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When the Bond of Family Is Broken

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Michelle Golland:How do people recover from a broken relationship (or I should say, "a break in relationship")? This means basically that someone in the relationship has decided to walk away, totally and completely. When the ties that bind us together as a family are shredded and on the ground, what is the one left holding the pieces to do? In my practice, I've worked with grandparents who are estranged from their grown children and their grandchildren. The intense pain of loss, confusion and anger is at times unbearable for them.


The parents in these cases have no shortage of issues, but in general have been loving and devoted parents. In our culture today, it's very easy to cut parents out of one's life, because the value on family and community has lessened so greatly that the need to tolerate certain negative behaviors by parents and grandparents has become obsolete. Generations ago, grandparents were just naturally a part of children's lives, and one's family was tightly connected to the larger community as well. Today, there may have been a divorce, a move across country or a disagreement that has made a relationship seem impossible to navigate.

We don't have solid numbers on estrangements in families, because family members are often ashamed to discuss these issues openly and honestly. It's not only happening in families where there is serious abuse or drug and alcohol issues, either: What seems to be happening more often is that a seemingly close relationship has deteriorated over built-up resentments or other conflicts (such as issues over money or a parent's divorce or remarriage).

For many parents who are estranged from their older adult children, it can feel like they are living in a nightmare. It is important to be patient with yourself and your child. You must also remember that you each have different experiences of the same incident or issues. Even if you as a parent believe you were doing something out of love and concern, that doesn't mean it was experienced by your child that way.

I find that clients have given up too soon on the relationship and really don't know what to do or say to start the reconciliation. I tell them that this may take time, and we have no guarantees how our outreach to estranged children will be received -- but that I believe the effort of trying to reconnect is key to the healing of the individual left holding the shredded pieces. The person who is making the effort to reconnect at least is able to feel they have tried with love and dignity to be in their child's life. If no effort is made, I believe it leads to a further deepening of depression.

I advise my clients to send e-mails, letters and gifts to their estranged children and/or grandchildren on special occasions (i.e., birthdays and holidays). Even in the face of rejection, leaving messages of love and availability is crucial to breaking down the wall of anger and disconnect that the adult child is feeling. If there have been disagreements and hurt feelings, it's important that the parent be generous in taking responsibility for past mistakes.

I often remind my clients that this is not about being "right" or "winning." It's about spending time and connecting with your child. Keeping the goal in sight is key in dealing with all the pain and sadness that comes with total estrangement. The goal is reconnection. The repair of a relationship will take patience, fortitude and many loving and forgiving conversations between both parties.

I have heard the overwhelming joy in the voice of one client when she and her son were able to define a new relationship. Her patience and commitment to achieving that end was inspiring.

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