My Family Died in a Fire

Not an actual fire. No real burning, or physical death (that I am aware of). But my family is gone, they have been for a decade now. We are forever estranged.

With deep respect to those who lost loved-ones in fires, this is how I describe the loss to myself, because most people don’t regard estrangement as a permanent, irreparable loss - which it is for me. There is an air of distrust and suspicion that surrounds estrangement, leaving people like myself cloaked in type of shame — grieving silently.

There is no Hallmark for “sorry your parents and sibling think life is better without you, and your children.”.

It has taken me ten years to come to terms with my ability to alter the situation ( I can’t ). I have a tight set of articulate responses when people ask about my family. For newer people, I just lie. I say they live far away, for those who are closer I say something Pinterest’y like “Every family has cracks, but crisis shatters the picture”. Which is true actually.

Crisis in my life was near-death giving birth to one of our children, and her diagnosis at 10 weeks later with cancer. But I am not writing to tell the story of that traumatic crisis, or the specific cracks in our relationships that shattered as a result. I’m not even interested in sounding right, or appearing wronged. I’ve overcome the need for justice, it’s impossible and exhausting.

In ten years, misunderstandings, truths and lies intertwine into single perspectives that allow us to live separately. Wounded but walking.

I wondered if I really had anything helpful to give to those those on a similar journey. What advice could I offer someone new to this grief cycle — when I have failed to fight my way back through the flames?

I guess I would say, once in a while, let yourself feel sad, and even angry let it wash over you, and then stand up, and carry on. Holidays, birthdays , passings— life events are triggers and they always will be. Grieve. This is why I use the fire analogy because, because estrangement is loss. It’s loss for the future you imagined.

I certainly never thought my children wouldn’t know their grandparents. Grief respects what you’ve lost, and the emotion you’ve spent trying to make things right: with others, with yourself, with the world.

I would also say accept where you are now. This isn’t to say — give up hope, but to give yourself permission to rest. Take in the opportunity of now, to heal as best you can. If you decide to reach out, sleep on it — desperation to fix the pain can actually compound it. Move. Find perspective from the top of a long hike, on horseback, rainy walk or climbing wall.

Write. Once in a while I will write letters I never send. Maybe that’s a weird one for others, but for me it’s taking something back I lost which was sharing stories. Specific observation I know they would appreciate before the fire. I tell them their grandaughter is 10 years cancer free…

Embrace the ‘you’ other see. So, I lost my parents and my sibling. Imagine how horrible I must be for that to happen. It’s easy to let this lens dictate your entire worth. You might believe that people connected to your family (extended relatives, friends) have the same opinion. They don’t, and don’t lose them because of this wrong assumption. I believe in the image my aunt, mother in law, and a host of other women in my life show me I am . This is a place of strength, of perspective and healing.

Hold people close. Respect yourself and trust others — believe they can love you with whole hearts, as family you make along the way.

Volunteer. Throw yourself into a cause that connects you with others who share your values and interestes. Mentor, and seek mentorship.

The mindset that “my family died in a fire”, gives me perspective on what people would want to know. They wouldn’t ask how hot the fire was, who lit the match, or ask what the fire felt like. The would want to know how we’re coping, and understand the loss. It’s hard, I won’t lie, but it helps keep the ashes cold; I leave out the details the fire as well— so my can grow up without feeling they have to be resentful on my behalf.

Flares come when you least expect, and there is no roadmap that help you cope with estrangement. I learned, just last month, that my sibling has been married for two years , and has son — my nephew. I cried. And then I go back to accepting where I am right now.


There’s no better way to explain that limbo than this line from “How it feels to lose both parents while they are still alive

“Someday, when I’m in a meeting or at the supermarket shopping for dinner, the call will come. The person on the other end of the telephone will tell me that my mother and father are dead, or at least very close, and that’s when I’ll know. The moment when one path is closed to me, and estrangement transforms into loss, that is when I can be certain if I made the right decision to let the relationship (and the attendant complications) go gentle into that good night. Only when there’s a body count will there be an absolute right or an absolute wrong.”

‘Playing with Fire’ Image CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Vic