Abandoned parents’ reflections: Are you chewing?
By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
I’ve been gradually moving over the last several months, to a new home far away from the one where my husband and I raised our kids. On my most recent return to the blazing Southern California heat after a week away, I discovered that my little man-made pond had evaporated by half. And there, among the tangle of lily pads was an old friend: a plastic manatee I’d forgotten even existed had popped up from the depths.
Seeing its emergence from where it had somehow been buried beneath the surface, made me think of an old Simon & Garfunkel tune. The song starts out, “Hello Darkness, my old friend; I’ve come to talk with you again.” Those lyrics remind me of the way emotional pain can pop up and imprison abandoned parents in a looping reel of dark thinking. But is it wise to make an “old friend” of the stuff? When there’s no solution to a problem you keep going over and over and over, you’re ruminating. That sort of repetitive thinking carries the negative side effects of anxiety and depression.
The word “ruminate” derives from a centuries old Latin variant that means to “chew the cud.” This makes sense because “rumen” is the English word for the first of four stomachs found in animals that chew a cud. Multiple stomachs help cows and other ruminant animals to break down their diet of coarse grass. There’s a purpose to the process, which is the opposite of chewing the same old emotionally draining cud. That kind of chewing gets you nowhere.
A previous article covered the weepy days common to abandoned parents and how they can use them for good. Here, let’s look at your emotional cud from a new angle. Like Simon & Garfunkel’s old friend, darkness, has your rumination grown so familiar that it’s become a companion?
In the distress and uncertainty of an adult child’s rejection, ruminating can become a habit, and even bad habits are something we can count on when our world has gone topsy-turvy. If you’re in the habit of thinking negatively—when you’re trying to get to sleep, whenever friends talk about family fun, wherever you see grandparents with grandchildren, or there’s some other trigger that sets you off—maybe it’s time to recognize rumination for what it is, an emotional rut, and bid the old buddy good-bye.
Abandoned parents: Mindfully letting go
One of the first steps to letting go is recognizing when you’re holding on. That means noticing when your thoughts turn down that familiar alley. In Done With The Crying, there is detailed material toward recognizing and measuring how often dark thinking plagues you. Awareness is necessary to begin the practice of consciously letting rumination go.
It’s normal for our minds to want to chew on things that trouble us, but at some point, we must realize the cud is just old grass. As time passes, and with work that builds happiness, confidence, and fulfillment despite the pain, you can make sweet milk of your life despite estrangement. Even then, like an old wound that only bothers you in bad weather or when you’re tired or ill, the old cud of estrangement pain can pop up. Then what?
Seeing that manatee brought a spill of memories. After my son cut us off, building beauty in my garden became my therapy. Clearing weeds helped clear my head. Tending to things that bloomed helped me to bloom. Seeing the cycle of life echoed in plants and trees helped me see myself in new and resilient ways. But spotting that manatee rising from the depths where it had been caught and lurking brought back pain.
I sat on the garden wall, remembering how I’d worked my hands until they were as rough as sandpaper. In my vegetable garden, I had looked up with hope if a passing car sounded like my estranged son’s, and then hung my head and went back to my work. I remember uncovering ugly grubs in the soil and getting tricked by Fool’s Lettuce. That insidious weed sprouted as tender and soft as the sweet greens I’d planted, and eventually took the whole bed over, complete with thorny edges and thick roots that made the imposter impossible to pull. And, right or wrong, I found parallels in my son and those he’d chosen to go off with. Appearances can be deceiving. Those parallels were helpful to me at the time.
Tired from the long drive, as I sat on the garden wall, a misting of tears surprised me. The cute manatee had popped up from the depths, an old friend who tugged at memories and pain. I took a breath. The sky was still and blue. A mockingbird shouted an alarm call to guard its nearby nest. A trail of ants hugged the garden wall near my feet. Life moved on. That painful time was over. I was here and now. I didn’t need to chew the cud or talk with the darkness that was no longer my old friend.
Bobbing lightly in the pond fountain’s trickle, the manatee seemed to smile. I smiled too.