The Loss of an Estranged Parent

Sarah’s Story

Trigger Warning: the death of a parent
If you’re sensitive to this topic, you may want to skip this story.

I grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta in the 90’s. I am a part of a unique generation that grew up in a time when kids still played outside all day with limited supervision, and the internet was becoming more widely accessible. I have memories of spending sun up to sun down outside and I also have memories of playing video games in my basement all day long. I lived in an idyllic community with friends in every other house on my street. There were neighborhood parties, moms who had girls nights, and fathers who had poker nights. My parents were still together and I really believed that I was just a normal kid for the majority of my childhood. 

I started to see the real repercussions of my father’s narcissistic personality when I was in my early teens. Of course, I didn’t have the whole story until I was about 25 years old but I saw enough to know that my father was, for lack of a better term, an asshole. Aside from being an alcoholic, he was short tempered, and made rash, hot-headed decisions. He was extremely successful until he followed a pattern of storming out of a job when things didn’t go his way. This pattern continued until he was barely working and it got worse and worse until he lost my childhood home in 2015. I had been out of the house for 8 years at this point and when I did go home to visit, I rarely spoke to him. My disdain for my father had grown over the years and the only feelings I had for him were something shy of bitter hatred. I felt like he took my mother’s life away with the years of cheating, gambling, and lying and it just got worse and worse after my mother finally left, not that she had any other option. 

In the fall of 2016, he had destroyed the last bit of a relationship he had with my sister, who was the only person in my family still speaking to him. When he reached out to have coffee with me around Thanksgiving, I reluctantly agreed and had a short visit with him at his apartment. I brought him some family pictures and sat down for an hour, not really holding anything back. I thought, maybe if I just get everything I knew out in the open then I can have some sort of relationship with him. I felt bad for him. He had no family around, poor health, and the only thing he really had going on was weekly bridge club, which I was grateful for. So I left that visit with plans to meet up around Christmas. The holidays came and when my busy schedule allowed me to see him on the 23rd of December, it was not enough. He needed to get his way more than he needed to see me. I let him know that his requested time would not work and he just wouldn’t have it. After his threats of committing suicide I decided that I could never have a healthy relationship with him, and that was it. 

Fast forward to the fall of 2020 and the only contact I had with him since Christmas 2016 was a stray text or email from him here and there. Usually with a nasty message or guilt trip. I got a call from my mom on a Saturday in November that my dad was dead. It had taken the sheriff’s department three days to track down a family member to tell us that he had died alone in his apartment. Hearing this news was something that I had been preparing for for years and I was actually surprised how long he lived considering his poor health. But I didn’t realize how complicated my emotions would be once he passed. I felt like I had mourned the loss of my father years ago, but now I was mourning the loss of the life he never had. I felt sad for the relationships he never got to have with his adult children. I felt sad that he was so alone that it took days to find his next of kin. But I mostly felt sad that the most overwhelming emotion that I had was relief. 

I was so lucky to have my sister during this time, because reaching out to friends for support was difficult. My close friends knew about my relationship with my father, so how would they react when I told them? I slowly told a few friends when I was ready and, with a few exceptions, I felt like no one knew how to be there for me. Because I wasn’t close with him, I didn’t feel like I could post all over social media about my terrible loss, or post a photo montage of the wonderful times we had. There was no funeral where people told me how wonderful my father was. There was no cathartic moment where I was able to let people know that even though I had been estranged from my father for years, I was still hurting by his loss. 

No one could have told me exactly how I would feel when my dad died because no one talks about what happens when the parent that you resented for so many years is gone.  Grief is complicated on its own, but when you throw in the fact that you weren’t even speaking with them when they died? Just one more element. 

Usually, you see the outpouring of love and support for friends who lose parents at my age. But I felt like I couldn’t have that. People didn’t know how to respond to me so the alternative was to not ask. Not to talk about it. In reality, it’s been harder to cope with the lack of support from my friends than the death of my father. I wish I felt comfortable saying, “Hey, this has been hard for me and I need you right now,” but I don’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. 

Something that I think it’s important for people to know, including myself, is that my grief is just as valid as your grief. It might hurt less than if my father had been a part of my life, but it still impacted me deeply. 

The other thing I really want people to know is that it’s important to ask people if they are okay. Just be an outlet for your people and allow them to lean on you. I’m lucky I have a supportive husband, loving family, and some friends who were really there for me, but I can’t imagine going through this without them. If someone is in this situation, find your people. The people who knew the complexity of your relationship and won’t try to minimize your feelings. Maybe it’s a therapist or maybe it’s someone you haven’t spoken to in years, but find those people.

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