There are many things that make family estrangement challenging. I’ve detailed three reasons here to provide a bit of context before we dive into ways that you can support your friend.
The reason for the estrangement itself: Generally, people do not choose estrangement lightly, and estrangement is often reflective of long-term conflict or traumatic events that have unfolded, such as sexual or physical abuse, neglect, familial mental health issues, emotional abuse etc.
Stigma and Guilt: In a 2015 report Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood, 68% of adults estranged from one or more members in their families believe that there is stigma around family estrangement. They cited fears or judgement and assumptions of fault or blame as a source of shame. Sometimes, even when people know without question that estrangement was the most healthy choice, they cite feeling guilt that they’re estranged from their families. We’re wired for connection - and often, our families are the people we’re physically closest to growing up - which means we often turn to them for connection. While just one example, when youth grow up in an abusive home, they internalize their maltreatment as reflective of an internal flaw and a truth that they may be unloveable - rather than recognizing their parent as abusive. Later, if estranged, it may be challenging to shake some of those deeply ingrained internal beliefs, even if they’ve come to intellectually understand them as untrue.
Family estrangement is not recognized as a loss: Though research around family estrangement is not extensive at this point, many specialists consider estrangement a “silent epidemic,” as it is often not discussed openly. There is often significant loss and grief associated with family estrangement. However, this is often not recognized by those who don’t have personal experience with estrangement.
So, what can you do? Great question! Here are seven tips!
Remember them during holiday seasons: Birthdays and holidays can often be a challenging time for people who are estranged from their families. Holiday seasons often emphasize family togetherness and connections, which can serve as a painful reminder for those who don’t have those connections. If you can, send your friends a message on holidays to let them know that you’re thinking about them, coordinate a friends holiday party, or invite them to celebrate with you.
Remind them that they’re loved: Sometimes, those who are estranged from their families struggle with shame and stigma around not having family - which can lead to feelings around being unloveable. While they may intellectually know they’re loveable - they may feel deep pain around not having love from family members in the ways that they want/need. We all like to know that we’re loved and seen by those who we care about - and your friend who is estranged from their family is no exception!
Don’t push reconciliation/Respect Their Reasons: Estrangement is not a decision that is easily made, and there is almost definitely more to the story that you may be aware of. Whether or not you fully understand why someone is estranged from their family is not important. It is, however, important that you don’t push your own ideas on your friend about what “should” happen with their family. If they want to reconcile with their family members - they may choose to do that. But, pushing reconciliation will likely just lead them to feel unheard, dismissed, or shamed. Often, people push reconciliation due to their own distress. They imagine how sad they’d be to not have contact with their family - and they want their friend to have that same type of love and support. However, the estrangement is an indication that their family does not function that same way. Your friend would also likely love to have healthy family connections. But, their family is not likely able to provide that - or they’d be in contact with them. While likely well intended, pushing for reconciliation is strongly discouraged and not helpful.
Listen to their grief: Listen to your friend talk about their sad feelings about being disconnected from their family. Remember that sadness about the disconnect does not indicate that they should try to reconnect. Reflect back what you hear, and just try to listen: “That sounds so hard.” Or “Im so sorry that you’re hurting, I’m happy to listen.”
Don’t walk on eggshells about your own family: You’re allowed to have a happy family, even if your friend doesn’t! Chances are good that they don’t want you to censor sharing that with them. You’re allowed to be annoyed with your family members, and allowed to be happy with them! You don’t have to censor with your friend who is estranged. Just try to avoid statements that imply that the estranged friend is “lucky” to not have to deal with family. (See #7)
Relieve yourself of feeling responsible for solving the issue: Sometimes, when people listen to others talk about estrangement, they feel sadness for their friend, as they find great joy and comfort in their own family. Sometimes, this sadness can lead people to feel like they want to try to “solve” the issue by either pushing reconciliation or trying to problem-solve the issue with their friend who is estranged. Unless your friend specifically asks you to engage in problem-solving with them, go ahead and relieve yourself of the responsibility of fixing their estrangement. They’ve likely been dealing with their family struggles for a while, and it is important that your friend doesn’t feel like they need to manage your sad feelings about their family situation - as they’re already managing plenty with their family.
Avoid “if it makes you feel better” or “at least you…” Often, well meaning friends might remark that the friend who is estranged from their family is “lucky” because they don’t have to deal with family drama. Or, they may remark “If it makes you feel better, my mom/uncle/grandma…” However, these types of statements are rarely helpful. Chances are almost guaranteed that it does not make the person who is estranged feel any better. Instead, try to acknowledge their grief. And sit with your own discomfort that you may feel in knowing that your friend is suffering. Often, “holding space” for someone can be challenging, and many people are quick to try to say/do things to alleviate someone’s feelings. While it isn’t inherently bad to think about reducing someone’s suffering, some of our most common ways of trying to do this aren’t as helpful as we’d like. It is often more helpful to sit with your friend and give them a supportive space to process their emotions/thoughts.
Finally, thank you for your interest in supporting your friends who are navigating challenging family situations! Questions? Reach out!