On Radio 2 this week, the Rev Kate Bottley was talking about how the coronavirus pandemic has brought her closer to her mother and father.
Her self-isolating 'baby zoomer' parents were embracing the online world for the first time, throwing themselves with gusto into 6pm cocktail parties and long distance family monopoly. There has to be a silver lining to this pandemic and this is one for sure. The Rev’s message was simple: all you need is love. I agree, of course I do. It was heart-warming to hear her talk in this way, but I also felt something else, a deep sense of sadness for what it means to be estranged from someone at this time.
Estrangement can take many forms, the reasons; countless. Young people, for example, often need to explore their individuation and having a temporary break from parents can be seen as a developmental stage.
At the other end of the spectrum, if abuse and violence has been part of someone's experience, a total separation may be the safest and only outcome.
For that reason, it is important to differentiate between a separation and estrangement. With estrangement there is often a sense of something not entirely processed, that there is unfinished business. There may be resentment, confusion and sadness. Something has been cut off and yet it will need to be resolved.
Being estranged from someone at a time like this, during the Covid-19 panedemic, will bring up complex feelings.
On the one hand, there may be pressure to reach out and repair ruptures. With an older parent there may be a sense of there being ‘not much time left’. The guilt and grief of that is a lot to deal with in any circumstance, let alone when the situation is heightened by a worldwide pandemic.
On the other, the wounds remain, the pain is raw. Attempts at reconciliation may have been attempted before and failed. To take that step again, when everything in the world feels so unsettled can feel risky right now.
From a psychoanalytic perspective, when we cut someone off, we cut off part of ourselves. We become estranged from our psyche. You may hate your Father's bullying, patriarchal way of being, but by cutting him off are you denying that part of you that can be bullying and patriarchal? To explore and acknowledge that, can be deeply painful but there is an idea that it is very necessary for the integration of your self.
For many people, the trauma of an estrangement can only be unpacked and explored with great care, taking time. The last thing anyone wants or needs is to be retraumatized or put in an unsafe situation.
Like the Covid-19 pandemic there is no timeframe to an estrangement. We have no option but to accept that the outcome is unknown. This can be deeply unsettling and people who have experienced an estrangement often talk about living in a constant state of grief.
When it comes to healing an estrangement, setting new boundaries for both of you is key. It may be that moving forward you decide to call once a week, on a particular day at certain time, this can create a safer 'frame' from where to slowly rebuild reconnection. Within this, you need to be aware of oversharing. Try active listening and consciously decide not to take the bait.
None of this will be straight forward and whilst I am approaching this from my own perspective, I appreciate there may be cultural nuance here. But whatever your background, the cost of not healing an estrangement can be high.
At a time like this, when there is so much going on in the world, perhaps all we can do is take small steps, be kind to ourselves and acknowledge the complexity of our feelings.
As I thought about this topic, a book I am currently reading fell open at a page and these words resonated. It is a quote attributed to the Greek goddess Athene:
Let your rage pass into understanding
As into the coloured clouds of a sunset
Promising a fair tomorrow
Do not let it fall
As a rain of sterility and anguish (Aeschylus, 1999)
* The book I am reading is Reflective Practice by Gillie Bolton which I would recommend for anyone doing creative writing.