An Open Letter to Messengers of Estranged Relatives (As seen on Elephant Journal)

Becoming estranged from a relative is a sad and difficult decision, one that is usually made with grave consideration and based on the belief that the emotional cost of continuing contact is simply too great to bear. Most of us wish we there was another choice we could make, especially when the family members are our own parents.

Yet, there are probably far more of us in this situation than people realize. We tend not to talk about our estrangements much. Naturally, we hope to avoid the general awkwardness and potential judgment of others. Perhaps there is a dark side to our families that we would prefer to keep private.

This painful state of affairs is often made worse when, out of the blue, an estranged family member sends a messenger to try and change our minds. These messengers may be truly well-intentioned. They might feel the need to defend the relative after hearing their side of the story. Sadly, they are sometimes nosy and judgmental. Their attitude and approach matters, of course, but reaching out on another’s behalf this way is generally a risky move.

If you are one of these messengers, if you feel the desire to try and help mend a family estrangement, there are factors I would ask you to please consider on behalf of the “estrangers”.

I realize you probably have good intentions and don’t like to see people feeling lonely or rejected. You might think it’s a good idea to share your unsolicited thoughts because you believe your point of view is valuable. You figure there’s a good chance that once we hear your reasons and the stories of your own relationship losses, we will see things differently, realize that we are hurting our relatives, and see things from their point-of-view. We might finally decide to forgive, forget, and work things out with this person. Then everyone will be better off and you will have the satisfaction of knowing you helped make the family whole again. I am going to assume, for now, that your motives are pure and not self-serving. In which case, I appreciate that you care.

However, messenger, there are several key factors I ask you to consider.

Please be careful before offering opinions about how others choose to deal with the most tender, painful and traumatic aspects of their lives. Be assured that, like their relatives, the estrangers also feel the depth of this loss and all its effects.

Please consider that you cannot possibly know the full story. When telling their side, it is highly likely there are important elements the relative might have left out, failed to realize, or “forgotten”. This creates a significant gap in your knowledge and ability to understand the situation.

Let me try to help you understand.

For years, I tried every possible way I could to make things work, even just well enough to be bearable, and keep the estranged relative in my life. I explained, argued, beseeched and listened. I cried and pleaded for understanding. I reevaluated our relationship and made an honest effort to accept aspects that would clearly never change. I appreciated the good in my relative and tried to overlook the bad. I settled for barely tolerable.

Eventually, I grasped that this relative would never stop acting in ways that hurt me on the deepest level. Even though I stipulate that people are complicated and this person is not unworthy of love or forgiveness, there is only so much devastating behavior a person can and should endure. At some point, it was clear that in order to be loved by this person, I would have to sacrifice my own emotional well-being. And you need to know this, messenger: I will never make that trade.

In the aftermath of this turmoil and while I was still grieving the loss of my relative, several of their confidants reached out to me and offered their opinions. They told me how sad my relative felt, how they had lost family members through death and missed them dearly, how important it is to forgive and release myself from holding onto a grudge. Because they had no idea what I had been through or how long and hard I had tried, their words only made me feel more misunderstood and alone.

Please consider the danger in believing that the estranger can be enlightened somehow by your point of view or the life experiences you wish to share. In fact, you would be wise to consider the possibility that we are not un-enlightened after all, that we have addressed this situation far more thoroughly than you realize, that our hearts are also sore and grieving, and that we alone understand what we have been through, what we are up against, and what is best for us. Do not assume that the choice of estrangement is without empathy or forgiveness.

While I appreciate that you care enough to consider taking action to ease our suffering, there is a good chance that your interference will do more harm than good. We make our choices with conscious intention and we deserve respect and benefit of the doubt. For we have come to realize that it is far better to lose a destructive relationship than to stay in it and lose ourselves.

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The Gift of Being A ‘Replacement’ Child

I grew up believing that I was a replacement child, for I was given life after another child lost his: a brother my family loved and missed, and whose absence cast an obvious shadow over my grieving mother’s heart. Nicky, her oldest son from another marriage had died suddenly at the age of ten, a year before I was conceived. As my mother explained, his unexpected death was the reason that my parents made the decision to have me, their one last child.

My parents’ marriage was a second one for both and together they formed a stepfamily made up of five spirited children. The arrangement was fraught with all the inherent challenges of blending recently divorced families and the turmoil of children whose lives had been dramatically rearranged. Partly in an effort to cement their new stepfamily, my parents soon had a baby boy of their own. With so many kids in the mix and money tight, he was to be their one and only child together.

Then tragedy struck when Nicky drowned in a pond during a family visit to the country. My mother was devastated. By her telling, it was my parents’ now one-year-old baby boy who saved her from sinking into the depths of fresh maternal grief. His smiling face and the immediacy of his needs were her main connection to the present. It was only logical that my parents chose to have one more baby to fill the hole in the family created by Nicky’s death. And so I was conceived.

My mother used to tell me this origin story as I was growing up, I suspect because she saw my role in our family as a gift and a source of joy, delivered in the aftermath of tragedy. But I was confused and guilt-ridden. Trying to make sense of this information, I figured out that because I was grateful to have been born, I must have been glad that Nicky had died.

Adding to this muddle, my mother seemed at a loss for ways to openly carry on her love for Nicky, or to honor his life. There had been no funeral or memorial service when he died. His cremains were buried on his paternal grandmother’s property, hours from where we lived, on land that was eventually sold off to strangers. There was no shared recognition of Nicky’s birthday or death date, nor did any bench, tree or scholarship fund bear his name. I could see the effort it took my mother to talk about her beloved son and I was acutely aware of the sadness in her voice when she said his name.

Trying to understand this dead boy with whom I shared an unusual connection, I looked closely at pictures of Nicky in family albums and framed on the wall above my mother’s bed. It scared me to think that a child’s life could leave so little mark upon the world aside from my mother’s quiet, piercing pain.

With few clues to help me understand who Nicky was, I yearned to learn more. In my egocentric child’s view, it was clear that I alone was left out of this part of our family’s history; me, the replacement child who owed Nicky for my life. Would he have liked me, I wondered? I think I hoped to be worthy of the life that my unknowable brother had inadvertently bestowed upon me.

I developed a preoccupation with death that gripped me with fear as I lay in bed at night. I imagined myself dead and gone, the world spinning on forever in the vast nothingness of space, no trace of my life or any meaning that it might have once held. I lay bathed in sweat and stricken with fear that when death inevitably came for me, I would be lost forever — just like Nicky.

As I grew older and developed an adult’s understanding of the difficult situation my parents faced, I slowly began to make peace with my relationship to Nicky. I surmised that my parents’ inability to include Nicky’s memory in our lives might have been partly due to an era in which death was less talked about, especially the tragic loss of a child. From what I understand and remember of life in the seventies, there were fewer avenues for family members to openly process their grief.

It does not have to be this way, as I learned firsthand in a heartbreaking turn of events that brought my story full circle. My husband, kids and I became close with a couple whose only child (at the time) had recently died under sudden and tragic circumstances. In the aftermath of their devastating loss, our new friends shared some of their grief with us. They told us about their beautiful daughter and accepted our attempts to offer comfort — which mostly just meant listening. We grew so close that we felt like family by the time they gave birth to a new baby, a couple of years later.

She is a delightful toddler now, and being close to their family has allowed me to see how the joy and innocence of new life can be a balm on the wounds of grieving parents. Of course, our friends will forever grieve their irreplaceable first daughter, which is why their ability to truly embrace their second child is so profound to witness. They do a beautiful job of parenting both their children: their deceased child’s photographs and artwork grace the walls of their home and they speak about her often, telling their daughter all about the big sister she never knew.

My own parents’ struggle to keep Nicky in our lives left me wondering where I fit in our family, and whether I ever really would. I know now that I was never a replacement for Nicky. One person cannot substitute for another and I do not believe that was ever my parents’ intent. Witnessing our friends’ ongoing love for both their daughters has helped me understand that Nicky and I each occupy distinct places in our family. Today, my connection with him feels more like a privilege than a burden. I have gratitude, admiration and compassion for my parents, and I feel blessed to have given them the opportunity to love another child. Our friends have helped me resolve my own story for they have shown me that when we summon the strength to embrace life anew with all its beautiful gifts and terrifying risks, a family’s love has no limits and no end.