At first glance, the scene looked like something out of a bygone era. Or at least 2018.
Mourners were gathered outside Windsor Castle on Saturday when they were joined by four people who haven’t been seen publicly together since 2020.
Dressed in customary Black, the new Prince and Princess of Wales, together with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, looked at floral tributes laid by members of the public for the late Queen before greeting mourners.
The walk around only lasted a reported 40 minutes. But it was sufficient to ignite a sea of speculation as to what the show of unity means for the future relationship of the two brothers, who are rumoured to have become estranged in the aftermath of Harry and Meghan's January 2020 announcement of their intention to step back as senior royals.
Of course, nobody but the people involved can know what’s really going on. Nor is it our intention to add our voice to the growing volume of hearsay at what must be an extraordinarily difficult time for this family. But the show of unity has spotlighted the collision of two topics that, despite affecting millions of people in the UK, gets precious little airtime: bereavement and estrangement.
‘When I first came to this topic in 2014 – driven partly by a desire to see my own family dynamic reflected in the research - there was very little data on it, but the field is growing and we’re talking more about it in part because of Harry and Meghan,’ says Dr Lucy Blake, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England (UWE) and author of No Family Is Perfect: A Guide To The Messy Reality.
‘Losing a family member - and the grief that accompanies that - is a difficult, misunderstood thing anyway. If you add an estrangement on top of that, it can be even more difficult to share your experience with other people in a way that makes you feel understood.’
With that in mind, we hear from experts for whom both topics are a professional endeavour, to understand the impact of a bereavement on families who are estranged, what a heathy reconciliation can look like – and, crucially, how to support your mental health throughout.
What is estrangement?
Defined as at least one family member voluntarily and intentionally distancing themselves from another family member because of a negative relationship or the perception of one, estrangement affects one in five UK families, according to the most recent data.
A 2015 survey by the University of Cambridge and the estrangement support charity Stand Alone found that mismatched expectations about family roles, clashes of personality or values, neglect, mental illness and trauma were among the most common reasons for relationship breakdown within a family.
But it’s unlikely to have been triggered by a single event or person, says Kristina Scharp, assistant professor at the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, who’s been studying estrangement for more than a decade.
‘My research suggests that estrangement can happen after a gradual realisation that a person can no longer sustain a negative relationship or following a “last straw event" such as a sudden relational death,’ she explains, adding that an initial termination in contact is rarely final.
‘People often reduce the distance after [succumbing to] pressure to reconcile and then enter into an on-again/off-again relationship until they are finally able to maintain the right amount of distance for them. This means the reason for gaining distance the first time could be different to why people seek distance at other times.’
The idea that estrangement should be seen as a sliding scale – as opposed to a binary concept - is echoed by Dr Blake. ‘No two estrangements are the same and it’s useful to think about estrangement as being on a spectrum,’ she explains.
‘At one end, you might have physical estrangement – where there’s no contact between family members – to the extent that you might have legal protection against family members.’
And on the other? ‘Researchers also talk about “emotional estrangement”. In this sense, you might continue to see family members occasionally - at Christmas, for example – without feeling a sense of closeness or connection to them.’
What impact does a bereavement have on families who are estranged?
As yet, no research exists on the impact of bereavement on those who consider themselves to be estranged. But research does suggest that estrangement is steeped in stigma. It’s this, believes Dr Blake, that makes grief all the more difficult to cope with.
‘What’s really difficult about estrangement is the social silence that surrounds it,’ she explains. ‘When people do talk about it, they can be met with statements like “you only have one family”. The grief that people experience in that situation can also be a silent one; there can be very little understanding and room for people to talk about it.’
Dr Becca Bland agrees. The CEO of Stand Alone founded the charity in 2014 in response to her own experience of becoming estranged from her parents. She explains that while the impact will be informed by the relationship you had to the person who has died, an estrangement can make the grieving process significantly more complicated.
‘A big part of grief is being able to share memories and find some commonality with those who also had close relationships with that person and if you don’t have that support network around you, it can be harder to process the grief,’ she says, adding that such support doesn’t have to come from family.
‘There’s a misconception that family is always going to help you manage the grief – and it isn’t always. The key is to have external support, be that a supportive partner, a group of friends on the help of professionals like a counsellor or doctor. Just make sure that you’re not alone.’
Particularly vulnerable are those who find themselves isolated from family members who are in charge of the funeral arrangements, some of whom find themselves excluded from the event entirely.
‘It’s really important that everyone is invited to the grieving process,’ she adds. ‘So if you do find yourself in this situation, make your desire to come to the funeral and pay your respects clear. And if reaching out yourself doesn’t feel manageable, ask a third party to enquire about funeral arrangements are and how you can pay your respects.’
Can a bereavement be a catalyst for reconciliation?
All the experts WH spoke to for this piece emphasised the evolving nature of estrangement; the idea the T&Cs of the relationship can ebb and flow over many years.
But major milestones in a family, like births, marriages and – yes – deaths, can trigger a period of reflection. ‘Research shows that these milestones – as well as annual events like Father’s Day and Mother’s Day – can create both a pressure and an urge to revaluate relationships,’ explains Dr Bland, adding that the national lockdowns had a similar effect on those who were estranged from a family member.
‘This doesn’t necessarily mean that reconciliation will automatically follow from that, but it’s certainly a time when family relationships are thrown into the limelight again.’
One reason a bereavement can be a catalyst for reconciliation is the logistical labour involved, be that planning the funeral, making decisions about the care of an elderly relative or managing an estate. And while it’s true that such logistics will force some estranged families even further apart, they can also present opportunities for constructive conversation.
‘If people are using the opportunity of renewed contact [following a bereavement] to let you know that they’re ready to talk about things then perhaps reconciliation is possible,’ adds Dr Bland, with the caveat that the immediate aftermath of a bereavement may not be the best time to do such emotional heavy lifting and you may be better off deferring such conversations until you feel more able to cope.
What does a healthy reconciliation look like?
It’s important to say that a reconciliation will never be the end goal of everyone, nor should it be. ‘The assumption that reconciliation is best for everyone is a misguided one,’ adds Dr Blake, giving the example of a relationship that’s become estranged as a result of emotional or physical abuse.
Dr Bland points out too that when an estrangement stems from trauma, dealing with that trauma – ideally with the support of a mental health professional – should be the priority.
‘Many adult children who estrange themselves report feeling relief from the tension and stress that was caused by the relationship – they may even feel a sense of empowerment,’ says Dr Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families and author of Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties And How To Heal The Conflict.
However, this is by no means the case for every estranged family, he adds, with many reporting ongoing feelings of guilt, shame and sadness. If you consider yourself to fall into the latter category, all the experts affirmed the value of seeking out support, both from trusted organisations and from those who share your experience.
‘Interacting with support groups can be useful to help combat the feelings of shame and social isolation you might be experiencing,’ says Dr Coleman, who adds that working with a therapist can also be useful in supporting your self-compassion and self-understanding, if you can afford to.
If you do decide to reconcile the relationship, Dr Bland recommends engaging a neutral third party – at least initially. ‘Doing so will help you to feel seen, heard and met, while encouraging a dialogue that’s calm, as opposed to antagonistic. Then, the process can flow from there.’
There are no easy answers, and what’s right for one person will be different to what’s right for another. But with effective support and tools, experts are clear that it’s possible to navigate this unpredictable terrain in a way that puts your emotional wellbeing front and centre.
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