Beyond Small Talk

How to Talk to a Relative You’re Estranged From

Each interaction is part of a bigger process of acceptance

Harriet Brown
Published in
5 min readNov 21, 2019


Illustration: Heeje Min Heo

This story is part of How to Talk to Anyone, Forge’s guide to moving past the chitchat and truly connecting.

MyMy relationship with my mother was traumatic and dysfunctional and, I’m convinced, nearly killed me. When I finally cut her off, three years before she died, my life improved dramatically.

But any estrangement has its collateral damage — and in my case, going no-contact with my mother meant giving up the rest of my family, too. My father and I had been close when I was growing up, but as things with my mother deteriorated, he made it clear he would always take her side. My sister also distanced herself: I wanted her to see that I wasn’t the villain of the story, that our mother had done some terrible things, that I had legitimate grievances and feelings. She, understandably, just didn’t want to get caught in the crossfire.

When my mother died, it was a new chapter for the three of us — my father, my sister, and me. Together, we had to figure out how to move forward, a process that turned out to be a lot rockier than I’d anticipated. Eventually, though, it did happen. We rebuilt our relationships, this time on our own terms. And along the way, I learned four crucial lessons.

Be prepared to start slowly

Once my mother died, I wanted to jump right back into a relationship with my dad. Sure, there were things we needed to work through, but once upon a time, we’d been simpatico, and I missed him. I reached out with an email. I was ready to start over, I said.

He wasn’t.

Returning my email, he said he was in therapy, and working on figuring out if he even wanted me in his life. “You can’t just wave your hand and forget 25 years of things that happened,” he wrote.

I was crushed. And angry. And shocked that he thought I was the one who’d wronged him, rather than the one who’d been wronged.

But I held all of that in. I told him I understood his feelings, though that was more aspirational than true — I wanted to understand. And I wanted a chance to…



Harriet Brown
Writer for

Science writer and storyteller. I wrote Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement, Body of Truth, and Brave Girl Eating. I teach Magazineland @NewhouseSU.