Advice from someone who?s been there ? and some tips for healing and thriving
Photo by Karl JK Hedin on Unsplash
When an adult child walks out of your life ? with or without an explanation ? it sends you packing down a dark and treacherous path with no light, no map and no support. You have now been banished to the outer darkness that has only ever haunted your worst nightmares.
Welcome to life as an estranged parent. No one ever starts their parenting journey with the idea that some day they will lose this precious child to estrangement. No one ever sets out as a parent with the purpose of harming their child in any way. And yet, even really good parents make mistakes that wound their children. There?s no way around it unfortunately. It is a consequence of being human.
Most of the time, we can quickly recognize where we have gone wrong and respond in a manner that will heal the wound and repair the tear. But, sometimes, we do something innocently enough and never realize that it was the thing that caused our child to walk away from us. What we saw as insignificant was not so insignificant for them.
We are left to wonder what went wrong. This is a special kind of torture. It causes us to question everything we ever did, every word we ever said, every time we failed to be the parent we meant to be. We beat ourselves senseless for the mistakes we made ? real or imagined. We plunge into a deep abyss of self-loathing. We are being held there by not knowing what we did wrong.
The really hard part of all this is there are very few people who can relate to what we are going through. While family estrangements are common, no one talks much about it. That?s because of the element of shame that comes with being alienated from our child. It is easy for others to judge us when they know this little bit of information about us, so we tend to keep it to ourselves.
Judgement from others
To make it worse, some people are very willing to point the finger at us and accuse us of being horrible parents ? otherwise our child would not have walked away from us. This just adds salt to the wound, because we already believe that.
Since I have begun to write about my own estrangement from my youngest daughter, I have triggered quite a few angry responses from women (and men) who are estranged from their own mothers. Because of their experiences, they cannot believe there is ever a time when a mother (or father) doesn?t deserve the alienation because of some terrible abuse. They seem to be unable to imagine that anyone would walk away from their parent for any other reason than they were a horrible parent (which translates to being a horrible person.) They share with me that their mother is toxic, and by association, assume that I am toxic to my own daughter, too. Their words are like sharp spears in my heart.
In the end, their fierce response is not about me, it?s really about their own experience and their very real pain. There is so much pain surrounding the decision to walk away from a parent. I see and acknowledge that. But I can only take responsibility for the pain I caused my daughter, I can?t take responsibility for their pain, too. I cannot internalize the judgement of others. As you know very well, I don?t need others to point out my faults to me. I have been meticulously cataloging them from the day my child walked away.
You are not your mistakes
I believe that children can walk away because of misunderstandings, because of circumstances beyond a parent?s control, because the parent made some mistakes that they never intended. But this does not always translate into ?the parent is a despicable human being.? There are a lot of good people in the world who have made big mistakes. You are not the mistakes you made. You are a worthy human being.
You have the choice to learn from your mistakes and be ready to offer your child your willingness to listen to them and make reparations in whatever way you can ? provided they give you the opportunity. Until then, look at yourself with honesty but stop beating yourself up.
I see your pain ? and I am offering you a hand of support
My purpose in writing this is to assure you, as a parent who is also alienated from her child, you are not alone. I have been walking this path for over 8 years now. I have left some markers for you, and I know where the pitfalls are. I want to help you along the path, to be the hand you can reach out and hold when things get really hard. I have not had that kind of support, and I know how valuable it would have been for me as I navigated this scary journey alone.
Steps toward finding peace
Here are my best tips for finding a sense of peace even though you have lost your child to estrangement.
1. Stop telling yourself things are not supposed to be this way.
I remember the day I heard myself wailing, ?It?s not supposed to be this way!? A quiet voice within me answered, ?Who says?? That shut me up and made me sit up and pay attention. Wait a minute. It had never occurred to me that there was any other way to see it.
When I began allowing space in my thinking for the idea that there is no document somewhere that guarantees that a parent-child relationship will last forever, I began to relax a little more with the way things really are.
We keep ourselves stuck when we tell ourselves that things are not supposed to be the way they are. Especially when we have no power to change them. If we can see that there are no promises in life, especially when it comes to human relationships, we can begin to accept that the way it is, is just the way it is. Acceptance is the first step toward healing.
2. Remember that you always did the best you knew how to do.
Babies do not come with instruction books. We parent with a combination of the way we were raised, the popular child-rearing books of the day, the advice of other parents (this can be dangerous!) and our own personality. We manage to keep them alive somehow, and we do the best we can to get them to adulthood as functioning human beings.
In between the baby stage and adulthood, there a million ways for us to screw up, and most of us do, quite often. It?s the consequence of being human and of being given an ominous responsibility without the least amount of training. The mistakes you made are the mistakes you made. Forgive yourself and move on. (You will have to do this over and over again.) You are not perfect. Neither is your child. It?s what we are working with. You are still doing the best you can do.
3. Maybe it isn?t your fault at all.
Losing a child is a traumatic experience. It involves anger, grief, shame and despair. It is not something that any of us ever see coming. We fear it is our fault. We lose our sense of self-worth and spiral into a pit of self-loathing. We are afraid that we really are horrible human beings who deserve to be punished in perpetuity.
But the longer I walk this path, and the more I hear from other parents and adult children who have estranged themselves, the more I realize that there are a million moving parts in a parent-child relationship, not the least of which is the child?s personality, temperament, and ability to navigate difficult emotions. Many times, an adult child will make the decision to cut off a parent because it is easier than doing the hard work of making the relationship work. While the parent may share some of the blame, the child is an adult, and certainly can be held responsible for their part, as well.
Your child may want to make this all about you, but you are only half of the equation here. Be willing to accept your part in the break, but know that it is not all you. Your child may never be willing or able to come back and work at rebuilding your relationship, but all you can do is own your part, forgive yourself and move on with your life.
4. Focus on all the good in your life.
If you can, look up from your grief and allow yourself to see the joy that is still there. You may think you will never feel joy again, but you will. It is all around us every day, in the form of people who love us, the beauty of music, nature, and art, and great food and laughter. And this is just the short list.
Do the things that nurture you. Spend time with the people who are in your life. Find a way to give back to others. Volunteer. Share your love with those who need it. Create new relationships. Learn something new. Plan a vacation.
Basically what I am telling you is, you only have one life. You need to live it. You can thrive even when your child walks away. How do I know? Because I am thriving. I am living my best life and it just keeps getting better.
I will always hope for a reconciliation. I have even seen my daughter at a family gathering recently, for the first time in 8 years. The way I know that I have healed is that this experience did not trigger grief, even though she refused to make eye contact with me. Whether or not she ever comes back into my life, I know that I am going to be okay.
I know it?s hard. What you are going through is every parent?s nightmare. But you can find peace and learn to live your best life. I am cheering you on, as I run ahead dropping breadcrumbs on the trail. You are going to make it ? I know you are.
Losing My Daughter When She?s Still Alive
Navigating estrangement without losing myself, too
Beth Bruno is a writer trying to make sense of the world as she sees it. She lives by the mantra ?If not now, when?? She believes there is always joy to be found in our ordinary lives. And she believes in second chances. Anything is possible in this world filled with miracles.