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Ask Amy: Estrangement from family is hard to describe


Dear Amy: I no longer communicate with my remaining immediate family members. Honestly, it’s a relief.

My family is significantly dysfunctional. One of my therapists (I’ve had several over the years) said that my family was the worst she knew from any of her patients. Some things that happened in our home would have qualified for child services intervention — if anyone had known.

My mother is truly a monster who hides behind a socially acceptable exterior.

Neither my sister nor I qualify as monsters, but we were never close.

I find her garbage-stuffed hoarder house and the way she mocks others disgusting.

She probably finds me to be a judgmental, imperious jerk. (I wouldn’t blame her.)

Several months ago, my partner witnessed a horrible scene involving my mother and her husband’s vicious behavior.

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My partner said he had heard and witnessed quite a lot over the years, but he’s at the point where he can’t be in their presence any longer.

He’s a calm and patient person. I knew he was done.

After the episode, my sister (who wasn’t present) stopped responding to my attempts to contact her.

I decided to have nothing more to do with any of them.

I don’t know what my sister has been told, but I don’t care anymore.

Amy, I feel free. With each passing month, I feel lighter. I’m convinced that never being in contact with them again is the best thing for me.

My problem is that I don’t know what to say to people who don’t know we’re estranged when they ask me how they are. What should I say if people ask about our estrangement?

So far I just say, lightly and without any drama, that I don’t want to talk about them.

Do you have better suggestions?

Dear Fancy Free: Congratulations on your liberation. Your family of origin seems to present genuine dangers to your own mental and emotional health.

The fact that you are so concerned about how to describe this estrangement to others means that you’re still working through your choice.

You don’t need to explain or describe your situation. When people ask you about your family members, you can say, “I haven’t seen them in a while. Honestly I don’t know how they are.”

If people dig for reasons, you can say, “I just needed to take a break. That’s all. But you should get in touch with them. I bet they’d like to hear from you.”

Dear Amy: I was diagnosed with cancer six months ago. I’m in treatment.

Many people near and far know this. (Fewer know about my recent bout with COVID and my slow recovery.)

My job was eliminated during the pandemic, but some friends, relatives, and former co-workers have not said a single word to me during this time.

Others were supportive at first but have been very quiet in recent months.

Is it ever OK to express my hurt, particularly to family members I’ve listened to in the past? I’m really disgusted at this point.

Dear Sick: It is always OK to tell people how you feel, as long as you don’t attach specific expectations to their response.

But before expressing your disgust or disappointment, you could ask for what you want: “I’m still struggling through my cancer treatment and could really use some support right now. Are you available to take me to my chemo treatment next week?”

The American Cancer Society (cancer.org) has a database of support groups.

Other people going through this could commiserate and provide emotional support and advice.

Dear Amy: “Mother of the Groom” says she wants to be a good mother-in-law, while criticizing every choice her son’s fiancee was making with their wedding.

She should follow the advice of my mother-in-law: Mind your own business.

For the last 45 years, my MIL has never criticized or commented on anything.

Her position is that she has enough to worry about without taking on my or my wife’s stuff. Believe me, Amy, I’ve given her plenty to complain about.

We just celebrated my MIL’s 85th birthday, and I toasted her saying that she had first the kindness and secondly the wisdom to allow my wife and me to make our own way, for which I am forever grateful.

To Mother of the Groom: It’s not your wedding! So let the woman who hopefully will spend the rest of her life with your son have the wedding she wants.

Dear Grateful: This is a touching tribute to a very wise mother-in-law.

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