Not long ago, I sat with a sweet little old man who was dying. (This is a regular occurrence for me; I’m a rabbi who works in hospice.) The man’s one dying wish was simple: to speak to his teenage granddaughter on the phone in Australia before he died. His selfish daughter was too “bitter” about the past to allow this to happen, he said.
His request seemed so reasonable, his social worker tracked down and called his daughter. As it turned out, the dying man was a long-term violent abuser, and the last time he had spoken to his granddaughter was when he had shown up at her bat mitzvah with a gun. There was a restraining order in his Australian police file, but it hadn’t registered in California. His terrified and traumatized granddaughter refused to speak to him, and both the man and his granddaughter experienced pain and distress anew as he died.
Long-term family estrangements usually happen for very good reasons: physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse, untreated addiction, untended mental illness, a family member’s inability to come to terms with another’s sexual or gender identity, or because the dynamic between family members is just too painful to bear. It’s simply not true that blood is the ultimate bond; some families have become so damaged by trauma that time together is harmful for all involved. I’ve served many families with many stories of separations, and I myself come from a family with multiple generations of estrangement. And while a startling, miraculous reconnection does happen occasionally, these things rarely (if ever) end in a tidy, Hollywood movie kind of way.
Homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, classism, and misogyny can play into family estrangement, compounding the silence around trauma, as well as the social pressure to reconnect with original family. Capitalism prioritizes the nuclear family for economic reasons, but many multiply marginalized people must find family in other ways, far from their family of origin.
While lifelong estrangements often can’t be magically “fixed” at the end of life, there can be profound healing. Here are some tips for promoting a sense of wholeness when an estranged family member dies, or is approaching the end of life. These are intended both for people who come from estranged families and those who care about them.
Don’t insist that anyone (including yourself) contact an estranged family member before they die, or that they will regret it if they don’t. In my experience of serving people in hospice, you are equally as likely to regret what you do in haste as what you don’t do out of caution. Enormous harm can be done, both to the dying person and their family, if they reconnect out of a panicked fear of regret. A visit that reopens old wounds can bring more regret than no visit at all.
If you’re a support person, do not try to facilitate contact covertly or by bullying. Even if one of the parties involved is your spouse, parent, or sibling, you can never know the full story. No one knows what it’s like to live in another’s skin. If you yourself are trying to decide whether to reconnect with an estranged, dying family member, don’t let yourself be bullied. The decision is yours, and yours alone.
Normalize. You are not alone. Estrangements are extremely common, and everybody eventually dies. Because of the stigma surrounding both estrangement and death, it may not seem this way. Though you may feel alone right now, your experience is normal and human to the core.
Treat yourself like a mourner/someone in anticipatory grief, even if you are not in touch with your family member. You will go through the same stages of shock and grief as you would if you were in close contact. Use ritual: if you can’t go to the funeral (or there is not one), plan your own memorial service. If your capacity only allows for you and your best friend lying under the covers and reading a poem, that can be a memorial service, too. If you’re a support person, bring a casserole, send condolence cards, observe all the same mourning rituals you would if there had been a big public funeral. These gestures are needed.
Create space for regret. Even loving and connected relationships usually hold some regrets. Our lives are not tied up in neat bows at the end; we are messy, complex beings. This is even more true in cases of estrangement. Having a regret is not the same thing as having made the wrong choice.
Normalize guilt and shame. We live in a culture where the only happy ending is a reconciliation. It’s normal to feel guilty and ashamed if you don’t reconnect. Surround yourself with people who affirm your choice. Don’t talk to disapproving people about your grief. Don’t watch those alluring reconciliation-porn Hollywood movies.
It may be helpful to write a letter or draw a picture for the person who is dying. You might be ready to send this letter, or you might just keep it to yourself. You might choose to send photos of yourself, or a poem that reminds you of your person, if writing a letter feels too hard. If you do write a letter, it doesn’t have to say everything.
If you do try for a reconnection in person, bring a support person and have a plan for self-care (a call to a therapist, a walk or swim, etc). Don’t underestimate the power of short visits – even 20 minutes may be enough. If your person is non-responsive by the time you arrive, still tell them anything you were planning to say. We don’t fully understand the dying process, and people may be able to hear and understand long after they’ve become unresponsive or non-verbal. Respect the intense vulnerability of that moment (even if your person did not respect your vulnerability); use your empathy and imagine what it would be like to hear and understand but not be able to respond. This is not the right time to air grievances. It is the right time to catch someone up about your life, express love and gratitude if those are authentic, or simply be present in silence. Attune to small non-verbal communications; if they look like they’re reaching for or away from your hand, they probably are.
Reconciliation is originally a Christian word and concept. I believe that our American cultural celebration of reconciliation, regardless of family circumstance, is due to the primacy of Christianity. Other cultures engage other approaches toward wholeness. My own tradition, Judaism, holds the concept of teshuva (return) at the end of life, which can include reconnection between people, but also implies a profound return to the self, and justice in the world. Coming to wholeness and peace can mean many things, and eventually you will need to define it for yourself.
Sometimes, wholeness can come from unexpected places. A few years ago, I worked with a woman in her late eighties named Ethel. She was active on the board of her low-income housing, and volunteered with a rape crisis hotline. She was liked by all her neighbors and comrades, but when it came time for her to die, she had no close friends or family members at her side. Near the end, she revealed to me that when she was in her 30s, she had been in an abusive marriage, and her husband and been sexually abusing their two pre-teen daughters. Desperate and alone, Ethel had fled one night, leaving her daughters alone in their fate, despite her knowledge of their situation. She had spent the rest of her life doing penance for this act of abandonment, immersing herself in feminist justice causes and forming no new intimate relationships. She had never forgiven herself for the betrayal.
As part of her dying process, she got help from her social worker and tracked down her daughters to inform them that she was dying. Understandably, they did not reply. Near the end, she asked me: “Do you think they will ever forgive me?”
“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully.
Her next question was much harder: “As a rabbi, do you think they should forgive me?”
“I really don’t know,” I answered, thinking about their terrible, unjust abandonment. I thought about the tiny part of her life that I had known: the funny, elder, feminist, activist and community member who had helped so many other young victims of sexual violence. With that in mind, I said truthfully, “…but I can forgive you.” She sighed with some relief and offered me chocolates from her bedside drawer.
Unlike Catholic priests, rabbis don’t have the power to absolve. What I said to Ethel was an offering from a friend at the end of life. Though it wasn’t appropriate to ask her daughters to forgive the unforgivable, I knew a different part of Ethel, and could ease her dying without the need for reconciliation. Even if you can’t reconnect with a family member, you can find wholeness in your own life, and pray that your family member does the same for themselves. I pray that my own estranged family members have a friend in their lives at the end, to forgive them for the things I can’t forgive them for.
Ethel died peacefully the next day.