Ask Sheri McGregor
Q: Our adult child doesn’t want anything to do with us, his parents. He is in his 50s, and we have not tried to contact him. Recently, though, we learned that he is very sick. He has stage 4 cancer and is struggling physically, emotionally, and financially. Should we try to reach out to him?
A: The details in the email above have been edited slightly to make them more general in nature (to preserve privacy). Otherwise, it’s as received a few days ago. And it’s like many questions from parents who have been estranged from a son or daughter, often for many years, and then hear of an illness or other tragedy and wonder: Should we reach out?
When it comes to estrangement between parents and adult children, even the strongest inclinations of what is or feels right can involve complexities that make answers tough. That’s why it’s wise to reflect. Let’s explore this together.
Tragic news when an adult child doesn’t want anything to do with us: The “right” thing to do
For some, immediately making contact to convey how much they still care is the go-to option. However, every situation is unique. Ultimately, only you can know what is “right” for you—and even if you’d have immediately made contact in the past, over time, your feelings can change .
If you’re strongly inclined to reach out, do think about your adult child’s perspective. In Done With The Crying, I discuss how sending gifts might cause a son or daughter extra (and irritating) effort. For example, if they’re not typically home days, then sending something that requires signature isn’t thoughtful. Similarly, if a son or daughter is unwell or otherwise troubled or under stress, consider the effects of your contact.
I’m not suggesting that you can read minds but consider what comes up when you read the questions I’ve listed below. You may want to capture your thoughts by writing them out, so get pen and paper but don’t forget about your “gut.” Our bodies are innately intelligent yet many of us have spent much of our lives tuning out our own insightful physical sensations. So, before reading on, take a few breaths slowly in through the nose and let them out your mouth. Then close your eyes and imagine a channel of soft, radiant energy running up the center of your body that connects your belly, your heart, and your mind. There in your center, you feel every ripple of awareness, inside and out.
Here are the questions.
- How will hearing from me affect my estranged adult child’s mood?
- How will they immediately react?
- Will my reaching out be an added stress?
- Or will my continued love be comforting?
You may already have enough information now to decide what’s “right” for you? And yes, I’m putting the word, “right,” in quotes. That’s because for some, thoughts of reaching out at a time of tragedy derive from beliefs about unconditional love and the ideal that a parent is “always there” for a child. You may want to reflect on that idea, and determine what’s motivating you.
Reaching out: What doors are you possibly opening?
One father, Alfonso, has been estranged from his daughter for 12 years. When he found out she had hit rock bottom and was couch surfing after her divorce, he decided to get in touch. “It was a chance to mend fences,” he explains.
The night before he planned to drive 65 miles to the town where he knew she was staying with a cousin, he dragged out a box of old photographs that her mother (now deceased) had tucked away. As he looked through the images, forgotten memories leapt from the crevices of his mind. Horrible snippets of his daughter’s meanness, the heartaches and trouble she’d caused, and the way she’d ceaselessly taunted and belittled her mother. Their daughter’s marriage may have dropped the final curtain on their relationship, but the drama had been going on for years. She had put them through hell—and Alfonso had no evidence that she’d “grown out of” her old ways (which is what he and wife had told themselves would happen all through her tumultuous teens, twenties, and early thirties).
Alfonso was certain that his daughter’s past substance abuse, erratic behavior, and argumentative nature had caused her mother’s failing health. Later, he’d seen his wife through years of distress as she’d continued to try to mend the relationship and was rebuffed or ignored every time. His late wife had suffered several major illnesses. His daughter knew about these hospitalizations and surgeries yet had reached out only once—to accuse her mother of faking illness to get attention. Alfonso grieved his wife’s eventual death without his daughter’s presence or support. Until he looked through the old photos, he’d forgotten that at the funeral, he had watched the door, both hoping for and dreading her potential appearance. She hadn’t shown up.
Now nearing age 70, Alfonso knew he and his wife had done their best. He had he had only recently gained a semblance of peace. In the last year, he’d made a few friends and had rekindled his love of tinkering and had begun selling the antique lamps he repurposed into planters and bird feeders. During the busy season, he also still worked part time from the company he had retired from. Alfonso was somewhat contented, had things to look forward to, and enjoyed his life. When he reflected upon the turmoil, both before and after the estrangement, his chest tightened, and his stomach balled into a knot.
“I forgive my daughter,” he says. “But I’m just not willing to sacrifice myself for her anymore.” Alfonso once believed, “I’d never turn away one of my own.” Now, he knows he might have to.
For aging parents of adult children who are mentally ill or otherwise troubled, the price of contact may be more than they’re prepared to or even able to pay. Consider a few more questions.
By reaching out to an ailing or troubled estranged adult child:
- What message would you be sending?
- Does making contact imply to your son or daughter that you’re ready, willing, and able to help?
- What “doors” would you be opening?
- Energetically, emotionally, and financially, do you have the resources to spare?
What’s right for you?
The edited email was from parents who said their “adult child doesn’t want anything to do with us.” Yet, his illness makes them wonder if now’s the time to reach out. As stated, it’s a question that I frequently hear. Ultimately, the answer is not cut and dried and is not mine to make, but hopefully, I’ve provided some food for thought to assist.
If you’re reading and have some experience to share, consider whether your thoughts may help another parent grappling with this sort of decision. You can leave your comment to the article.