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  • Danusia Atkinson

"Beloved Brother and Archnemesis"

When your family is both the “beloved brother and archnemesis” – Harry, William and the pain of sibling estrangement.

Wherever you have been in the last few months, you will have no doubt been aware of the difficulties within the royal family. It seems as if Prince William and Prince Harry’s relationship has completely broken down and no doubt both sides have some complicated feelings about the reasons why. For many people watching this public sibling battle will have brought about reflections on their own families. Many who are estranged from a sibling may find themselves wondering what will happen next once the fighting ends. For some, they know that after the fight, what is left is often grief. When a family member is estranged, however angry with them we may be, we should expect an experience of grief. The question is how do we grieve for someone when they are still alive?

Traditionally within bereavement therapy, there has been the assumption that closure will be achieved. This idea is often repeated culturally and socially- we are expected to come to terms with our loss and move on. We now know that often grief is about finding a way to maintain some kind of continuing link with the person we have lost, we don’t expect the pain to disappear and we have to work hard to create a new relationship with the person we have lost. Freud believed that those who struggled to achieve closure were stuck in melancholia, what we would now call complicated grief. The world of bereavement counselling recognises complicated grief as when the grief appears to be so intense that it prevents a person from being able to function- they seem unable to move forward. Being stuck in complicated grief causes great distress. We might be stuck in great sorrow, unable to focus on anything but our loss, numb, bitter or isolated. Complicated grief leaves us at risk of mental health problems, substance abuse, anxiety and other issues.

Estrangement is different from death but it is a loss. It is an open-ended, confused and painful loss. In many ways, it is an especially complicated loss. First, it is confusing- we might not fully understand the estrangement, it may have been sudden and not our choice. Humans strive to understand our experiences but often estrangement isn’t clear. Second, the reorganisation that we might do after the loss of someone is prevented- how does Harry learn to be a royal on his own when there is the possibility of being back within the family at some point? Thirdly, there are no rituals to recognise this loss, there is no funeral and social stigma often prevents those who are estranged from gaining support. Finally, the psychological work to do is lengthy, sitting in the uncertainty of the estrangement and experiencing those strong feelings can lead to exhaustion.

Pauline Boss, author of “Ambiguous Loss, learning to live with unresolved grief” argues that complicated grief is actually a normal response to ambiguous loss as it is so challenging. Learning to live with ambiguous loss is complicated but can be done. Instead of the linear approach to grief, Boss suggests a number of ways to help find a way to live with ambiguous loss. I will explore these more in future blogs but they are:

1. Finding a way to make meaning of the loss,

2. Challenging and working with our human wish for certainty,

3. Redefining our identity after loss,

4. Sitting with uncertainty;

5. Revising our continuing relationship with whomever we have lost and

6. Finding new hope.

With some psychological work, we can redefine our experience of loss, learn from it, understand ourselves more and with support, find a new, more hopeful way forward. If you are struggling with family estrangement or any ambiguous loss, you can also reach out to a professional counsellor who can help you provide support. You can contact me for counselling, online or in person in Sevenoaks, Kent via the “Contact Me” section of this website. To find out more about the therapy that I offer, please do look at the rest of my website.

Boss, P “Ambiguous loss, Learning to Live with Unresolved Grief” Harvard university press: London 1990

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