Letting go of estranged adult children
By Sheri McGregor, M.A.
My nine-year-old dog, Cassie (Cassiopeia, for long!), has slowed down some. In her coat of creamy curls just unfurling from a summer shave, she stands at peaceful alert. In the distance, a red fox squirrel scampers up a tree trunk. Her year-younger companion, Lyle, and their six-year-old daughter, Marilyn, chase about, nipping, dodging, and wrestle-rolling. I sit beneath the regal Blue Oak tree, watching. Steam rises from my coffee cup in a wispy echo to the daybreak sunlight just straining over the foothills.
As usual, Lyle tires before Marilyn. With playful nips, puppy bows, and, finally, a proffered stick, she goads him. He bites the stick alongside her for a moment, and then collapses, tongue lolling, in the soft fallen leaves. Marilyn nudges him a few times to no avail. Then she turns and charges her mother. Cassie grows rigid, her legs like roots to hold her ground—and Marilyn bounds off. Wise old Cassie, the leader of her pack, glances my way and, with a wag, joins Lyle lying in the leaves.
Marilyn disappears, an onyx-furred shadow leaping beyond the cypress trees in pursuit of an imagined squirrel. Inspired by the morning quiet and sips of strong coffee, my mind wanders. I think of times when I’ve held my ground (like Cassie). In life, with people, and with adult children, including my estranged one.
Over time and with self- and life-examination, parents of estranged adult children often say they know better than to expend energy on fruitless hope. Our logical minds measure history against hope, facts against fantasy, and come to sensible conclusions that protect us from yet another squirrel chase. That’s part of letting go of estranged adult children. Still, though we know better, that doesn’t mean our hearts don’t ever hurt.
The myth of closure
“. . . the idea of closure is bandied about like some mythical desert oasis or place of bliss. People believe that without closure we can never move on and heal. However, such completion, or closure, is a myth.”
Those words written in Done With The Crying (2016) are as true as ever. I still hear parents talk about the anguish of estrangement even after many years. That’s because you don’t just wake up one day, after a specified time period, to a blank emotional slate with all your sadness wiped away. To expect otherwise sets you up for distress. So, don’t.
Letting out the leash in letting go of estranged adult children
When my kids were young, more responsibility and more freedom came with successful endeavors and growth. We let out the leash, so to speak. We were glad for and supported their increasing independence. We could let them go—and trust they would do well, be fine, and still love and return to us.
When it comes to enduring estrangement, if we’re ever to move forward for ourselves, separate and apart from what they do, don’t do, or decide, then it’s our own growth we must nurture and learn to trust. With each rebuttal, repeated rupture, goading, phase of silence or unrest, we can let out the leash for ourselves. They’re adults. They’re living their lives—and we get to live ours, too.
Does that mean we’re never sad? Probably not. You may wish you could know your grandchildren, worry for your adult child’s safety, or grieve over the realization that you don’t have the family you wanted, imagined, and worked at. Even so, you can foster self-esteem, cherish healthy relationships, and cultivate joy. And you can look at the situation realistically.
The peace of no-contact can come with a price, but it may be better than the cost of chaos, continued eggshell walks, and living in fear of the next rule change, inflated ego rant, or tumultuous tirade pointed at you—the parent who has been patient, giving, and kind, yet is now the enemy, the ATM, or the one to ignore or blame.
As parents of estranged adult children, when those weepy days arrive and we miss the lovely son or daughter we once were so certain we knew, it’s okay to feel sad or angry. It may be wise to dwell for a few minutes, express in a safe space that we still grieve the loss. We can embrace the feelings because they’re normal—and then turn to our thinking mind, the place where reason and reality temper strong emotion and spur us toward a sensible action or response. In Beyond Done (2021), I included an exercise to get quickly to that lucid space. Language becomes a door—to wisdom, sound judgment, and a measure of relief.
At a chattering commotion down the hill, Cassie raises her head to look. Marilyn is jumping at a tree trunk, panting, and expending energy on a squirrel that flicks its tail from a branch beyond reach. Nearby, Lyle snores on, nonplussed.
Cassie stands, ears pricked, and eyes narrowed. She barks once, and then glances at me and wags. She collapses into the leaves again, this time with her head resting on my foot. I lean to pat her, the wise leader of her pack. She used to chase squirrels, too.
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