Coming to Terms with an Estranged Parent

Many of us are lucky enough to grow up with two parents in our lives. Others know one parent, some know none. The loss of a parent can happen for different and equally tragic reasons, but all surely impact a child's life well into adulthood. I spoke with a young woman whose father went from being a pillar in her life to being entirely estranged when she was 13 years old. Her perspective gives thoughtful insight into the painful challenge of coming to terms with being estranged from a parent.

Jenna's* world turned when she was in middle school and her father drew away from her life in a tumultuous and bewildering way. The ordeal left Jenna, her mother, and her younger brother in their home without the presence of her father whom they had relied on for years. She recalls seeking comfort outside the walls of her childhood house.

“Really anywhere that wasn't home made me feel more comfortable then just sitting in the house.”

On top the sense of loss that filled their house, Jenna found herself in an unfamiliar position relative to her remaining parent.

“I was stuck in this weird in-between where I wanted to be around my mom all the time… but it was one of the hardest things to do. I wanted to be near her because I was barely 13 [and], in a crisis, kids obviously run to their safe parent. But at the same time, she was completely consumed with what was going on with her marriage. I didn't usually want to talk about my dad, while that was all she wanted to do.”

In this painful time, Jenna found her various sanctuaries.

“My brother and I got really close and I spent a lot of time at my grandparents' (my mom's parents') house as well. It was about [finding] other safe spaces and people where I could let my guard down without constantly having to talk about my family. I watched a lot of movies and plays and threw myself into the theater world. I listened to a lot of music. It was just about distracting myself until the beginning days were over. I needed space to grieve the loss of my nuclear family before I could process it.”

Those “beginning days” that Jenna mentioned were distinct from the expanse of time that followed her father’s departure. Because the loss occurred when Jenna was still a child, she experienced much of her maturation without him. She has been shaped by the experience, both as an individual and in the way she connects with the people in her life.

“I literally took my mother's maiden name. It's hard because I don't see anyone on my dad's side of the family. I think I'm different [because] our family structure is very different. I'm the person that my brother comes to about any problem. I'm his emergency contact on most forms, which my mother doesn't even know. I had to take on a lot of responsibilities [at an earlier age] than do children from intact families, so I think a grew up faster. In theory, I would like to say that I don't take shit from anyone because of the whole ordeal, but in reality I think I'm more in tune [with] another person's perspective and feelings [during] a disagreement. It's difficult for me to differentiate between how I'm different [as a consequence of] the relationship change and [of] just growing up. I think I'm more helpful towards my mom because it's just her now. It's about trying to make her life a little easier and less stressful. But I also think a lot of that just comes with growing up.”

As is the case with almost everyone, Jenna can’t pinpoint a cause and effect relationship between what happened to her at a young age and who she is now. She has gained a remarkable amount of maturity and understanding in the seven years since her family became disjointed. At the moment, she remains disconnected from her father but she expresses a feeling of having come to terms with who he is as a person.

“For a while my family really demonized him. I don't think he's a bad man, I just think that he is selfish and did bad things. When I was younger, I couldn't understand that doing bad things doesn't make someone a bad person. I thought that because he did bad things that made him an evil man. So when my mom would say something like "stop acting like your father" I thought it was the worst thing in the world. I would try so hard to stop 'acting like him' immediately. [Today], I would want him to know it that I don't condemn the parts of us that are similar anymore. I know that I have some of his behavior qualities that can be detrimental in relationships. I know that I have a tendency to avoid things that are stressers. Seeing how his habits hurt not only everyone around him but himself as well [has] really changed how I perceive and handle these qualities. I worked to become upfront about my emotions and if I have a issue or someone hurts me, I will address it immediately rather than just sit and let the whole thing fester. I guess I just want him to know that I still have the same personality I had when our correspondence stopped but I actively work to avoid making the mistakes he made.”

After reflecting on her experience and generously sharing her memories, Jenna had some advice for a child going through the process of losing a parent in this acutely painful way.

“Children aren't supposed to feel responsible for their parents, [but] in times of separation and divorce I think it's really easy for the children to feel responsible for everyone's well being. I guess the only advice I would give is that it's okay to still be a child. I tried to take on adult roles and play therapist for my mom and my brother which turned out to be a wildly unhealthy thing to do. I think I would just tell [my younger self] that it's okay to feel scared and out of control and it's not your responsibility to regain control for everyone.”

*Name has been changed.