Discover more from Writers' Haven by Christine Wolf
When Your Estranged Parent Dies, Grief is Complicated
I didn’t speak to my father the last twenty years of his life. I never stopped loving him. I just chose to love myself more.
My father’s 77th birthday would have been June 29, 2022, but we won’t be celebrating it.
He passed away of esophageal cancer in 2010, more than 10 years ago. And if that’s all you knew, you’d be right to assume that the day might be filled with wistful remembrances for the father I no longer have. Oh, but there’s so much more to our story.
Like many, I grew up in a family whose dynamics were complicated and often messy — as did my father. Like many, I grew up with an alcoholic parent — as did my father. Like many, I witnessed and suffered from a parent’s emotional and physical abuse — as did my father. And as such, I hoped for my father to be a different person than he was, someone who wasn’t filled with rage and self-loathing and a propensity toward destruction — but he just couldn’t.
In my early twenties, after years of being hurt and confused and bewildered by my father’s behavior, I found myself sitting on the floor of my mother’s home, sketching out the seating chart for my upcoming wedding. The phone rang, and it was my dad’s best friend.
Your dad’s been arrested. Another DUI. Can you help him out? He’s really hurting.
At the time, I was a recent college grad with a brand new job at big Chicago advertising agency. With my sparkly view of the future — one that didn’t include drama or dads who disappoint — I sat frozen on the floor, staring at the seating chart, imagining all the guests who might witness what I’d seen for more than two decades — my father’s slurred speech, his stumbling steps, his inappropriately loud responses to life’s most solemn moments, and (worst of all) potshots launched at the innocent and unknowing.
“Hello?” my dad’s friend asked. “You still there?”
As doubts and worries filled my mind, I clutched the cordless phone in my hand, welcoming — then embracing — the stillness and safety of this awkward silence. I knew I had a decision to make.
The Painful Process of Untangling
During my college years, I’d been gradually pulling away from my father, particularly after he pushed too hard justifying his bad behavior and — worse — telling me that I often contributed to (or even caused) it. His go-to example was that I “destroyed” him by no longer using his last name.
It all started the summer before I entered fourth grade when my mother remarried and I was given the option to use my new stepfather’s surname.
At the time, I remember thinking, Wait…I can do that?? It never occurred to me to change my name, but once presented with the option, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to feel like a “normal” kid whose name matched the adults with whom I lived. As a nine-year-old who’d attended parochial schools, I didn’t know anyone whose last name was different than their parents’ — and I sure as heck didn’t want to broadcast the fact I was “that divorced kid” navigating two households. At age 7, due to my father’s instability, my first family blew apart. By age 9, I’d gained not only a new stepfather but also a different “identity”.
In 1977, I began my brand new family life in a brand new suburb, enrolled in a brand new (public!) school where everyone knew me by my brand new last name. I went from one frequently mispronounced Polish surname (Kamys — pronounced KAY-miss) to another (Cieslak — pronounced CEASE-lack).
My stepfather didn’t adopt me, and my name change wasn’t “legal”, but rather one of “daily use”. The problem, as you might imagine, was that this didn’t sit well with my biological father, who threatened for years to “disown me” unless I switched back to the name on my birth certificate.
“You’re disrespecting me,” he’d frequently say (or yell) during weekend visits to his apartment. “Do you have ANY concept of how deeply you’re hurting me? I’m your FATHER!”
All I could do was apologize and profess my love, yet he held this over my head, often writing letters to me (addressed to Chrissy Kamys), reminding me that my behavior stabbed his heart.
And so it was, for years, that I tried to assuage his anger, even hyphenating my name in high school in an attempt to *keep the peace* — but this only caused confusion for everyone, especially me. To the neverending and understandable questions from friends and teachers, I dreamed of simple answers like this:
Q: So…you’re Chrissy Kamys/Cieslak now?
Q: But why do you have two last names?
A: My parents are remarried. I’ve been using my mom’s name since 4th grade, but my dad says I’m not his daughter unless I use his. I’m trying not to be a problem.
Q: Which name do you “really” want to go by?
A: You can call me Chrissy Cieslak, but please hyphenate both names on anything written, in case my dad sees it. He’s an attorney, and he’ll make life miserable for us if I don’t use his name.
Q: Okay. But what do we call your parents?
A: My mom and stepdad are Cieslak. My dad and stepmom are Kamys.
Q: Which name do we use to alphabetize you for attendance?
Q: Under what name do we list you in the yearbook?
Q: Under what name do we seat you for graduation?
Q: But what about your diploma?
A: Please use both.
Q: Why don’t you just tell your dad you love him but you prefer to use Cieslak?
A: [Sigh]. You obviously haven’t met my dad.
During my senior year of high school, I found some courage and informed my dad that I planned to use Cieslak in college. I just couldn’t manage all the questions and confusion any longer, and with another fresh start in another new school in another new town with more new friends, I knew I had to reclaim a stronger sense of self. And as I explained this to him, I tried to keep the language about me.
“It’s just too hard for me to keep hyphenating my last name. It’s confusing for me, and it’s confusing for other people. I love you the same as I always have. It’s just a name. I’ve made my decision, and I hope you’ll understand.” And in a flash of lightning rage, my father dropped his beer can and slammed his fist into my right eye.
“You’re MY daughter!” he yelled, picking up the empty can, sucking down air from its opening, then tossing it on the pile on the table. “Shame on you. You’re not my daughter.”
Battle Scars Aren’t Always Visible
I ran into the bathroom and locked the door, staring into the mirror, scanning my throbbing face.
I stayed in there for what felt like hours, listening to Dad yelling and smashing his own things. I felt broken inside and out, yet, to my utter confusion, the swelling and bruising around my eye barely reflected the level of pain I felt inside.
“There’s an ice pack for you outside the bathroom door,” Dad announced.
When I retrieved it, I made a huge production of whipping the door open and then slamming it closed, re-locking it protectively and with dramatic force.
Later that night, as he drove me back to my mother’s house, I refused to speak to him. This didn’t seem to bother him, though. The only words I heard him say? “Teenagers. They’ll be the death of me…”
And until now, I’ve never admitted that, as my very minor black eye faded, my seventeen-year-old sense of desperation took on a life of its own. I remember feeling detached as I pulled out my makeup kit and tried my best to enhance the fading shadows and colors of the bruises — wanting so badly for others to bear witness to my pain.
The results of my efforts, though, were ridiculous, and I abandoned them when someone said, “You’ve got makeup smeared around your eye.”
And it was then that I resorted to (God … I can’t believe I’m about to type this) punching myself in the eye — something I still can’t believe I was capable of.
I remember staring in the mirror before I did it, psyching myself up to tear myself apart — all in a frantic attempt to get someone, anyone, to validate my pain.
Looking back now, I can see that I was traumatized and deeply confused about my own identity. I was self-harming before the behavior even had a “name”.
Then, when a few people noticed the redness around my eye, I couldn’t even find the words — or clarity — to describe what really happened. Despite knowing the truth, I nevertheless felt responsible for angering my father. I felt shame on top of immeasurable shame. And so, when asked about my pink, puffy eye, I told people I’d fallen clumsily out of bed in my sleep.
Hanging On By A Thread
Though that experience left no visible scars, it marked the beginning of the end of my relationship with my father. I buried my emotions and worked my ass off, trying to be the very best student, friend, daughter, sister, and employee. In college, though I wrote to my dad and occasionally spoke to him by phone, my messaging was always kind (so as not to upset him) but clear: I’m not interested in seeing you or pursuing a deeper relationship right now.
In my mind, saying “right now” was my way of holding out hope and keeping a door open for our future. Unfortunately, my father didn’t — or couldn’t — tolerate such uncertainty. He wanted things fixed — now or never — and so, I completely disengaged.
Within a year of graduating college, I was engaged to be married, and I wrestled endlessly over whether to invite my father to the wedding. I’d never introduced him to my fiancé or his family, always afraid that others would see the depths of our dysfunctional past or that Dad would just make a total ass of himself now. Keeping him at a distance kept me in control, yet he made sure I knew he wasn’t happy about it, and regularly wrote to me, describing the agonizing loneliness he felt (which I read between the lines as having caused), which only led him to drink more. I didn’t yet understand the way addiction works, and that shame and secrecy fuel its very existence.
As a twenty-three-year-old, all I knew for sure was that my father wasn’t taking responsibility for his own behavior and that the little girl inside me hated hurting her daddy. And I couldn’t help but remember all the good times, like going to Great America and taking road trips and singing at the top of our lungs. And I kept wondering if I might save my father from this tortured life by inviting him to my wedding and letting him walk me down the aisle, thereby proving my loyalty as a daughter. I kept asking myself: What would others do in my shoes? What’s the right choice?
The Breaking Point
But my decision was made the afternoon I sat on the floor of my mother’s house, sketching out that seating chart for my wedding reception. When the phone rang and the message was delivered — Your dad’s been arrested again. Can you help him out? He’s really hurting…
For a moment, I chose to sit in beautiful silence. And then, I was crystal clear about what to do.
“Tell my dad he can call me,” I told his friend.
Not even a minute later, my father called me from the police station. I have no doubt he assumed I’d bail him out.
Instead, I thanked him for bringing me into the world, for trying his best, for doing all the *good* things, like taking me to movies, like sending flowers and birthday cards and heartfelt letters, like sending me quarters for laundry in college.
I didn’t point out all the *bad* things, like the punches or the putdowns. I didn’t bring up the times I sat waiting by the window for hours, wondering when — or if — he’d show up for a scheduled weekend visit. I didn’t list all the times he was blacked out drunk or arrested for abusing others or so full of rage that I had to hide with my younger sisters in the back of a closet.
I didn’t remind him how many times I’d listened to him screaming at his first wife, his second wife, his third wife … or me. I didn’t talk about the terror he caused when he’d jerk our moving car closer to others while driving on the highway, laughing as we screamed and begged him to stop. I didn’t remind him of all the times the police had been called to pull him off of others … or that the caller was sometimes me.
I didn’t tell him how confusing and unsettling it was to be his daughter, that I’d longed and prayed for a “normal dad”, or that he’d been the very definition of instability and unreliability.
I didn’t remind him that I’d wanted, so long, for him to change; God knows I’d already tried. I didn’t remind him I’d gone to Al-Anon meetings and written him letters from my heart that he never answered. I didn’t remind him that I deserved to be loved for exactly who I was.
And I didn’t say the many things I’ll likely take directly to my grave — about what he did to me, to one of my sisters, and to others I knew and loved. I didn’t feel the need. I didn’t want to relive it all. I’d finally come to see that he couldn’t even hear it.
I knew the truth. That was enough.
Instead, I thanked my father one last time, then told him I no longer wanted to have a relationship.
In my mind, the only “right now” was right now, and after so many years of trying to be the “best girl” for him (and everyone else in the fucking world), I knew I had to close this door for good. I had to say goodbye. I had to do this to survive. I told my father that I loved him, and that I always would.
I still remember his response. He said, “Thank you. I love you, too.”
After that, he never reached out again.
A Door Closed. A Voice Regained.
The moment I hung up, I immediately felt a sense of hope — for myself and, in a strange way, for him. I wondered if (and even hoped that) he’d finally “hit rock bottom” and eventually find his way back up. To my knowledge, though, he never did.
After that call, I was surprised I never felt any remorse. In fact, I felt guilty for not feeling more upset. Instead, I felt a strange and unfamiliar sense of empowerment. At twenty-three, I finally felt in charge of my own life; I also began to realize that my dad had always been in charge of his, too. I no longer felt responsible for pleasing him or answering to his demands or being his physical and emotional punching bag. He hated himself, that much was clear. But I was goddamned if I’d continue letting him pull me into his vortex of self-hatred, the one I’d been in it since birth.
Nearly twenty years after I said goodbye to my father, I learned of his death from another family member who’d heard the news from someone else. And it was then that I became an investigative journalist without realizing it.
I tracked down the priest who’d been at my father’s side as cancer ravaged his 65-year-old body. During our phonecall, the priest told me that Dad was, until the very end, still angry, still full of rage, still blaming others for his lot in life.
During that call, after I’d explained a bit about my own childhood, the priest thanked me for my perspective. He explained that, until we’d spoken, he often felt that he’d done something wrong and regularly disappointed my father. And it was then that I knew I’d made the right decision to say goodbye two decades before my father died.
The Complicated Grief of An Estranged Parent’s Death
Just after I learned the news of my father’s death, my emotions shocked me with their intense mix of relief, guilt, curiosity, sadness, anger and profound grief. My father was already dead. There’d been no one to claim his body. There’d been no memorial service. There’d been no burial. He’d been cremated by the State of Illinois, and to this day, I have yet to collect his remains.
As I came to terms with the news, I wrestled with how to explain this type of loss to others. Sometimes, in the midst of telling a friend about his death, I’d surprise myself and break down in unexpected tears, frustrated that someone who’d hurt me so deeply still had the power to leave me feeling broken. Hadn’t I moved past his ability to do that? Other times, I was stunned by how I could mention his death almost casually and without much emotion at all, as in, “My father passed away last year. We weren’t speaking at the time.” I’d wonder if I came off as soulless or lacking compassion for the disease (and the upbringing) my father never asked to have. I wondered if I could have been a more supportive, understanding, loyal daughter. I asked myself if I’d failed my father. Was I guilty of having given up on him?
How does one reckon with the death of an estranged parent? I certainly didn’t have the language for it, let alone a roadmap to follow. I didn’t know anyone who spoke openly about complicated relationships like this. The only thing I knew was that my father was no longer walking the earth, and that he’d tried — and often failed — to contain the pain he was clearly unable to manage. And for that, I was grateful that he (and I) were now free of his internal suffering.
Around the same time I learned of my father’s death, I spoke with a friend whose own father was in the process of dying and had entered hospice care. When asked about what it was like to lose a father, I tried awkwardly to explain my mixed-up emotions about my dad’s passing, and this friend’s response left me speechless.
“Why are you suddenly making this a thing?” he asked. “Your dad was horrible to you — and to everyone around him. He wasn’t even in your life for the last twenty years. But now you’re sad?”
Once again, that all-too-familiar feeling of shocked voicelessness consumed me. I hadn’t said I was sad, did I? I was feeling a LOT of things…too many things…but I didn’t have the language to explain it clearly. Of course I loved my damaged, imperfect father. I just chose to love myself more.
The friend whose dad was in hospice continued. “Plenty of people are dying right now — including very GOOD fathers like mine. I can’t understand why you’re upset about that guy. I don’t get it.”
And here’s the thing: unless you’ve walked in my shoes, you won’t understand how I’m able to hold someone at a distance while still loving them.
The fact is, though I closed a door in order to move on and survive, I didn’t close the door on my ability to remember, to reflect, or to grieve.
My father died, and in a way, a part of my life died, too. Yes, a toxic chapter of my past was now officially over, and that’s good news, right? Yet, how do people like us express such complicated grief? What’s the proper way to mourn someone who deeply hurt you? When you’re forced to close the door earlier than others, do you give up your right to find closure? My mind immediately goes to couples who divorce … or parents who lose children to substance abuse. How do they manage their complex grief?
No Room For Regret
I don’t regret the way I ended things with my father, nor do I feel sad that his death certificate listed no children. It was my choice to step away, and though some have speculated that my father tried to have the last word by listing no progeny on his deathbed, the story I tell myself is that he didn’t want to burden me with whatever debt or drama swirled through the final days of his hurricane life. He’d been a broken man since birth. Unlike me, he never learned how to love himself.
I don’t even know what prompted me to think about my father this year on what would have been his 77th birthday. There’ve been many, many years I haven’t given this day a thought. He missed so many things in my life, and he made so many horrible missteps and mistakes. Yet haven’t I? Haven’t we all? To that end, I strive to access forgiveness, and I work hard to prioritize self-respect. If there’s anything my father taught me through his self-destructive ways, it’s the importance of doing what he never could: to love oneself unconditionally.
Giving Ourselves Space to Breathe and Grieve
To be sure, the hopeful part of me often wonders if things might have turned out differently if my father had been given access to different resources and approaches, to dedicated support, to more open minds, to better access to treatment, to a stronger sense of resolve — not to mention fewer traumatic experiences throughout his life. The heartbreaking fact is, he didn’t.
If I’m selfish for having set boundaries with him, so be it. I’m more than okay with being “guilty” of honoring my own mental health and protecting myself. I’m grateful I found the courage — after trying my best for decades — to distance myself from an unhealthy and toxic relationship. My process was neither easy nor linear (nor is it completely over, to be honest), but I speak from experience when I say it’s worth it to honor your own voice.
And as for the grieving process for an estranged parent, I’ve found it’s helpful to allow space for a multitude of emotions. While it’s true June 29th will always mark the day of my father’s birth, it’s also true that, on the day I said goodbye to my dad forever, I gave birth to a stronger, clearer, more resilient me.
On 6/15/2022 I received the following message from a reader. With her permission, and without using her name, I’m sharing her letter here because it speaks volumes about the need for more open discussion around managing the loss of an estranged parent. I hope that between our two stories, more people will understand the challenges faced when someone finds themself saying, “My estranged parent is dead. Now what?”
Hello. My name is [redacted], and I wanted to say thank you for sharing your experience with losing an estranged parent.
My father passed away yesterday and I happened upon your article, “When an estranged parent dies, grief is complicated,” this morning. He and I had been estranged for 15 years but we were at a peaceful place in our relationship. I feel like I grieved the loss of our relationship years ago, but the finality and freshness of his death is sad and confusing and overwhelming. And to be honest, sometimes it feels like a relief too.
I feel so many of the emotions that you discussed in the article and I truly appreciate your vulnerability. It provided a lot for me to think about and reflect on. I probably read it a dozen times today because it made me feel understood and seen. I shared it with others that have gone through similar situations and your words provided validation and comfort to them as well.
I have so much healing to do. But I didn’t come this far to only come this far.
I will never forget how much your words have helped me today. I believe that everything happens for a reason and I needed to thank you for helping me on my journey. Thank you for sharing your story.
I regularly receive private messages about this piece, and here’s the latest:
January 26, 2023
I wanted to reach out to thank you for writing your essay about your father and his passing. I know that it must have been very difficult to parse through and express something so deeply personal.
I lost my father recently and I have been struggling with the complexities and contradictions of his life and our relationship. More than anything else I have read, and I have read a good bit on the subject, your essay has given me a great deal of understanding and peace.
I just wanted you to know how much you sharing your story did for someone else in a similar situation. Thank you more than words can say.
I’m constantly reminded of the importance of sharing our authentic stories, no matter how different, uncomfortable, or uncertain we might feel.
My wish for you is that you’ll find the strength to share YOUR stories, too. I believe in doing so, we connect with each other in ways that help change the world for the better, even if that means helping just one person feel less alone.
of Writers' Haven by Christine Wolf is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.