Ms. Wright, however, mourned her father and felt “great sadness” less for the man he was than for the loving parents she never saw. “You mourn for that. The childhood you never had, the mother you never had, the father you never had. “
Funeral directors also face their own challenges when someone dies alienated, said Kari Northey, a funeral director in Wayland, Michigan, with 18 years of experience. She’s seen unattended funerals and their aftermath. “Every funeral home has a shelf of unclaimed ash. Unused people become a bigger situation. Even if they pay to be cremated, they never ingest the ashes. “
Ms. Northey encourages those who have become estranged from a loved one in death “to take a moment to look fondly at that person. That one good moment is what you grieve. Everyone is a glimmer in someone’s eyes at some point. At some point in your life you were a good person. “
Seeing a body or a coffin is helpful, she added. “Seeing is believing. If you don’t get that, it can hold back a lot from what you have to work through.” But when a disgruntled relative paying for a funeral refuses entry, “we end up being gatekeepers,” said Ms. Northey. “We sometimes have to be the person who inflicts injuries. We keep saying no when we want to say yes.”
Even if vaccinations help contain the pandemic, hundreds of patients still die from Covid every day, often alone. Dr. Pillemer suggested that hospice workers, chaplains, doctors, and palliative care workers ask everyone, “When was the last time you saw your child, sibling, or parent?”
He added, “There has to be professional training because nobody wants to talk about alienation. We need more professional awareness and education. There is great silence on the subject. “
Joshua Coleman, a private practice psychologist and senior councilor on Contemporary Families, suggested finding a way to “understand these conflicting feelings.” His new book “Rules of Estrangement” is a guide for parents whose adult children have cut them off, the most common pattern of alienation, he said.