Estrangements… What Do We Do About Them? Barriers or Gates? 2/4

Earlier we looked at the concept of estrangement, particularly a separation from family or person with whom one has a close, familial connection and affection. We discussed the jarring nature of an estrangement, both from the perspective of one who separates themselves, but also particularly the perspective of the person who has been estranged. We also acknowledged the importance of boundaries in considering the nature of the estrangement how we should approach it.

Additionally, my caveat stands that the concept of estrangement is complex, with many causes, contributing elements, and cultural considerations that I will not pretend to fully address. My focus is upon the individuals, families, and genealogists who find themselves in the middle of an estrangement situation, either their own; of their extended family or friends; or of family or strangers we encounter in our research. There are considerations that apply across situations.

What would be the goal in approaching an estrangement? The actual, considered answer to this requires an expanded perspective and a lot of nuance, rather than a quick, easy answer. In fact, how each of us might answer this question, if we personally are in the middle of a current estrangement, would likely include a quick take, intense emotion, and potentially quite a lot of our personal perspective informed by our personal experience and our likely highly emotional reaction to our particular situation or set of circumstances.

Think about it. Would you think that two individuals who are estranged from each other would be in agreement about the cause and particular account of their estrangement? Or that it would be easy for them to sit down and hear the other’s side?

Wait, why am I even bothering with writing this? Maybe this is foolish. People should just remain mad, upset, and estranged, and forget about it. Move on. Writing about this is ridiculous.

But NO. It is NOT ridiculous. Estrangement hurts, and healing is important, even if it is just YOUR healing. We do live in community, and the more each of us can be open to others’ estrangement and be a voice of healing and comfort, the more the community can heal. The more the world can heal. Skills we learn in dealing with estrangement can help us resolve differences and conflicts, support each others’ boundaries, and help each of us to become healthy individuals living within healthy families and communities.

What follows are some considerations for approaching estrangement, either to heal, or to avoid furthering or continuing fracture.

We are humans, and humans are made to live in community. It should be generally considered that our families, for all their faults, love us and want the best for us.

If someone you respect and who cares about you has said something or done something you find hurtful, try to consider if there is some piece of information that you or they do not have. Why, possibly, could they have said or done what they did? More likely than not, one of you does not have all the data, or has misunderstood some of the data at hand to cause the miscommunication. It is always worth your while to go the extra mile to discover where the miscommunication may have occurred.

Be open to communication.

Be a good listener when the opportunity arises. This can be hard, because you may be in a position that you are being told things with which you do not agree, and which may sound false or outlandish to you. Fight the temptation to reflexively argue and express outrage, but rather, take a deep breath, take notes, listen. Try to find the grains of truth that may be in the statements you are being told.

Consider mediators or utilizing the assistance of a psychologist trained in conflict resolution or family dynamics and communication, especially if the other party reaches out to you.

Consider that you may be wrong, mistaken, or not hearing/understanding a very real issue being brought up by the other party. It may take a while to admit, address, or rectify, but it will be well worth the work. This is true of EITHER and/or ALL parties. Research and utilization of true experts can be helpful, as long as the parties are not just seeking confirmation of their opinions or biases.

It can be possible to hold more than one truth and find a way forward through compromise and collaboration. In other words, you may be right, and I may be right, at the same time.

Sometimes situations escalate to legal action by one or both parties Generally, it is better if the parties can avoid that step, since doing so can lead to decreased communication, and involvement of attorneys can increase likelihood of contentiousness. Still, legal action does not have to end badly, and one hopes mediation could be an alternate process to reach a resolution that would provide a path forward for the relationship.

I ascribe to a reformed Christian perspective, which, while affirming that boundaries and safety are important, strives for reconciliation where at all safely possible. Praying for the health, happiness, and healing of all parties, including those with whom you are feeling the most hurt and/or anger, is often hard, but an important step, not just for them, but for yourself. This active, prayerful perspective and practice is a PROCESS across time, and seeking spiritual support and encouragement can be helpful in accomplishing the practice. For those who are not Christian or even particularly religious, the concept is still viable and important, thinking of positive energy or healing, or good will and peace for all involved. The practice activates neural activity within us that we know will activate peaceful attitude, behavior, and communication with and from those around us, which can have an impact far beyond our immediate environment. Further, our more calm stance can allow a cognitive readiness for creative problem-solving that can help us find resolutions or difficulties, or at least openness to possibilities of healing. Research regarding mirror neurons affirms that how we activate and respond can impact reactions of others to us, and can help to keep us from negatively reacting internally to individuals engaging in dismissiveness or anger toward us. The power is undeniable, and it is within our reach, with practice!

From my experience, a hard stop or absolute decision to maintain estrangement forever should be an exceedingly rare decision or stance. It can be necessary if there is active, substantial, and dangerous abuse or evil intent, with no effort by the other party to seek help or respect reasonable boundaries. If the other person loves you, the motivation to change, listen, or move forward in growth can be high, assuming the individual has the ability to do so. Sometimes change takes a long time; sometimes hurt takes a long time to process; sometimes pride is a difficult thing to address and swallow, especially to try to see the other’s point of view/hurt/need for individuation, or working out previously unknown or unseen information. When we give the other person the time and space, it can be hard for us to not be impatient and judgmental about our perception that they should already accept/understand/get with the program.

Acceptance? What does that even mean? In the context, acceptance is a deep breath, a being okay that things are where they are, for now. If an estrangement is a new occurrence, we may find ourselves working diligently for estrangement to end. When efforts are blocked or ineffective, for our own health we can move to a cognitive balancing point, that while estrangement is not what we want, neither is resolution immediately possible or within our control. Rather than actively fighting against or railing against the estrangement, the state of acceptance is a place holder that things are the way they need to be for now, even if we do not like it. Coming to acceptance is not an easy journey, but the destination is worth it.

Recently, I had an opportunity to hear Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow speak about his book In Defense of Kindness. He addressed estrangement and boundaries, and until he spoke, I did not realize that my default view of estrangements was a focus upon the hurt the estrangement causes those from whom one is estranged, not giving enough weight, perhaps, to those who make the choice to distance themselves. Bruce spoke of honoring the boundaries another may set, even if we do not understand or agree with with the boundary. He also referred to the fluidity of the state of estrangement. Estrangement may be the current status, but it might change or resolve later, or move in phases. The same fluidity applies to boundaries we set with others. Depending upon our growth, situation, needs, and perceptions of others’ behavior and our ability or energy to deal with it, we may change how firmly we hold our boundaries or where we choose to place them.

I am grateful for the opportunity to see estrangement and acceptance as a process. People are complicated, life is complicated, and we can only deal with what we are handed. That is, by ourselves, we can only do so much to impact an estrangement. Yet our action and inaction are not unimportant. As we will see in our next segment, harmony vs disharmony as stances have a ripple effect, potentially for generations to come.

–William Williams 2023

Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., Dr. Jon, The Healing Power of Mindfulness. Hachette Books, 2018.

Reyes-Chow, Rev. Bruce, In Defense of Kindness: Why It Matters, How It Changes Our Lives, and How It Can Save The World. Chalice Press, 2021.

Siegel,M.D. Dan, Intraconnected: MWe (Me + We) as the Integration of Self, Identity, and Belonging (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W Norton & Co., 2022.

Estrangements… What Do We Do About Them? Barriers or Gates? 1/4

An estrangement feels like a chasm that cannot be bridged. Photo–All Rights Reserved.

The longer you live, and/or the longer you are a genealogist, the more likely you are to encounter an individual who has become estranged from their family of origin. How we think about estrangement impacts how we proceed. The difference we can make in the lives of others and/or their descendants can be profound, for better, or for worse. I want to challenge your ideas about estrangement and ways to move forward, not only for the benefit of those you encounter in your genealogy work, but also through your extended families, your friends or colleagues, and possibly for your family of origin and yourself.

Note: This article combines the scores (surely a hundred and more) of examples which I have experienced mostly in my professional and genealogical lives with a smattering of personal experiences. If you think you specifically recognize my examples, I think you do not, and I would refer you to the song “You’re So Vain…You Probably Think This Song Is About You,” Carly Simon, 1971. It’s worth a listen, anyway!

After walking alongside many, many individuals on all sides of estrangement, I feel I have been given a perspective that is worth sharing. Still, I certainly do not know everything. As we talk about estrangement, I will not address the issue of abduction or kidnapping followed by indoctrination, which would be a more specific sort of estrangement by individuals experiencing a unique form of victimization. Rather this article is to address estrangements by individuals who act of their own volition, although it is possible that there is a gray area that blurs the two distinctions. This is particularly true in cultures in which there is limited free press and there are fascistic elements meant to divide communities and families for political or economic benefit of those in power, or cultures that practice significant oppression of women or minorities as a matter of course.

Additionally, there are aspects, causes, and impacts of estrangement that others have experienced that I have not addressed in this piece. The fact that I have not addressed all types and circumstances is testament to my point that the issue of estrangement is quite broad, with many unique circumstances and factors, yet issues and perspectives for coping, approaching, and addressing can be useful across the variants.

In this first in a series of 4 installments, I will talk about the concepts of estrangement vs. boundaries and the different ways people may experience them. In subsequent installments, we will look at how we address estrangements, based upon our situation; the concept of multigenerational trauma and its impacts; and genealogists as potential agents of change and healing.

As humans, we are meant to connect with each other. Photo by Charlotta Fay Williams. All Rights Reserved.

As a child, my parents told me that I had a cousin, with whom my older cousins, aunts, and uncles had at one point been very close, who had married in another state hundreds of miles away; and who had basically ceased contact with his parents. “It was because his wife did not like…” something, I was told. I was too young to remember this older cousin, but I still felt impact of the break. I loved my aunt, and I could not imagine her pain of being separated from her son. My family was close, I thought.

My family was so close that later when my brother was overseas on peacetime duty in the military, I imagined that he was very lonely all the time, so much did I miss him. How could he stand being away from all of us who love him, especially during holiday celebrations? I later came to understand that his overseas experience, for him, was fun, liberating, and an adventure. But, of course, he was not estranged; rather, he was still connected to the family by phone and letter, and many years later he would return to live near his family of origin. I underscore that the notion of true estrangement from family seemed rare and almost unexplainable to me for many years.

Now, as an adult, I have an expanded view of estrangement. Work experiences and connections, family experiences, and dealing with my personal reactions to estrangement inform my perspectives. My writing is to encourage readers to open their hearts and perspectives in their understanding of individuals and/or families experiencing estrangement. Almost assuredly, in the course of genealogy one will come across individuals impacted in some way by estrangement, either directly or indirectly, from prior generations Your sensitivity to these individuals and their imminent or remnant pain and loss can prove validating, affirming, and possibly healing in ways you may never know.

Estrangement is defined as alienation, or a separation from family or social contact and affection. Typically, estrangement is unexpected and unwanted by those from whom an individual becomes estranged. The estrangement also can be unexpected and unwanted by those estranging themselves from their loved ones. While there can be similarities and generalities across cases, there are many individual, unique situations. Others have written extensively about estrangement, so I do not present a scientific or complete analysis of the phenomenon here, but underscore from a personal perspective the wide array of individuals’ experiences, viewpoints, and responses and ways we can respond appropriately.

Healthy Boundaries

Before we talk about estrangement, it is important to say a word about boundaries. We should all have boundaries, which we might define as spaces to give ourselves authority over our choices, beliefs, whom we marry, career choices, money and living choices, and how we rear our children. Cultures vary in terms of how, when, and how much independence we give our children and family members. It is typical that adolescent transition to adulthood is fraught with tension with parents regarding setting these boundaries, discussing them, and respect for them. We always hope that children and their adults work their way through these tensions. Sometimes they do not, or sometimes they do not until later in life. Happily, most families develop an ability to set boundaries effectively, parents with children and adult children, and siblings with each other. Not having a large immediate family of origin, I was always amazed watching friends who would spar with their siblings, particularly in large families; declare they were *done* with them; then a few months later or less, have worked out their differences, carrying on as best friends. Sometimes this meant not discussing certain topics, or agreeing to disagree, but they seemed to find areas of commonality and community to continue the relationships. Finding ways to set boundaries and make them work across time is an ongoing process of families, friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

A recent observation regarding boundaries is the importance of being allowed to grow and change one’s mind, goals, and opinions. There is a remarkable tendency, perhaps especially in today’s era of online presence, to assess others and hold them *accountable* for their actions, statements, and even identity, chastising any change in position. As an example, I have known individuals who decide to become physically fit; modify to a healthful diet; and implement an active lifestyle, receive huge negative blowback and obstacles from their family members and friends. Derision at family meals; accusations (unfounded) of having an eating disorder; and harsh, critical statements can be crushing, as though designed to force the individual back into the depressed, ill, unhealthful state where they began.

If you are the one setting boundaries for yourself, especially if you are striking a position that may be different from what others expect, it is good to know that there is a somewhat normal, though often frustrating, societal pressure to keep you where folks are accustomed to experiencing you. Seek support, as you need, from those who will give you positive support, even seeking professional help as an option. If, on the other hand, you find yourself feeling uncomfortable, possibly envious, that someone in your sphere is seeking to set a path that is different from your expectations and is setting boundaries to achieve their goal, avoid criticism. Recognize that seeking to give others the space to change and grow is not always easy…partly because their changes probably cause us uncomfortable re-evaluation of our beliefs and actions?

Individuals whose loved one has become estranged–

A fairly total block of communication and connection was my first exposure or experience to estrangement, as I mentioned in my opening, with my beloved family member in pain due to distance from a beloved son. Across time, I became aware of many complex situations that cause fractures in relationships.

  • An adult child with severe mental illness, off medication, who suddenly disappears from the community and discontinues contact for months at a time
  • A divorced parent being (in this case) almost certainly falsely accused of child abuse by an avenging and unstable ex-spouse involved in a custody dispute, resulting in the child being restricted from seeing the parent, sometimes for years
  • Siblings experiencing anger and disagreements resulting from parental divorce, death, remarriage, or addiction
  • Individuals whose child, sibling, or parent marries an individual with significant mental health issues, diagnosed or undiagnosed

In the listed situations, disagreements, misunderstandings, differences of opinion may be magnified to the point of rupture. In other cases, actual or perceived acts of injustice, uncaring, or breaches of trust have occurred. In some situations, distorted thinking such as paranoia or thoughts of persecution are part of the picture, negatively impacting the ability to deal with others in a reality-based, rational manner.

Individuals who feel a need to set a boundary so firm as to estrange themselves from one or more family members or friends–

When one attempts to set a boundary, but their boundary is not respected or is continually breached, one may, in fact, need to establish a boundary that is so firm it is or becomes an estrangement. Here are examples of dire situations that would constitute a need for a break in a relationship:

  • Ceasing contact with a recurrently abusive relationship, with a spouse, parent, sibling, child, or other individual
  • Dealing with a parent who repeatedly inappropriately injects themselves into an adult child’s parenting, marital relationship, or career (even inappropriately calling the child’s boss to correct or advocate for the adult child)
  • Disconnecting from monetary influence of a parent or ex-spouse who is using money or control of trust fund to influence career, marital choice, or education plans, either to protect self or the interests of oneself or one’s dependent children
  • Needing protection from family members engaging in behavior considered harmful to the individual and the individual’s children, such as drug abuse; criminal behavior; argumentative, abusive and/or aggressive physical outbursts

Note that in some families, teenagers and even adult children may lack the ability to set an effective “normal” boundary with a parent, due to family dynamic; culture; or individual personality. In those cases, sometimes people feel a need to estrange themselves from their family in order to effectively individuate. One hopes that in time there will be a path forward to re-engagement with the family when newfound assertiveness and self-confidence, along with respect of the family members, can allow for reconciliation with appropriate boundaries set and enacted.

Bystanders, friends, and family members, many who know the individuals on both sides of the estrangement–

It is painful to watch and experience an unfolding or ongoing estrangement as a family member or friend of someone involved in a direct case of estrangement. Knowing how to react is tricky…there are potential repercussions that can negatively impact the situation. Here are some of the considerations:

  • Whether there is potential danger to you as a bystander, either emotionally or physically
  • How closely connected or related you are to either party
  • Likelihood that your emotional response to the situation, angry/hurt, and degree of reaction, could impact your judgement in responding effectively and with measure
  • Balancing your ability to be a conduit for reconnection vs. the risk of being a conduit of hurt or disinformation
  • A stance of either side accusing you of “taking sides” with the other… “either you are with me, or you are against me.


There are many issues, seen and unseen, that can impact or contribute to a stance of estrangement.

  • Trauma and loss, especially at an early age, particularly of a parent/sibling/child
  • Verbal, physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, either recognized or hidden, by anyone within or outside the sphere of the family or community
  • Differences in life circumstances including educational paths, economic opportunities
  • Decisions or experiences which lead to taking a different cultural path of the family of origin
  • Experiencing a reality that places one at odds with culture of origin, including sexual identity or orientation, career path, religious affiliation, and/or marital partner choice
  • Health issues across all spectrums, diagnosed and undiagnosed, resulting in a variety of needs and expectations, sometimes limiting abilities to respond and engage

Each of the above issues can be looked at through the additional lens of trauma. Consider that trauma is a unique event or series of events perceived by an individual as significantly threatening their lives or safety. Traumas have real, neurobiological impact, and the traumas are not always easy for others to see. As a consequence of trauma, victims may respond to situations or people in ways that are different from how they would normally respond. Trauma can affect victims in many ways, including how they respond to future events, physically and behaviorally. If you do not know that the other person with whom you share an estrangement divide is a trauma victim, regardless of where you sit on the estrangement divide, you will not understand how the trauma victim sees the situation in question. In other words, the person who initiated the estrangement may not know that the person from whom they are estranging is a victim of trauma; conversely, the family member or friend from whom the individual has estranged themselves may have an unseen or unrecognized trauma. Actually, both can be true simultaneously!

As Whitney Marris, Director of Practice and System Transformation at Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice1, has said, rather than wondering about the other person, “What is wrong with them?” consider thinking “I wonder what happened to them?” The latter perspective allows curiosity and an open stance to communicate rather than a closed or defensive stance.


I want to add another category– disconnection from family. It helps to see disconnection through the lens of genealogy. If you do DNA genealogy, you find that you have cousin “matches,” that is, people with whom you share DNA inheritance, many of whom you do not know, and many you do not even know yet how you are related– that is, which ancestral couples you share with each of these DNA-found cousins. As an example, let us say that a third cousin in my matches shares with me an ancestral couple who are 2nd great-grandparents to each of us. That means that our great-grandparents were siblings. Maybe those siblings were great buddies… so how in the world did this cousin and I become disconnected? Siblings may more away from each other, or their children may move away from the community or state, possibly moving across country. Kids often lose contact with their parents’ friends or cousins after the elders die, unless that family is in close proximity and the relationships are nurtured. Marriages, early deaths, remarriages, lack of things in common… lots of things can fracture the close bond of families, without their being an estrangement.

Adoption of a baby, of course, is a special case, but it also clearly is an example of how a person can lose all connection with biological family immediately, in most cases, historically. Early deaths of a parent and the family changes that follow also frequently can increase the likelihood of relatively early disconnection from extended family, such as first cousins. As generations move along, it becomes more typical to be disconnected from our 2nd and 3rd cousins. In many cases there are so many of them, and they have become much more geographically scattered.

Of course, any estrangement along the way most certainly will cause a disconnection of offspring of one family from the family of the other.

Through genealogy, reconnecting with a cousin who may be totally disconnected from any family, or from your line of the family, is an opportunity to proceed to reconnect. In these cases of disconnection, it is always good to be cautious that there could be an estrangement somewhere in the family tree that may need to be recognized and addressed in some way. In later blog installments, we will circle back around to genealogical disconnections and estrangements.

Next steps–

Truthfully, we may never know the cause of some estrangements, especially when the break is sudden, and the estranging individual does not share their concerns or reasons. It is a terribly hard place to sit, with huge emotional reactions, not knowing why, and not knowing what comes next.

In the next installment, we will talk about next steps… The main thing at this stage is not to give up hope, but also avoid doing anything, from your perspective, that would make a break. We cannot know the future. But a hopeful thought– it is true that estrangements sometimes do become resolved. A wise person recently reminded me that it takes two to reconcile… but in the meanwhile, as you wait and consider next steps, it is prudent to avoid making statements or engaging in activities that would drive a wider wedge or cause an irreparable break, if that is possible… see the boundary section above as you also protect yourself. accessed 3/2023

Finding the Mysterious Edgar Fay…an evolving story. Part 1

Coming into focus…


I look through a foggy window, peering to see the man on the other side. His last name was Fay. His wife knew him as Edgar Fay. None of the people who knew Edgar directly are alive today. Walter Dempsey Fay was the third child of Edgar and his wife Mellie. When Walter grew to adulthood and related family stories to his children, he described his father as a kind, loving man who was very fond of family. He also remembered him as a man who worked hard, even leaving home to find work during the depression, never to return home, presumed dead, though no body was ever found. Walter, his sister Rose, his brother James, and their mother were devastated. Walter and his siblings, all children when he disappeared, were convinced that surely their father was still alive. They all continued to look for clues about him, his heritage, and his fate, throughout their lives.

The clues for Edgar were few. They came from a few things told by Walter, prior to Walter’s death, and from the adult children of James. Here were the clues: Edgar Fay was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a fact he told his children over the years and that the children remembered. Prior to his marriage in Arkansas at 43 years of age to Mellie Burns, he did circus and rodeo work. The children, and later the grandchildren, avoided asking Mellie about Edgar over the years, not wanting to upset her. She died in 1973, taking her knowledge of Edgar, his past, the beginnings of their relationship, and his family with her. Among Mellie’s belongings left behind, there were no photographs, letters, diary, or writings by or about Edgar to give us guidance.

The path to find Edgar Fay has been long and adventurous. It involved interviewing family members for their memories as clues, DNA testing, and intensive traditional research and genealogy techniques. Eventually, I will write about the discovery process. But first, it is time to write about Edgar and his life. The desire to write has been strong, but until recently, the foggy window made it hard to see Edgar’s face, to understand him as a person. Recently, the window came ajar. As we gradually open the window further, we see Edgar as he begins to come into view. We still cannot see him fully, yet he is ready for us begin telling his story.

Over the next weeks, you will hear about Edgar’s heritage and youth, his young adulthood, and his married life and what may have been his demise. Thank you for coming along for the journey!