblings or any of them. The myth that “family” equals love is a strong one. Those of us who don’t have that experience seek out others who get it. Our husbands and wives and best friends know. Our therapists know.

But it tends to remain secret and private because you can never trust someone new not to gaslight you or deny your lived experience since theirs has been so happy.

There is a great deal more detail, of course, I couldn’t include in this article. There are more characters and more history.

But the gratitude readers have shared has been deeply moving.

The pain of Mother’s Day — not what you think

jose 4

By Caitlin Kelly

Tomorrow in North America, the annual paeans to great mothers begins again.

It doesn’t resonate the same way for others, like me.

I wrote about this once in detail, here, and it spurred one of my most valued friendships, since that person and I finally saw the effect of having really difficult mothers on our lives and life choices.

It does change you.

It’s also deeply taboo to not like your mother — and it’s extremely painful to have your mother not like you, especially if you’re their only child.

So, at the request of an editor, I wrote this essay about how my mother and I became estranged, and still were when she died this February, in a nursing home very far away from me.

I hadn’t seen her or spoken to her in a decade.

I did love my mother, even as I was fed up with how she chose to squander every gift life can offer: physical beauty, Mensa level intelligence, curiosity, open-mindedness, inherited wealth, deep and abiding friendships.

Between her bipolar illness and alcoholism, her behavior was often erratic and selfish. It deeply hurt and really scared me, as my visits to her were usually alone, with no one to turn to for moral support or help. I had no siblings to commiserate with — or strategize.

I couldn’t turn to one of her friends. She was someone who eschewed close relationships unless with very old friends, most of whom lived in other countries. She didn’t know her neighbors, so neither did I. When she attended church, she never went to coffee hour and,  when I forced her to on one of my annual visits (selfishly desperate for someone else to know her), she was furious with me.

When she left my father, and she was 30, she had plenty of suitors, and one was very kind to me — oddly, decades later, that man’s daughter, living in England, contacted me (or vice versa) and we renewed a friendship we’d had at 12 in Toronto.

So I miss the best of her, as it was lovely.

But I don’t miss the worst.

Here’s some of the essay:

 

I hadn’t seen her in years nor tried to re-connect. I knew better, even though others repeatedly urged me to, including my father, 50 years divorced from her but lately back in touch.

“You’ll regret it!”

“What if she dies?”

“Just go!”

“You never know…”

But they didn’t know the full story.

Every year I sent her a Christmas card filled with the past year’s news, but never received a reply, not even in 2018, the year of my early-stage breast cancer, surgery and radiation. When she had had a mastectomy decades before, I’d flown from New York to Vancouver to get her back home and re-settled.

A few years ago, she told my best friend, a local who went to visit, to tell me to stay away.

How does one end up so estranged?

More easily than you’d think.

I hope you’ll read the rest — and if you, or someone you know, is also estranged from a parent, this may comfort them.

It’s an oddly secret society.

Home is…

By Caitlin Kelly

The night-time view from one of the windows at my Dad's house...
The night-time view from one of the windows at my Dad’s house…

Where is it exactly?

Is it in the city or town where you grew up?

Your parents’ home?

Your rented apartment, maybe in a foreign country?

A college dorm room?

A house shared with room-mates?

Your current residence?

On a visit now back to Ontario, where I lived ages five to 30, it’s always a question for me, even though I left long ago for Montreal, (two years), then New Hampshire (1.5 years) and New York (20+ years now.)

We’ve been staying in my father’s house, reveling in all that luxurious space, a working fireplace, a spacious and private backyard and small-town charm only an hour’s drive from Toronto.

For some people, home is a place you can always retreat to, with parents, or one parent, always eager to see you and help you and set you back on your feet after a tough time, whether divorce or job loss, sometimes both.

For others, though, estrangement is the painful and isolating norm.

I left my father’s home when I was 19 and have never lived there since.

I left my mother’s care at 14 and have never lived there since.

Independence is a learned art, one I had to acquire early, as there was no physical and little emotional space for me in either place.

My father’s late wife didn’t like me much, so my stays on their sofa were pretty short; after 3 or 4 days, it was clear I had worn out my welcome.

My mother had a large house for only a few years, but then lived in a place that took me an entire day’s flying, bus and ferry to reach, so I didn’t enjoy much time there before she moved into a small one-bedroom apartment with no room for me at all; I stayed at a motel a block away. (Today she lives in a small nursing-home room, a sad and very costly end to a highly solitary life.)

So even when my first marriage ended quickly and badly, I had no “home” to rush back to. When I lost jobs and when I needed surgery, (four times within 10 years, all orthopedic), I had to call on local friends, even my church, to come and help me with meals.

So I really enjoy house-sitting while my Dad’s off traveling again, having plenty of time surrounded by the many familiar images and objects of my childhood and adolescence, the paintings and prints and sculptures I’ve been looking at my entire life. Many of them are images he’s created, paintings of his late, beloved dogs, of his late, beloved second wife and landscapes from Nova Scotia to Tunisia.

I find it deeply comforting to see them and touch them, even if they’re only inanimate objects. It’s my past.

They tell me I’m home again.

It’s also deeply comforting to even have this home to come to, as I haven’t seen or spoken to my mother in four years. (Long story, too tedious for here.)

Home is where I make it, now with my second husband, in a suburb of New York City. We talk about where we hope to retire, never sure whether we’ll return to Canada and/or live part-time in the U.S., France, Ireland…Not sure where home will be in the next few decades, if we’re fortunate enough to stay healthy and alive.

I moved to the U.S. filled with excitement and anticipation about my new life there; today, deeply weary of toxic politics, corporate greed and stagnant wages, I’m thinking more seriously about making a home elsewhere….yet Toronto, even in only two days this week, had shootings in downtown areas and not-nice houses sell, routinely, for $1 million, far, far beyond our means, even after a lifetime of hard work and saving and no kids.

Crazy.

How about you?

Where is home for you?

When your family holidays….aren’t

By Caitlin Kelly

Christmas card, ca. 1880 Featured on the Minne...
Christmas card, ca. 1880 Featured on the Minnesota Historical Society’s Collections Up Close blog. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a beautiful post by a young woman, chosen for Freshly Pressed, about how she’s spending the holidays, without the traditional closeness of family:

We were browsing the greeting card aisle at Target the other day, looking for something to send my parents for Thanksgiving. The more I skimmed the contents of each card, the more discouraged I became.

Because it hurts to know millions of people all over the country will be sending cards that say things like, “Holidays are a time to appreciate loved ones…” or even better, “I’m so thankful to be spending this day with you…”

But I didn’t pick a card like that. I was relegated to a small selection of cards that read more along the lines of “Hope your holiday is __________.” Fill in the blank with words like blessed, enjoyable, and joyful. These are the neutral cards meant for acquaintances, distant relatives, or coworkers. All of the formality but none of the tenderness.

I just want to talk about this. I want to speak into the hearts of the people who struggle during the holidays as much as I do. Whether you’re estranged, cut off, or alienated the endless routine of the holiday season can sometimes be too much to bear.

That post cut me to the heart — as I, too, had just searched the card racks in vain for a birthday card for my mother, one without all the glitter and butterflies and saccharine emotion that has no relevance to our relationship.

We no longer even have a relationship.

My mother’s last card to me was several years ago, filled with anger. She now lives in one small room in a nursing home in a city that takes me 7 hours flying time to reach. I’m her only child, and she wants nothing to do with me.

The details are too complicated and grim and personal to get into here, although long-time readers of Broadside read a post that once explained some of it.

Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu.
Christmas lights on Aleksanterinkatu. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you are fortunate enough to have a family that looks forward to spending time with one another, happy selecting gifts you know will please them, eager to cook festive meals and welcome them to your table — be thankful.

And please include those of us who don’t have a place to go to, as one friend did for me, one brutal Christmas Day some 15 years ago. My mother had come to New York to spend it with me, but Christmas Eve, (which already had some old and very painful memories for us both), had once more turned into a holocaust.

On Christmas Day, alone, I had nowhere to go and no one to be with.

My friend Curt, home from California visiting his parents in Pennsylvania, said: “Come!”

This season is a painful, aching one for many. We may be too shy or too proud to explain why we’re not going “home” for the holidays, the nasty details a thorn in our souls every day as it is.

And some people are grieving, this being their first Christmas without someone they adored — like this blog, written by a talented artist whose wife Leslie died six months ago. This post is heartbreaking, but describes what it feels like to approach Christmas for the first time as a widower.

The first Christmas after my husband left, in 1994, was deeply painful, but I got through it thanks to a dear friend and (yay!) a terrific new beau who reminded me there might actually be life worth living as a divorcee.

Luckily, I’ve spent the past 13 Christmases with my second husband, who thoughtfully chose Christmas Eve, (at midnight, snowing, after church) to propose, so that evening would newly represent a happy choice, not frightening old memories.

Home is where someone who loves you welcomes you with open arms, no matter who opens that door.

Please let your home be that place for someone feeling lost and lonely this year as well.