Helping an Estranged Family Reconnect

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Granted, for some, forgiveness can serve as a powerful release. But too often people feel pressured to forgive and then end up believing that something’s wrong with them if they can’t quite get there — that they aren’t enlightened enough or strong enough or compassionate enough.

So what I say is this: You can have compassion without forgiving. There are many ways to move on, and pretending to feel a certain way isn’t one of them.

I didn’t have to forgive my client for what she’d done with her children — and neither did they. She was asking forgiveness of others to avoid the much harder work of forgiving herself. She and her children would always feel the pain of their shared pasts, but shouldn’t there be some redemption? I wanted to be realistic about the considerable scars they all bore, but the more I got to know my client, the more I hoped she wouldn’t be consigned to a life sentence. Maybe all these decades later, she could be released on parole.

As she took an unsparing look inward, she began, tentatively at first, to allow herself to create a life that resided side-by-side with her regret. She met a kind man. She made friends with her neighbors She created a small business, born of a long-repressed passion. And she gently approached her children, asking nothing of them, offering only her newfound insight and whatever love and support they were interested in receiving.

Ultimately, three of the four children reached out to her and also started to form a relationship with her boyfriend, allowing them to experience, for the first time, a reliable, stable father figure. Her children are still cautious and angry, but that’s O.K. — at least this time, their mother is able to hear them without shielding herself with defensiveness or tears. Her youngest son remains estranged, but the others, taking a cue from their mother, began to make hard-won and significant changes in their own lives, releasing themselves from their shackles as well.

It’s not an ideal family, or even always a functional one, but it’s family.

“It’s an opening,” I’d said back when her daughter responded to her initial letter but wasn’t ready to resume contact. It’s been an opening for all of them.

Lori Gottlieb is the author of “Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist and Our Lives Revealed,” from which this essay was adapted.

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