I speak a lot of the many experiences and difficulties of estrangement, but the one I come back the most often is the deep sense uncertainty because it is so consistent across everyone who I’ve spoken to. But why exactly is there so much uncertainty?
There are several reasons, one being the impact of trauma of past abuse, creating a deep psychological scar and making it impossible to find clarity in the chaos of our minds. This uncertainty can go on to contaminate every other facet of life and create a more general sense of chaos.
Another reason for the uncertainty is the ambiguity of estrangement, e.g. will the estrangement last forever? Will I always feel this way? Can I start to grieve now? Do I want them back in my life? Do I want to keep distance? Do I want to tell my friends or do I want to keep this a secret? Distance, time and support can alleviate this ambiguousness and a measure of clarity.
However, funerals or a critical sickness in the family can amplify this ambiguousness and creates a huge sense of urgency to make decisions and act sooner, perhaps to reconcile or even just to attend which incredibly triggering. There could be expectations to forgive and forget.
I never tell my clients they have to forgive, that’s a personal decision when the time is right for them. I also tell them to make decisions based on self-care, which, to me is a critical aspect of autonomy. But it is important to make the right decision for you, both in the short-term and long-term.
First, we explore the pressures to attend. These could be external, from people in your life who are playing devil’s advocate, stating you will regret it, you need to make peace. It might also be from the estranged parties.
If it is someone neutral who is playing devil’s advocate, my first question what do they know, what context do they have and are they projecting their own relationships?
If it is from an estranged family member, what is there agenda? Is it for them or for you? Is it grounded in reality or a fantasy/romantic idea/notion?
Even if no one is actually telling you what to do, there could be concerns of what will people say if I don’t go? Fear of judgement, an expression of the shame which may have always existed within family system. The judgement might an internalized parental state, from experiences of a critical authoritative figure.
But regret is a common theme and like everything, we explore that…is it true, will you actually regret it; why exactly are you regretful? Is it because someone deserves a chance, because this was the last chance to reconcile, because of your contribution to the situation, is the regret for others, e.g. kids losing out?
Regret is a huge burden to carry. And so is the pressure to attend/visit but why are you left carrying it? Are others regretful? We don’t know until they express it, so have they? It like a heavy bounder sitting on your shoulder.
So decide to drop the burden. Imagine it (imagery is one way we heal as it is using the body and all the different senses).
We then go inwards, we slow down, looking past the guilt, look past fear, the regret and look past anyone else and all the external factors which shape the estrangement radius, and focus just you and the estranged person or people.
Focus on physical sensations, movement of the feet, heart racing, notice alignment, are you leaning it or out…may give us important information outside of the procedural.
This can be painful, too painful. And maybe the pain is too much, and this could be your choice to stay away. There may also be nothingness, an empty hurt.
Maybe the pain is bad, but the pain has driven so much of your life and you’re at a point where you say f**k it, I’m not going to let the pain control or make decisions.
You may decide to brave the pain, to face the source of distress despite it.
If you do decide to go, it is important to focus on pre and post stabilization. This involves picking resources to help stay calm, especially in the immediate build up to the visit/funeral.
Using senses such as smell (lavender), watch old films (to tap into joy, positive feelings), have a bath, be kind to the body.
Having a partner talking to you calmly, distracting you, maybe you need reassurances of the exit strategy that they will stay calm, that they are there for you. Maybe they can do something gentle, like wrapping you in a blanket, anything that is nurturing. The goal is to stay as grounded in the present and not be dragged into the future.
Not everyone is lucky to have someone else to do this for this for them so try to do it for yourself.
Now I’m conscious that self-care does not always come natural. I started to work with a lady last week and she has never been taught self-care so it’s an alien concept and it does not come easy, but we have to be open to trying.
The post-stabilization is just as important, even if the funeral wasn’t so bad, as there could be a build-up of anxious energy which could do with being discharged. If the funeral was awful, you could have been triggered to a higher state of distress. Movement is the best way to discharge, take a long walk, a run, yoga, something that gets you connected to your body but might also facilitate bi-lateral movement (left-right patterns) which can help processing difficult events or emotions.
Then for the actual visit, first it is important to ground ourselves, it could be the feet, it could be with corrective breathing, you might have an external object as something to focus on as some of the initial body sensations kick in. One other way I ground myself is to hang back and just watch…everything. What dynamics are at play, what is being said, that is being communicated, body language/distance/mannerism… and just observe (if possible, it might not always be). This requires a lot of will power to do, but it can be useful to break reactive patterns and not get drawn back into the old situation. But let it play out, if you have historically been the peace keeper, sit back and let it play out. Maybe people have changed, maybe people have softened, but look for proof.
Watch out for emotional ambushes, i.e. getting drawn back in to the drama. Some people are just opportunistic. So I would keep it public, exert some defiance. This will tell you where they are – if they response negatively, maybe this is a sign nothing has changed. If they are accepting, then maybe closeness is possible, but a cautious closeness.
Building a shield
We talk about boundaries, but we generally do this on a practical level and it’s hard to do a psychologically. So in therapy we get creative, sometimes we just shapes, colors to represent a shield, protecting us from our outer environment.
Ultimately, only you can make the decision, and you have to make the best decision for you. There is a reason for an estrangement, if those reasons haven’t changed or there hasn’t been a demonstration of a willingness to try to have a healthy relationship…then let that inform your priority.
- The priority could be safety, then decide if it the right time and maybe you need to keep yourself protected.
- The priority could be closure, accepting they won’t change but use this event a symbolic letting go (for you, not for others).
The priority could be to challenge old feelings, to validate personal change and the work you may have put in.
- I hope this was helpful and I know how hard it is to come to these conclusions, so don’t be hard on yourself for not yet finding the clarity you need.
Take care and as always let me know if I can help in anyway.