I read somewhere about a primate killing her young, how one day Khali, the sloth bear, bent over to pick up her pup and ate her
I’m aware of generations of women who have killed their pups as an act of protection and love
It made me wonder if there are also beings in the animal kingdom who leave their kin for their survival
1 in 5 people in the UK are affected by family estrangement. The experience often elicits shame, guilt, judgement, silence, blame and isolation
It’s a socially unacknowledged loss that results in both what Pauline Boss has called ‘ambiguous loss’, defined as:
A physical absence but a psychological presence (such as a missing person or divorce)
Or a physical presence but a psychological absence (such as loving someone suffering with addiction or altering illness)
and what Ken Donka has labelled disenfranchised grief:
losses that are not openly acknowledge, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned
due to the relationship, the loss of the griever not being socially acknowledged.
Family estrangement happens for a variety of reasons, often due to an accumulation and continuation of abuse or other behaviours that are or have been harmful.
Some of us decide to make a clean break and have absolutely no contact.
For others separation takes the form of a gradual drift like ice floes of the Antarctic which might rest in having contact as few times a year or on special occasions.
What seems to be most common is intermittent reengagement, experiencing more of whatever caused us to separate, then estranging again.
This has been my own lived experience and it seems that of many others according to research conducted by estrangement charity, Stand Alone.
The diverse ways in which we estrange makes clear estrangement is on a continuum rather than the misconception that you’re either in or out of contact.
It also makes apparent family estrangement is not a one-off event but often a long and painful process
It’s a common experience, yet there’s still little research, writing, language or spaces in response to this experience.
Joshua Coleman’s Rules of Engagement and Harriet Browne’s Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement, are examples of the latest literature on the topic and while informative, they’re written from a white heteronormative perspective that does not address aspects that have compounded my experience of estrangement.
As a black, benefit dependent, queer, disabled, female person estranged from their family growing in up 90’s and 00’s, it was a struggle to find and re-vision kinship in a social climate that gave me the message of not belonging, which added to the grief stemming from family estrangement.
On Family Estrangement an essay by Ayebainemi Abieyuwa Ese is one of the few writings on estrangement offering an intersectional perspective on estrangement.
For those of us that decide to estrange there can be moments when we question our decision no matter how bad the situation was.
For me this happens at least once per year. Last week it was prompted by a frustrated quip from an underpaid overworked stranger behind Perspex asking me for a next of kin.
I was wheeled into the A & E and sat there alone for twelve hours.
A few days later, after retelling the experience I was asked, don’t you have any friends? There seemed to be the inbuilt assumption that having friends replaces and erases the loss of familial support.
There’s not only a lack of social acknowledgement of the loss that occurs in estrangement but also very little understanding of the impact, such as:
how the betrayal of trust often involved in estrangement often impacts our capacity to create the kind of relationships we need;
how managing life events such as recovering from illness, moving homes, managing milestones are additionally challenging without familial support, and can create an inequality of life chances and resources that result in non-apparent dis/abilities
how living in a heteronormative patriarchal system which prioritises our duty of care towards blood and spousal/romantic relationships impacts finding kinship
how living in white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy and racialized global capitalism results in the dis/connection and un/belonging stemming from estrangement going unrecognised as something traumatic but instead something that is a result of race, gender, sexual identity etc
It’s in these moments of vulnerability, while sitting on perforated metal chairs more suited to a stadium than a place of care, that I question my decision.
I begin to think maybe it’s me and what I need is to reassess the boundaries that simultaneously permit me to connect, and protect me from this need.
Joshua Coleman, author of Rules of Engagement suggests that estrangement is on the rise in the U.S due to changing values and increase in social mobility.
This perspective seems very dependent on estrangees having particular social co-ordinates that allow access to social mobility.
If you’re living the intersections of poverty, blackness, queerness, trans/gender nonconformity, and disability, then access to Colemans social mobility is limited to unlikely.
When my grandparents came to this country in the 1960’s they were at an economic disadvantage due to the racism and exploitation of their labour. Thus they were more dependent on the kinships they formed with relatives and others who came over from their parish. Inevitably this resulted in some people staying in familial situations that were harmful or abusive.
Having a welfare state has supported me (and others) in maintaining non-contact especially at times when I was unable to work. Non-dominant populations are often still very dependent on their kindship groups for economic and social support.
Coleman makes familial support sound like it’s become an impulse item we might take or leave at the check-out, something we unsaddle ourselves from to pursue self-fulfilment.
Yet for many of us, estranging is not an expression of disposable income, or perception of familial kin as a luxury item, it’s a tool for self-preservation
In December 2019 I agreed to meet my mother for the first time in a decade. The meeting had been initiated by a text that came a day after completing a weekend family constellations workshop. The text read, “it’s me, Wendy, your mum”
In the middle of our conversation Wendy brings the cup of cold coffee to her lips and the words “but you didn’t want me around” spill out of her mouth onto the jacket that breathed like a crisp packet.
It’s the first time it occurs to me that as much as a child needs their parent’s love, a parent needs their child’s love, differently, but just as much. And the betrayal and hurt in that perceived rejection and abandonment by your first-born blooms like a blot of blood in tissue.
I saw a girl with a feverish need for love and thought about how many parents have kids in an attempt to resolve their own abandonment.
The absence of good enough familial support is significant and has consequences that affect a person’s health, finances, prospects and relationships etc.
In times when this loss feels monumental, I’ve found it useful to place emphasis on what I’m walking towards, rather than the loss.
For me this means a little person that still needs a parent, perhaps sitting down next to them, perhaps picking them up, — becoming my own loving parent.
“I learned the most radical thing I could do is learn how to save myself. I had to leave, I had to move into this new body”
This quote from Kai M Green, a transmasculine person featured in Kiese Laymon’s, How to Slowly Kill Yourself in America, summarises what many of us conclude in the end.
There’s a crucial embodied differences in the trans and estrangement experience. Yet, Kai’s story also re-minded me of work that needs to be done to create contexts we feel safe to exist in
We know forming kinship is not as simple as finding the community you desire and claiming your seat at the table, and this difficulty can be intensified if we’re queer, trans, dis/abled when we are much more likely to experience violence, and the affects of un/belonging, dis/connection, trauma because of our marginalised positions. This one of the many reasons I have initiated the community building circle, The Gathering The Gathering — The Heartwood (the-heartwood.co.uk)
I explain to Wendy that I was knee high at the time, just learning how to write and swim, and that she was hardly there and when she was, she was violent.
She wanted reconciliation, to take responsibility for harms, which is unusual as often many family members want things resolved but to avoid seeing their part.
I felt her sincerity as the offering of a rose even when it is closed. Yet I’ve learned our capacity to open and meet someone else’s hurt is proportionate to our ability to open and acknowledge our own.
Three months into the pandemic my mother texts with news about my father who I have never met. She confirms that I was conceived in violence.
The text, casual as after-school kids dropping PFC chicken boxes. She did not consider the harm in delivering such news like this. To her she was simply answering a question.
There’s what we want and what we are able to give, and sometimes, like with Wendy, the distance in between cannot be bridged.
Estrangement is often an act of care and courage rather than the way it can be depicted, as an act of spite, selfishness or avoidance.
And of course, it can also be an attempt to avoid the messy and uncomfortable business of resolving conflict and a refusal to accept other’s short-comings.
In waves of deep vulnerability, it can be hard for me to know which one it is. Often the needle drifts between them according to levels of contentment and the position of the planets.
I believe the price we pay for connection is accepting each other’s imperfections. The confusing aspect is when the people you expect to love you have imperfections that are consistently abusive and/or damaging.
Some might soundbite what Khali the sloth bear did as abhorrent, irrational, savage. We don’t know why she did it. We do know she was being held captive, even if it was to prevent her kind from becoming extinct. We do know our acts love and protection can appear alien to others.
 This is a phrase used in The Solution taken from ACA Big Red Book
 Green, K, M, Echi: Mychal, Darnell, Kiese, Kai, and Marlon, essay in How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Laymon, K