By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
Often, parents who are moving on after an adult child’s estrangement tell me that once over the crushing hurt, they keep busy, and get along. But they also confide that sometimes they feel an uncomfortable void, and they wonder how to fill it.
Estrangement thrusts change upon us. The feeling these parents describe is similar to the feelings that are common in difficult times of transition and change: discomfort, restlessness, uncertainty.
I know that feeling. It’s as if your arms are left hanging open for an unreceived hug. What used to be the gentle lapping of water on the shores of a family with its natural ebb and flow is suddenly the wave that goes out and never returns. The son or daughter you love is suddenly a stranger, and your whole life—past, present, and future—has changed. It’s a landscape you don’t recognize. You can’t seem to get your footing or find your way.
Wanting to fill the void is normal. However, it may be wise to experience a void rather than rushing to fill it. Perhaps feeling the strange emptiness can even be beneficial. It’s helpful to reflect upon the many facets of the loss, and examine how you might handle the practical roles and situations your estranged child once fulfilled. In Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, I’ve provided a tool to help with this—as well as recognize what you’ve already accomplished. But when it comes to filling the emptiness with something else, not just anything old thing will do. Pause, reflect on your thoughts and feelings, and then act purposefully.
Why is the void so uncomfortable?
The obvious answer is feelings of anguish over the loss itself—of a dear son, or a daughter who lit up your life. But there could be underlying fears and anxiety, too. Is it the loss of an identity (as a mother, a father, a stepparent) that makes this extra frightening? We talked about that idea in: Who am I if I’m not a mother?
We love our grandchildren, and of course want to spend time with them. But in light of estrangement from adult children, it may help to look at the loss in another way. Maybe being so busy with grandchildren allowed you to ignore an old dream that you’ve always wanted to pursue, but are also a bit fearful of trying.
Or maybe the picture of retirement from a long career you valued, at least in part, for the security it provided your family, has suddenly changed. The time you imagined you’d spend teaching your grandchildren to hunt, to golf, or to take traveling has evaporated. What will you do with your hard-earned time off now?
Maybe without your son or daughter, you feel as if your life has been chopped off at the roots. Floating along feels like drifting toward uncertainty. Who knows what the future holds?
There’s no need to get stuck on this, or spend ages trying to figure out why experiencing this sense of a void is so difficult. But write out the thoughts that come to mind. If something resonates, explore it further—if you feel the need to. And then move on.
Moving on after an adult child’s estrangement:
New ways to think of empty space and time
Asking “why” you feel a certain way can help, but better questions stem from your intuition, build on the framework of your past, and make sense from your core self. Thinking of the quiet times, when the scary open sea of uncertainty, and the sprawling space and time make you feel sad, lost, and/or all alone, consider the reflection questions below. Feel free to alter them for your own benefit.
- How can you think of the void you feel in the quiet moments in a more helpful way? If the extra time had appeared for any reason other than your adult child’s estrangement, how would you view it?
- What could this feeling and situation be compared to? Can you describe this in terms of nature? In nature, forest fires that burn down trees let in sunlight. Dense dark woods can become meadows, filled with wildflowers. What can you gain from thinking of the void you feel in a similar way?
- What do you envision filling in this void in your life? What would feel right to you (that you have control over)?
- Is there a parallel in your past experiences that you could compare this to? What is there to learn that you can bring to this? For example, if you previously turned to comfort food and gained unhealthy weight, you know this could again be a danger for you. Steer clear.
Positive imagery: Steering you to something good
Giving a twist to what we view as feeling out of sorts or lost can make all the difference. A shift in perspective can shift everything.
Rather than not knowing where to turn, what to do, or how to fill the lonely gaping space, try a new thought. In moving on after an adult child’s estrangement, be open to possibilities and ripe for opportunities.
One woman recently sent me a message saying that she dearly missed her grandchildren. Since her adult child’s estrangement, she had earned an advanced degree and was now teaching at a college. Full of pride and enthusiasm, she acknowledged that she never had time to pursue those personal achievements when she was babysitting grandchildren. Her energy had been spent providing support for her adult child to build his career. Her support let him pursue his dreams—but left her with little time to follow her own. She now felt fulfilled, yet she still missed her grandchildren.
As this woman’s thoughts demonstrate, filling the void doesn’t necessarily mean you stop feeling the void. Just as other heartbreaks remain sad but don’t forever debilitate us, so it goes with a son or daughter’s estrangement (and the loss of relationships with grandchildren). Maybe we don’t fully “get over it,” but we get on with our lives. And our lives can be happy. I’m a testament to that fact, and so are many other parents who are moving on after an adult child’s estrangement.
Open to possibilities, and ripe for opportunities
Are you feeling lost and alone, with time suddenly gaping? Can you accept those feelings, explore them, and then think of them in a helpful way? Can you be open to a bright future that may be different than expected, but can still be good?