Grieving an estranged parent when they’re alive is hard. Grieving them a second time when they eventually pass, is even more complicated as the hope of reconciliation dies with them. Here’s how I’ve found peace through the doubt, guilt, and shame that comes from going against cultural norms.
On the week of my dad’s 54th birthday, my therapist recommended that I begin preparing for his physical death. Sadly, we had been estranged for most of my adult life. Even though I was still working through feelings of self-doubt, guilt, and shame from this decision, I nodded silently in agreement. She was right.
Exactly a week later, my dad passed away in a tragic traffic accident. I wasn’t ready. Truthfully, no amount of therapy sessions could have prepared me for it. Losing him in the way I did turned my world upside down, putting me in a dark depression unlike anything I’d felt before. But not before resuming my role as the oldest daughter (yet again) to plan the repatriation and funeral arrangements.
People often describe the experience of losing a parent as having lost a part of themselves. And in a way, you do. Whether you were close or had what felt like an ocean between you, there’s a biological connection to our parents that we can’t shake no matter how much we try. We are forever connected. When I lost my dad, a piece of me died with him, and with it, the hope of reconciliation.
“There’s no handbook on going against cultural norms, like cutting ties with your loved ones. Yet, it’s happening more often than we think, even if we don’t want to talk about it.”
Ever since I could remember, I knew two versions of my dad– the charming and intelligent mechanic who loved listening to José José. And then there was the raging alcoholic who made our days miserable. Loving him was confusing, and watching him destroy himself was painful. No matter how much I wanted a different path for my dad, I couldn’t want it more than he did for himself.
The concepts of “family is everything” and “blood is thicker than water” are deeply embedded in our culture. From an early age, we learn that we must respect and honor our parents, regardless of the pain they may inflict on us. We learn to betray our needs for the sake of keeping the peace with them. We learn to sacrifice our truth for their comfort. And with that, we inadvertently perpetuate cycles that not only impact us but future generations.
There’s no handbook on going against cultural norms, like cutting ties with your loved ones. Yet, it’s happening more often than we think, even if we don’t want to talk about it. According to research by Karl Pillemer, a professor at Cornell University and author of Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them, 27% of Americans are currently estranged from a close relative, with the lowest rates among immigrant groups, Latinx families, and Black families.
I never planned to join the estrangement club. But after years of seeing no changes, putting space between my dad became the only option. I was becoming physically ill before and after every random call I received from him. After we became estranged, I chose not to share this with anyone I didn’t feel safe with. If people asked, I kept things very vague or tried to completely avoid the topic out of fear of judgment. If older daughters are guilt-tripped on the regular for moving out of the house, and going to therapy is considered taboo, can you imagine cutting off one of your parents? After all their sacrifices, this is how you’re going to repay them? ¿Qué va a pensar la gente?
Those questions only intensified and became more complicated after he passed. Navigating the judgment while trying to make sense of my grief was overwhelming. What I wish people knew is the unimaginable courage it takes to put yourself first. It’s one of the highest acts of love that we can do for ourselves, and yet it’s not always honored or respected. Whether you’re someone who has an estranged relationship or know someone who is going through this, here are some things to keep in mind:
1. Honor your emotions
No estrangement is the same. It’s okay to feel your grief. It’s also okay not to feel anything at all. These feelings can also coexist. Be gentle, and don’t judge yourself.
2. Remember, you don’t owe anyone an explanation.
People are always going to have something to say. Your grief or your silence does not have to be justified. Be willing to be misunderstood.
3. Do what’s best for you
If honoring your loved one feels right, do that. If that’s not something you can bring yourself to do, that’s perfectly fine, too. Do what feels aligned with your heart.
Even though I had a tough relationship with my dad, I feel the most connected to him now that he has joined the spiritual realm. He is always sending me signs, showing me that he is always divinely guiding me with his love and protection. This Día de Los Muertos, like the past two years, I’ll patiently wait for the veil to lift para celebrar y convivir juntos una vez más.
About the Author
Mayra Rosas is #WeAllGrow Latina’s Senior Account Manager. She is a Salvadoran-Mexican-American creative and mental health advocate born and raised in South Central Los Angeles. As a proud daughter of immigrants, she is passionate about creating opportunities and meaningful experiences for Latines to thrive.