I'm grieving my parents – they haven't died but I cut contact

I'm grieving my parents – they haven't died but I cut contact

April 19, 2023

Scrolling through cute pictures of my son in his school uniform, I happened across one of my parents and grief crashed over me. 

Their loss was still raw, but not in the way you’d imagine.

My parents aren’t dead – I’d cut them off instead. It’s been this way for six months now and, while it’s hard at times, I feel peace.

Going quietly ‘no contact’ last year as a result of decades of emotional abuse brought me respite – but also, with it, immense grief.

And it goes on in secret.

If my parents had died in a car crash, everyone who knows me would rally around me, helping me with my grief, and mourning. 

But I’ve since found that society at large doesn’t understand adult children choosing estrangement, so it happens in the shadows – for fear of judgement from those who couldn’t possibly understand.

When parental abuse is emotional, not physical, we’re expected to make uncapped allowances because ‘they’re your parents’.   

‘Daughters bicker with their mums.’

‘You only get one mum.’ 

‘But he’s your dad.’ 

When friends and relatives – and indeed, everyone I know – say these things, I only think how lucky they are to be so wholly unable to imagine the consistent emotional terrorism that led me here.

My parents’ long-running lies and manipulation have been truly stunning

And I have put up with a lot, believe me. Excessive punishment. Isolation. Daily criticism. Cruelty. Vitriolic outbursts of rage. The silent treatment. Not being allowed to rest. Hours of housework – and that was just by the age of 10. 

In my teens, I kept my mother’s affairs a secret; heard all about her sex life, and was grounded for six months at a time for no good reason. 

In my twenties, I was punished for having a social life. As a last resort, in my thirties, I asked my mother to come with me to see a family psychologist. She refused. 

So I went alone, questioning all of my behaviour and examining hers. 

Finally, understanding that my mother’s unhinged behaviour was because of her strong narcissistic traits – lack of empathy, sense of grandiosity, jealousy, and a shocking lack of boundaries – shifted my perspective.

I radically accepted her horrible behaviour and laughable lack of support and worked really hard to stay in contact. At that point, I didn’t feel strong enough to cut her off, or lose my dad in the process.

I set reasonable boundaries, asking her to not call me 20 times a day – but she couldn’t abide by them. I grey-rocked her – a psychological tactic for coping with narcissists by being as boring as a rock. In turn, she called me a robot.

My wider circle of friends and family don’t know there’s a hollow space in my chest aching constantly

I listened for hours to her problems; consoling, and counselling her. When I couldn’t handle it, she exploded into narcissistic rages, calling me a whore, a snake, a bitch. 

While it broke my heart, I didn’t retaliate, but forgave her – though she never apologised.

Still, I ended up moving 100 miles away so she couldn’t show up at my house uninvited. As a result, she behaved like a spiteful, possessive, controlling, ex-boyfriend – harassing me, smearing me to relatives and playing the victim.

Amidst it all, I was compassionate about her obsessive behaviours, supported and mediated her horrible fallouts with my dad, her friends, and relatives.

Ironically, I parented and loved her unconditionally when the roles should have been reversed.

My dad turned out to be more devious than I’d realised, too. At 16, I was a straight-A, unproblematic and polite kid, and confided in my parents that our relatives were ignoring me. 

My parents said our relatives were ‘assholes’.

Since reconnecting with them, I’ve learned my dad called and forbade them from talking to me. ‘She doesn’t exist to you,’ he told them.

When my parents are the monsters, there’s no limit to what I’m supposed to tolerate

My parents’ long-running lies and manipulation have been truly stunning. So when, last year, those tendrils began to wrap around my young children and they became so scared of my mum (for reasons I’m not entirely clear), that they no longer wanted to sleepover at her house, it was game over.

As a last resort, I blocked my parents’ numbers, email addresses, and social media over six months ago. It felt incredible. Like I’d been let out of a cage.

Despite this, my dad harassed me at my house – and my mother has sent multiple manipulative letters and gifts addressed to my youngest.  

Although the door remains closed and the letters never make it into the hands of my children, these continuing intrusions are triggering, and cause me stress. They refresh the grief – reminding me that I’ve lost the people who should care for me the most.

My inner circle – my two best friends and my dad’s sister and her family – thankfully support me with fierce love and compassion. But my wider circle of friends and family don’t know there’s a hollow space in my chest aching constantly.

Yet, I’m not an anomaly, either. Roughly one in five UK families are impacted by estrangement, with around five million people deciding to cut contact with at least one family member.

Please, don’t judge people who go down this route

I reckon it’s the ‘parent factor’ society struggles to accept. If my husband was gaslighting, manipulating, or exerting coercive control over me, nobody would question me divorcing him. They’d encourage me to get a restraining order and report him to the police. 

But when my parents are the monsters, there’s no limit to what I’m supposed to tolerate.

Whenever I open up to friends, they don’t understand. Instead, they question me, essentially wanting me to justify what I have done, or suggest all the things I’ve already tried. It’s exhausting.

Yet, keeping it quiet is taking a huge toll on my mental and physical health. I suffer from insomnia, stress and intense fatigue. It’s constantly on my mind, despite all of the efforts I’m making with costly therapy sessions, journalling, meditation and distraction.

Like traditional grief, it impacts every minute of my day and night. It’s inescapable.

So please, don’t judge people who go down this route. Please know that we’ve already tried everything imaginable countless times to avoid this outcome. Have compassion and don’t judge or blame. It’s a complicated and lifelong pain the likes of which most people will luckily never understand.

My parents were terrible, but I still grieve for them and the lifetime of unconditional love I could – and should – have had. 

All the ‘firsts’ after someone dies are tough, and I’m feeling them full force now behind a curtain of silence. My first Mother’s Day without her was rough.  

So, I quietly sit with the fact my parents are dead to me and look at the positives.

I can do what I want, and am no longer emotionally responsible for my mother. I can spend time with friends and in-laws without my mother’s seething jealousy. 

I will work through this enormous pain, like I have everything else, because I have no choice. 

I survived them in life and I will survive them in metaphorical death, too.

Degrees of Separation

This series aims to offer a nuanced look at familial estrangement.

Estrangement is not a one-size-fits-all situation, and we want to give voice to those who’ve been through it themselves.

If you’ve experienced estrangement personally and want to share your story, you can email [email protected] and/or [email protected]

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