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.

Turkey, Stuffing, Drrrrrrrama! Home For The Holidays And All Those Smoldering Resentments

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 20:  A turkey named 'May...
He's not the only one getting carved up...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Admit it, the very thought of heading home for Thanksgiving — let alone Christmas or Hanukah — fills some of us, perhaps many of us, with utter freaking dread. Dread!

I’ve spent the past two days talking two dear friends, both women, one with a father-in-law from hell, one with a Dad-from-hell, off the window ledge. As someone who’s also fled her own family, even on Christmas Day itself, once driving like a bat out of hell to rural Pennsylvania where a dear friend’s family took me in, I get it. I’ve already arranged for one of these women to come to our own dysfunctional little menage for Christmas dinner so she can flee her Dad’s drumbeat of criticism. This is a woman who’s gorgeous, brilliant, kind and lectures to academic conferences all over the world. Her fatal flaw? No husband.

Even poor old Bailey on “Grey’s Anatomy” last night got lambasted — at the Thanksgiving dinner table yet — by her own Dad.

Gotta love the holidays. All regression, all the time! Because I’m Canadian and my sweetie’s family lives far away and we’re not that close, we head to friends’ homes each year for Thanksgiving.

We’re thinking of starting a new business, being mid-career journos in a dying field as it is. Rent-A-Guest. Seriously! We’ve got terrific stories: flying on Air Force One, meeting the Queen, dancing with Nureyev — and, most important, we’re really distracting! Want to cut off those pesky, predictable and inevitable questions: “when are you guys finally having kids/getting a new house/job/boyfriend/girlfriend/losing weight”? Make sure you’ve got a few funny, anecdote-laden pals with no emotional ties to anyone at the table. Think of us as your psychic sponges.

Here’s a funny, too-true piece from The New York Times about how hellish the holidays can be. Think it hit a nerve? Oh, yeah — the Times cut off comments after 162 people weighed in. In less than two days.

Getting To Know Dad

A father and daughter walk
Image by Solmaz Zohdi via Flickr

There were years, plural, we simply didn’t speak to one another, locked by anger and hurt into our comforting cages. I still remember, and wish I didn’t, a screaming fight in an outdoor parking lot in Antibes at midnight when I was 19. An argument on a crowded public street in Toronto. My college graduation neither parent attended as I tried to dance around their mutual rancor.

Many times over the decades I’ve come to the very precipice of walking away for good from my father, a complicated, proud man with more talent, energy and creativity than a dozen men combined. An award-winning filmmaker, he wears me out with his energy, at 80. We went to an antiques fair this week and reveled in handling objects, like the 6,000-year-old oil lamp in the shape of a dog or a fine piece of Georgian silver, chatting to the dealers and reminiscing fondly about the Egyptian basalt fragment of a lion’s head we saw at the last show we attended here in 1996. That’s typical of us, both obsessive about beauty and history.

“Your Dad’s a hard act to follow,” my late step-mother once said, and it was true. It took me many years to find a partner who offered my Dad’s best qualities (insatiable curiosity about the world, a well-worn passport and the desire to use it frequently, work he’s passionate about and does well that combines ideas and advocacy, a roaring laugh, stylish elegance) without his tougher bits.

We’ve just put put him in his car, a black Jag, and hugged goodbye as he drives to his home from ours, north from New York to Toronto, about 10 hours. This morning we took a gorgeous photo of him and posted it, with his headline and profile, on match.com, hoping to help him find a good woman to enjoy life with.

My sweetie lost his father when he was only 26 so he enjoys borrowing my Dad whenever he can. They’re very different people in some ways, so it’s sometimes lovely and sometimes I need a stiff drink to cope with their misunderstandings and clashes. They’re both strong-minded guys with specific worldviews, so it’s bound to happen. We really need this time to get to know Dad, because the past few years were an ugly and terrifying marathon that began, in March 2005, when his wife was diagnosed with lung cancer; she died two years ago on my sweetie’s birthday, which we celebrated this week.

When your Dad is 80, even in blessedly robust health, you might still have decades or you might have days. I’m lucky to have whatever time we’ve got.