The void: Feel it or fill it?

moving on after an adult child's estrangementBy 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?

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5 thoughts on “The void: Feel it or fill it?

  1. Ellen

    my son ask my husband and I to rent a house from him he was thinking of buying , in another town from where his house was .which was fine as him and his stepfather didn’t get along much. He my son has a really bad gambling problem ,also found it hard to go to work .so after throwing in his job, he gambled all his money away that was put on both houses. He had no worries with money for a couple of years.than he became such an angry man. he treated us with no respect at all. So we were forced to leave, or put up with abuse, so we left ….. But the abuse is worse. he has blamed us because it’s our fault he is losing his house, because we left. we were paying rent on the house, but when he left his job he just moved in with us and took over like we were the kids. now that they are about to take his house God knows the abuse we will get

  2. LessonsLearned

    After my husband died ED’s father my ED asked my for money to make two
    house payments. This cost my 4,000. I them for her. Down the line I asked
    her to go with me to Church. It was my husband’s first birthday since his death.
    She wrote me an E-Mail saying no. She stated that I would understand. Right
    after sending this E-Mail she stopped talking to me. IT’S been 2&1/2 years since
    I have seen her or talked to her. Shunning someone without any explanation is
    abusive. Especially from your own children. I have to come to think it is my new
    normal. If someone shows you who they are Believe them. The only good to
    come from her shunning me it will no longer cost me any money. I hope that
    your son will not see this as an opportunity to abuse you or your husband. Please
    remember that any abuse from your son says more about him than it does you.

  3. Blackgirlmagic

    I guess the hardest thing to accept, is how we can birth and raise a person who is totally different then we are… I have let go of my ego and have learned acceptance, my girls are just different from me and they treat me in a way that I would never treat my mother, I knew she wasn’t perfect but loved her anyway…

  4. Debbie

    Both my daughters have been gone for 1 1/2 yrs. just now coming to grips. It got to me so bad been in hospital 3 times. We have to move on and handle our grief before it will kill us. Always remember the Lord is in control and He will see us through this.
    Much love.


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