Why forgive?

parents of estranged adult childrenParents of estranged adult children wonder: Should I forgive?

by Sheri McGregor, M.A.

In my book, Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children, I share the story of Doreen, whose son no longer wants a relationship with her.

Doreen asked, “Why should I forgive my son? He hasn’t apologized. And he’s not making any effort to reconcile.”

Another mom explained her thoughts this way: “Forgiveness comes when the person wants to make things right. My estranged daughter doesn’t.”

So, what does it mean to forgive? And if you are the parent of an estranged adult child who is or isn’t sorry, should you forgive? Or will it only open you to hurt?

Forgiveness can mean many things to many people. For some, forgiveness holds deeply spiritual roots, and perhaps implies a divine sense of the word that completely erases past errors. Therefore, forgiving someone who has hurt us deeply may seem impossible, or even wrong – – particularly if the person hasn’t apologized or changed. Some parents of estranged adult children may wonder if it’s right to pardon error when someone doesn’t repent.

For others, substituting another phrase such as “letting go,” in place of “forgiveness” more accurately expresses the idea. The intent has less to do with the person who has wronged us, and is more focused on dropping unhealthy responses that can hold us back. Whatever your thoughts on forgiveness, read on for more discussion and why forgiveness may be helpful to you.

Forgive and forget?

For many, the saying, “forgive and forget,” comes to mind, but forgiveness doesn’t always require forgetting.

If we’re lied to, stolen from, treated with indifference, subjected to angry outbursts, or in some other way hurt, forgetting the past and letting our guard down completely is probably not the wisest course. That sort of forgiveness may come across as an invitation: “I’m a doormat. Walk on me!”

Hurt me once, shame on you. Hurt me twice, shame on me.

Forgetting bad behavior can make us vulnerable. If a dog bites us, we’ll be wary of that dog in the future. That doesn’t mean the dog will definitely bite us again, but expecting that it won’t isn’t logical.

Forgiveness also doesn’t erase the consequences of bad behavior. A crime victim may “forgive” their assailant, but that doesn’t mean the jail sentence is automatically lessened – – even if the perpetrator admits wrongdoing and promises to change.

An excessive gambler may stop betting, but havoc wreaked on finances doesn’t disappear with a changed mind. If a person borrows money and never pays it back, their reputation suffers.

It’s similar for us and our adult children. Once relationships are damaged, even if a son or daughter wants to reconcile, our forgiveness doesn’t instantly restore trust we once shared. Our forgiveness of past behavior does not require we forget and act as if nothing ever happened.

Forgiving when there’s no apology. Why?

In a 2001 article in the Journal of Counseling & Development, the term “forgiveness” is defined as ceasing to feel angry or resentful. This meaning focuses on letting go of emotions that can cause distress. It’s the definition intended in most discussions on forgiveness today.

Letting go of deeply embedded emotions and resolving unhealthy resentment that can contribute to anger and guilt can be beneficial. That’s why the concept of forgiveness, regardless of the wrongdoer’s presence or attitude, has become so popular. Forgiveness, for your own benefit, is therapeutic.

In an earlier article, I offered accepting the need to forgive as one of the first steps to letting go of anger. While anger can be a natural response to the experience of your adult child’s rejection, and anger can be healthy and help you move beyond sadness, if the anger is troubling to you or becomes overwhelming, forgiveness can help.

Doreen was miserable about her anger toward her son. She was frustrated, hurt, and consumed by thoughts of him, their relationship, and her rage. Then she felt guilty for feeling so angry.

Forgiveness: Take back your power

What Doreen didn’t immediately see was that in refusing to forgive, she couldn’t quite let go enough to move forward in peace. By holding onto blame and anger, she gave her son power over her emotions. She’s the first to admit those emotions made her miserable.

If you believe forgiveness is impossible, unjust, or are angered the topic is even proposed here, don’t feel badly. Perhaps in the future you will feel differently. Or perhaps you can substitute another word such as “releasing.”

Doreen was able to accept the idea of releasing without pardoning her son’s error. Doreen came to believe that making the decision not to hold him accountable every day, while he was off happily living his life, freed her. “I was then able to get on with my own life.”

In the book, there are information and tools to help release resentment and release troubling emotions – – in other words, to forgive.

Related reading:

Rejected by an adult child, why do I feel guilt?

Five ways to move on after an adult child’s rejection

When your adult child rejects you: First steps to getting past anger


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16 thoughts on “Why forgive?

  1. Herman H

    I find your articles very interesting and informative, but do take offense at titles such as: Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children. In your world, are no Fathers estranged from their adult children?

    1. rparents Post author

      Oh Herman, Of course there are fathers who are estranged. The title of that first book was decided upon because so few fathers interacted with me or responded to my surveys when it was being written and researched. Since then, more and more fathers have stepped forward. In fact, the second book says “parents” because I have been able to include so many more experiences and wisdom from fathers (although there are parent couples and dads in Done With The Crying, too). Dads very often tell me that the book: Done With The Crying: Help and Healing for Mothers of Estranged Adult Children is very much for fathers, too. I talk about that fact inside the book and also on a page here at the website (note to fathers). I hope you can come to terms with the “offense” you feel, read the book (and the next one, Beyond Done) because you may find them useful … at least as interesting and informative as the articles here are to you.

      Big hugs and peace to you.
      Sheri McGregor

  2. Phoenix Gal

    I read these stories and my heart just breaks. Grandchildren being used for revenge? That’s disgraceful!

    I have made a conscious decision to no longer chase or focus on my ED29. She treated me & my friends with disrespect & hatred at her wedding, married to a Narcissist.

    I am fortunate to have great friends, a great career, good health & a positive attitude. I was a “good” & caring parent like most who are caught up in this tragic turn of events.

    I’ve forgiven MYSELF. I didn’t raise my daughter to be this way. This is her loss because her Mom was always her role model, champion, & greatest supporter.

    1. Sara L.

      Phoenix Gal,
      Thank you so much for writing this! I have very similar experience with my ED. Do not want to reconnect because there was no reason the the estrangement – she just claims that we are TOXIC – with no examples.

  3. Faith

    I have been reading different chapters from “Beyond Done with the Crying,’” lately. This afternoon it put me into a complete state of relaxation reading the chapter on parents who had reconciled with their adult children and their children. My husband and I have spent considerable time discussing “if” our son ever wants to reconnect with us with his young family. I am always drawn to the Maya Angelo quote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” Our son showed us who he is, as we were so completely in disbelief, he is not a person in our advancing age that we need in our life. I guess our biggest fear is that once we have re bonded again with our grandchildren, they would be used as weapons against us to get what he and his wife want. One mother this week from New Zealand said that we should embrace our freedom, I really loved her take on estrangement. We are now free from the control and abuse from entitled, self centered young adults.

  4. Tammie

    It was good to read that I’m not alone. I have 4 grandkids that I adore. Three live out of state, and I make a point to fly every 6 to 8 weeks to visit. My husband and I moved to Arizona for my health 1.5 year ago, leaving my 3 grandkids. My daughter that lives near us has my fourth grandson. Since moving here, I spend a lot of time with him, primarily at my home, while she works or rubs errands, and on my regular day. Last month she got mad at me over covid restrictions she is very strict on. My husband and I stopped wearing a mask per CDC, long story short, she won’t allow us to see my grandson anymore. Whenever she gets mad, she keeps him from us. Honestly, I don’t like who my daughter has become, we used to see eye to eye, but not anymore. She is super liberal, has denounced God, and more. She has all the power because she is his mom. I’m worried about him, that he will think I up and forgot about him, since he loved going to “gramma house” we were denied attending his 2nd birthday, and now his 3rd, because she is mad about Covid. My heart is broken. They are my only family in AZ, I’m lonely and depressed.

  5. Terry J.

    My story is a bit different. My son and I had an argument that ended terrible. We ended up not talking and he actually told me I would never be able to talk or see my grandkids. I was devastated. My son is from my first marriage and my new husband is very angry about it and actually told me that I have to love my son but he doesn’t. Time went on to have my son and I slowly mending and now talking to each other. My son has thrown out the olive branch and invited us to Thanksgiving dinner. I am delighted but my husband will not go. I told him that families have to forgive and maybe not forget but must move on. He won’t. I am now in the middle. I assume I go myself and have to answer to the grandkids and family why he isn’t there. This is how my husband handles all confrontations. Avoid avoid avoid. I am tired of being in the middle.

  6. Eloignee

    Kahlil Gibran wrote:
    Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of Life longing for itself.
    They come through you but not from you.
    And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.

    My situation is very like that of those you have already responded. I have no explanation, and am not interested in vague excuses. It is surprising to me how little I miss my child, but I can accept that that is actually true. Regrettable, of course, but that is all it is. It does not haunt my every waking hour, by a long shot.

    I hope that my one and only grandchild will come looking for me one day.

    In the interim, I take a lot of comfort from Gibran’s perspective, and think there is a great deal to only being the vessel through which civilization continues. I consider my debt (if there is one) to life has been repaid.

    I don’t subscribe to the often bandied-about adage that Family is Everything. I don’t think that it is.

    All the best to my fellow travelers.

  7. Terri G.

    Reading the various post makes me feel not so alone. I have been married to the same man for over 25 years. Let me start from the beginning. My husband had two young sons age 3 and 5 from a previous marriage. The older child and I immediately connected from day one. Then my husband and I had a daughter shortly after we married. Through the years our daughter has grown resentful of the two boys. She says things like “we only did things as a family when the boys lived with us during the summer” FYI my husband was in the military for over 20 years and the boys lived with their mother during the school year. Back to my story. Once the boys graduated high school they came to live with us full time. It was at that point that our daughter grew closer to the older son. After a couple years of the older son lived with us he met a girl who got pregnant…. then packed up in the middle of the night and the two of them moved back to his mothers (over 12 hours away). From that point on he refused to talk to my husband, myself and even our daughter. our daughter grew very resentful of his leaving. Come 3 years ago my husbands oldest son began communicating with us again. My husband and I have forgiven but not forgotten…. we have moved past the past and became closer to him once again. The problem now is both our daughter and son are not willing to take the extra step needed to mend their relationship which is fine except…… our daughter is now angry at my husband and I for communicating with him. Any one else experience anything similar? does anyone have any good intended advice???

  8. Happyhiker

    Forgiving actually helps the person who forgives. In my case I do call it “ letting go”. I wish only the best for my son and his family. Am I hurt by our estrangement. Of course. From the minute he met his partner I was kind and involved. Taking his two step children to museums, art galleries, live plays. Watched them play sports. It wasn’t until she gave birth to my grandson that things changed. She then had control and I started my eggshell game. As I have said in the past I live in a high priced real estate area that had transitioned from working class which is where I originated from and most people who live here are wealthy. I am not. She thought I was. I rent rooms and at 65 still work part time jobs to get by. When my husband was alive we we were very comfortable but lost his earning power when he was diagnosed with Early onset Alzheimer’s at 59. Our savings started to dwindle. He died at 67. Up until this point my son would ask for money and we always obliged but I quickly realized I couldn’t afford to anymore. This is when things changed. Once they truly realized there was no money I was ghosted. I even have an email she writes saying I didn’t understand their money situation. This letter was very telling. I actually think we were hindering his sense of taking responsibility for himself all the times we were “ lending “ them money. It’s been a bit of a journey. Lots of crying on my part. But I realized very early on in life it only causes angst to bear a grudge in all aspects of life. It stifles one’s own development. I’ve only seen my grandson 4 times since he was 3 1/2 and not at all for 2 years. I do know he is loved by his parents and his brothers who are now 16 and 19. My son appears to be happy from what I can gather and I am keeping myself busy and enjoying my life. My other son and I are close. He is a giver not a taker. A very kind person. As much as it can hurt on Birthday’s Christmas, Mother’s Day etc. It’s getting better. I’ve decided to live and let live. It’s been so long I don’t really know my ES anymore. He’s 47 and I do know is an excellent father to his three sons. Honestly it is so much easier to forgive than be bitter.

  9. Lynn

    I adopted my daughter as an adult 4 years ago. She just turned 39. For 12 years we were like mother and daughter. People thought we were mother and daughter. I legally adopted her and things were going really well. 3 years she began working at my place of employment and because of me she was promoted to a manager. I am overall manager. 5 months ago she quit her job without notice. She sent the owner a text at 9 pm saying she was not coming into work because she heard a rumor that an employee’s son had Covid. (he had recovered and the whole family was tested negative). She refused to show up for work and I ended up having to cover for her the next day. As a manager she knew she had to have coverage. Anyway, because I did not defend her, she has refused to speak to me. At Christmas time I went to her house to deliver gifts and she refused to answer the door. She has made mentiion to people I know that I am no longer her mother. I forgave her at the beginning however, I continue to hurt every time someone tells me something she said. She blocked me from her social media account. I think the whole issue is silly. I have texted her several times and told her family is the most important thing to me. How does one get past the hurt that at times seems deliberate?

  10. Marie

    I have only one adult daughter and now only one 4 year old granddaughter. My daughter is so rude to me. She knows how to hurt me. She agreed to talk to my therapist once. And even told the therapist that I had been a good supportive mother. Yet she wouldn’t allow me to feed the baby. Change a diaper, keep the baby unless she had no other way around it. She barely contacts me. I have been to their house 2 times in the past 2 years. Both times she fixed lunch for herself and granddaughter and didn’t offer me anything. Yet expected me to sit at the table to watch them eat.
    She expects us to do all of the holidays so her daughter can have the experiences she had as a child, but is not in contact unless I initiate it.
    My grandbaby never riden in my car, not allowed at my home unless mother is with her. I have given gifts that were never used. She was steaming mad when her place of work invited me to the baby shower and I showed up. She wouldn’t look at me.
    I have no idea why. And she won’t talk about it.
    I’m tired of being abused. To finally let this go means I will lose what little contact I have with my grandchild. She is the only one I’ll ever have and I’m the only grandmother she will have.
    I have to find a way to let my grandchild go. I can easily let go of my daughter.

    1. Pam W.

      Dear Marie, I hope you don’t mind my commenting on your input. My situation is so similar to yours it made my mouth drop open when I read it. I have two beautiful grandchildren (ages 2 and 5) from my estranged daughter and her husband. I could mention all the comparisons to your situation but want to get to my point. I, too, am challenged with finding a way to let my grandchildren go. Due to COVID, my husband and I haven’t been allowed to see our grandchildren for a year. It’s so difficult and stressful. I just want to cry. I have read Sheri McGregor’s book, Done With The Crying, and it has really helped me. If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so. I’ve finally realized I must move on with my life. I’m 72 now…my time is running out. So I decided to assemble two books of my relationship with each of our grandchildren. I’ve printed out pictures, trimmed around them, written descriptions of where we were when the pictures were taken, dates, and taped on the pages, written notes to the child about my feelings for them, how much fun we had together, how we loved them, etc. When we’re gone from this earth, I’m hoping someone in my family will pass these books on to our grandchildren so they’ll have remembrances of me and their grandpa. We also had created what we called a “Discovery Box” for the grandchildren in the last couple years. Anytime we saw a small trinket, toy, fake coins…anything we thought would interest the kids, we’d put it in the “Discovery Box”. Everytime we saw them, we’d bring out the box. They loved it so much, everytime they visited us the first thing they wanted to do was find the “Discovery Box”. It was a thrill to them to search the rooms to see where we’d put it. We still add a few things to it however we don’t know if they’ll ever see it again. In addition, I created a separate box for each child that contains various and sundry items that I feel may be valuable to them when they grow up. My granddaughter’s box contains a a pair of earrings her mother gave to me many, many years ago before we were estranged, a sterling silver ring, a crystal container, a paperback book that I always loved, “Where The Redfern Grows”, a stuffed Christmas reindeer my daughter gave to me before all our issues, etc. I’ve just started our grandsons box and so far only have in it several Kennedy half dollars and a short write-up from the internet about how it came to be and my father’s Army Airborne Parachutist Paratrooper Jump Wings insignia from WWII. You might consider doing something like this. I want my grandchildren to know who we were and that they were loved. Will leave you with this now. I know I’ve rambled on at great lengths. Maybe some of it will help you or others out there in our predicament who might stumble on my writings. I wish you blessings and happiness, Marie.

    2. Happyhiker

      Hi Maria. I’m so sorry you are going through this. I too only have one grandson. I don’t see him anymore. We were very close for the first three and a half years of his life. He’s now 7. We all have these romantic ideas of the way families should be. I call it the Hallmark syndrome. Life sadly isn’t like that. I can count on one hand the number of friends who are estranged from their children. There is only friend who I actually think it is justified. The reasons with my friends are money or a controlling third party. All families have issues of one kind of another. The way I look at it we can either carry on allowing others to control us or move on. It is a process and we all have our breaking point. It does help if we keep ourselves busy and distracted. It’s hard right now with Covid but when things change, find something you like. Volunteer. It could be in an humane society, nursing home. Youth leader. I hike with friends twice a week and work as a companion to a friend with Alzheimer’s three times a week in a nursing home. The people in the hone look forward to me coming. We laugh a lot and I feel I’m contributing to there lives. This is the way I managed to let go. I’m still sad once in awhile but no where near the way I used to be. Hugs Maria. Seriously you can do this. I mean what is the option except to be miserable for the rest of one’s life.

  11. Kate

    I raised ,with my husband,his two children like they were my own.Their mother abandoned the an when she was in their lives caused them only pain the only grandparents they knew and loved were my parents.My parents loved them and treated them as their grandchildren.
    THE oldest has come back after four years of cruel behavior wanting to reconcile. HE is fourth years old and never once sent any comfort to me or my mother when my sister died and he never recognized the passing of my mother’s death one year ago.I made peace with this,forgave him but I do not want him back in my life.He regrets that he has not been a good son,brother to his half- brother and sisters or a good husband to his own wife and children.His wife said horrible things about us and we did not see our grand children for four years.I sent Christmas and Birthday gifts to the grandchildren and he did have them call us back.
    I lost my father four years ago,my sister three years ago and now my mother.At 62 I want to focus on grieving,healing and my faith.I forgave but I do not want him in my life right now.
    My husband feels hurt by this and I told him that I would be civil and kind but I need time for my self to heal and recover from two surgeries within the past three moths.It is to e for this 40 year old to think about what others are going through other than it always being about him.


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