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

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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.

When estrangement feels right

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It’s not an easy decision to make

 

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s still a social taboo, to cut off contact with a parent or child and/or a sibling, sometimes for months or years, and sometimes forever.

Divorce is now almost banal in many cultures — but not estrangement from your family of origin, held up in most cultures as sacrosanct, the place they have to, and always will, take you in.

But that’s not true for many people, and I’m one of them.

My mother and I gave up our strained relationship in 2010 — 2011? — and while I send an annual Christmas card and letter, no reply. Having run through a large inheritance, she lives in a charity nursing home a seven hour flight away. I’m her only child, but a local woman my age made sure to be cruel to me, and triumphantly replace me.

The details are too tedious, and yes it hurts sometimes, but how much energy can you keep wasting on a relationship? Alcoholism and poorly managed mental illness, both in my mother, destroy many relationships. If one person isn’t willing to work with the other toward a tenable relationship, it ends.

And the break may come when things don’t look that bad to an outsider — but there’s been one final straw and decades of forbearance just explode. With the agency of adulthood, you’re done.

I recently had yet another fraught phone encounter with my father, one of too many over the decades. We’ve had years when we simply don’t speak or visit.

There are calm and affectionate periods when it all looks like it will be OK….and then it’s not.

Again.

 

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When every encounter feels like incoming warfare, flee!

 

I know why. I’ve read books and done therapy.

It’s difficult to dismiss your parents for good. They’re the only ones we get. As it is, one of my two half-brothers cut me off 11 years ago and didn’t invite us to his recent lavish wedding. (There are four adult children in our “family” — from four women, two wives, two affairs. It’s no Hallmark card.)

The damage that prolonged estrangement, if you wish otherwise, can inflict on one’s self-confidence is considerable — but no matter if you’re at midlife, being ignored or subjected to abusive language and anger are also corrosive and toxic.

I recently read a truly harrowing book whose author, badly abused for many years (emotionally) by her parents and siblings, also chose to cut them off — Tara Westover, author of the best-seller Educated. 

She grew up in rural Idaho and now lives in England.

I actually found her book re-traumatizing, between her family’s relentless verbal (and often physical) abuse, gaslighting and her unwillingness or inability to break free from all of it.

 

Have you ever been estranged from your family?

Did you resolve it?

 

How much do our parents shape us?

By Caitlin Kelly

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Two recent films have me thinking, long and hard, about the effects our parents, and their behaviors and values, exert on us, whether we’re young or adult — American Pastoral, from the book by Philip Roth, and Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen.

One reviewer says Captain Fantastic is “the best movie about parenting I’ve ever seen.”

This Guardian reviewer calls it “strange and wonderful.”

The reviews of American Pastoral aren’t terrific, but I found much in it to think about — a solid citizen, owner of a Newark, NJ glove factory inherited from his father, ends up losing his rebellious daughter to an underground movement devoted to blowing up buildings and sowing social unrest.

It encapsulates the schism of the 1960s between the “squares” and the hippies, between those committed to the way things were and those determined to rend the social fabric edge to edge.

Dakota Fanning plays the daughter, moving from a stuttering teen simmering with suburban rage to a mentally fragile adult. Her father never gives up his search for her, a heart-rending theme for me, who has had many estrangements from my own.

The father in Captain Fantastic is a divisive figure, an authoritarian raising his six children in a teepee in the woods of Oregon, home schooling them and subjecting them to intense physical training. The breathtaking beauty of their surroundings is in contrast to their total social and cultural isolation — I thought, the whole way through it, of Cea Person, whose searing memoir of a similar childhood in the woods of Canada, North of Normal, is unforgettable.

Here’s my blog post about it, including an interview with Cea.

I’m fascinated by these two films for the questions they raise about how much we want to become our parents — or rush to flee their influence.

I never had children, but am always intrigued by how people choose to raise them and to impart their values, whether social, intellectual, creative or religious. I’ve seen a few adults I know work hard to break free of their family, often with painful consequences, and others still in thrall to patterns that make them unhappy but can’t find a way out.

I’m always in awe (yes, and envious) of happy, emotionally close families, the kind where an adult daughter and her mother remain best friends, and Sunday dinners en famille go on for decades.

Not us.

Both of my parents are free spirits, both of whom — not surprisingly — came from wealthy but emotionally difficult families. Neither of them ever talks about their childhood.

My father was raised in Vancouver, his father, (an Irish immigrant from a small town in Co. Donegal), founded and ran a successful trucking company there; my mother, born in New York City, was raised by a wealthy mother from Chicago who had multiple husbands, divorcing the ones who annoyed her most.

Headstrong ‘r us.

My mother, who never attended college but married at 17, lived life on her own terms, whether wearing a sari, (her best friend for decades was East Indian), a different wig for every day of the week or moving us to Mexico when I was 14. That ended badly when she had a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve, stranding me and a friend on our own for a few weeks there.

My father, a successful and multiple award-winning filmmaker of features and documentaries, never met a cage he didn’t want to rattle, hard. Both are still alive, long divorced.

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My mother and I have no relationship at this point.

Even this late in life, I’m still their child in some ways — stubborn, creative, a world traveler, intellectually curious, with friends ranging in age from the 20s to 80s.

My tastes in art and music and food are both developed and wildly catholic, as theirs are, a gift I appreciate.

Both are smart as hell and super-competitive — family Scrabble games can get a little feral!

My father is ferociously agnostic, my mother for years a devoted Catholic; I occasionally attend Episcopal services. (My husband, a devoted Buddhist, was raised by a strict Baptist minister.)

In other ways, I’m quite different.

My mother has lived in such disparate spots as Lima, Peru, Bath, Roswell, New Mexico and B.C.’s Sunshine Coast; I’ve now lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years, am much less successful professionally and financially than my father was and, in some ways, more disciplined in my choices than either have been.

I’m also a product of my times, my adolescence in the hippie-ish late 1960s and 1970s and my native country, Canada, which remains socially liberal.

Which parent do you most resemble?

Or have you chosen to reject their values?

How much do you wish your children will be (are they?) like you?

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.

Do you hate Mother’s Day too?

Česky: Matka a dítě. עברית: אם ובנה, 2007. Sve...
Česky: Matka a dítě. עברית: אם ובנה, 2007. Svenska: En mamma som kramar om sitt barn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bear with me.

Like many others watching the annual flood of maternal sentimentality, this isn’t a fun week for me. (It’s celebrated on May 13 here, but not necessarily in other countries.)

My mother lives in a nursing home in a city a six-hour flight away. I don’t plan to send flowers or a card, even though I know I should and would like to. I’m her only child. She has no grand-children and many of her friends have died or abandoned her over the years.

We haven’t spoken in a year, since our last verbal exchange consisted of her raging at me without pausing to draw breath. The Mother’s Day flowers I had sent went unacknowledged, then my birthday.

Like many mothers out there — not the cookie-baking, hugging, call me! text me! types — mine has no interest in my life. And she’s now doted on by a woman even the nursing home staff told me they found rude and weird, someone nasty to me whom I’ve never trusted.

So, Mother’s Day?

Meh. 

I know other men and women whose mother, for a variety of reasons, lost interest in their own children, no matter how well-behaved or accomplished or how hard we’ve tried, for a long, long time, to get closer to someone who…just doesn’t want it.

But we never talk publicly about it, the subject taboo.

I’ve re-written this post about 20 times, debating whether or not to even publish it. I am weary of secret-keeping.

My mother, who is beautiful, bright, sophisticated and charming, never re-married after divorcing my father when I was seven. She never seemed to miss emotional or physical intimacy.

When I was 14, we moved to Mexico. There, on Christmas Eve, she suffered a manic breakdown; I left within weeks to move in with my father and never returned to her home except for visits. I saw her first manic episode when I was 12, then again lived through them when I was 19, 25, 27 and beyond. She ended up in jails and hospitals all over the world, as she traveled alone and refused to stay on her medication.

For a long time, she wrote letters often and we spoke every week or so.

In 2003, a 4-inch tumor was pulled from her head and I asked the surgeon to “make her less of a bitch.” The words shocked me as they fell out of my mouth.

His answer shocked me even more. “Her tumor has made her aggressive for years, possibly decades,” he explained, thanks to its location in her brain. She was, for several blissful years afterward, loving, gentle and kind, the sort of mother I had longed for. (Here’s my magazine story about this experience, with a great pic of us when I was little.)

By the summer of 2010, when I flew out to see her on my annual visit, she had become unrecognizable to me, the amount she was by then drinking destroying what was left of her mental and physical health. I called my husband from the motel where I was staying and wept, in rage and frustration and despair, for 30 minutes.

When, if ever, would this shit stop?

The verb “to mother” implies nurture, care and concern. We automatically conflate the two, while “to father” often means simply to create a new life, not to stick around and take care of that child.

I’ve tried to be compassionate. I’ve tried to reach out, for decades. I’ve tried.

I’m done trying.

How’s your relationship with your Mom?