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On Father's Day and Forgiveness
How (not) to support someone who's estranged from a relative
The thing that surprised me most about going through an estrangement is that you have to learn how to talk about it.
If you know me beyond my blog, you might know that I do not speak to my dad. I’m not interested in publicly relitigating why, but suffice to say that cutting him off was my choice; that this is not just a minor issue that’s been blown out of proportion; and that it has lasted several years, and I don’t know if it will ever end. I am at peace with this.
When I say you have to learn to talk about the situation, I don’t mean seeking support from loved ones or a therapist, though I recommend both. Rather, I mean it in a practical sense: There will be a common rhythm to the conversations you have about it as you go about your life, and you have to get used to it.
The first thing people say is always supportive. They’re so sorry that happened and sad for what you’ve been through, and they’re here if there’s anything they can do. Of course, there isn’t, and having to constantly revisit your tribulations in a kind conversation can do more harm than good, but just knowing that you still have people in your corner means a lot.
What might surprise you is the pressure people accidentally put on you with the second thing they say.
Some would insist that I must be wrong about what happened, inadvertently suggesting that my pain was not legitimate. Others would assure me that my dad is still a good person, implying that the way he treated those closest to him has no bearing on his moral character. But by far the most-common genre of consolation getting lost in translation was the insistence that the situation was temporary. From the cliché “this too shall pass” to the impatient “you can’t hold a grudge forever” to the judgmental “you only have one dad,” such words betray an expectation that you will reconcile before too long.
I usually brush off these remarks so as not to make people feel awkward, or worse, create yet another rift with a loved one. But one thing I’ve learned from my brief time as a Substack author is that the thoughts that have made me feel lonely aren’t unique — and in fact, others in similar situations might be comforted to know that they’re not alone. So with Father’s Day approaching, this seemed as good a time as any to explain why “time heals all wounds” can feel like rubbing salt in them.
There are two facets to these sorts of platitudes. They’re similar on the surface and they’re easily conflated, but they have very different implications for how to heal from the special pain of cutting someone you love out of your life. There’s the need to find peace for yourself, and also the pressure to end your estrangement.
I needed to hear the first part. As my family situation unfolded, the pain was all-consuming. I was constantly anxious. I grew physically sick from stress. I lay awake at night stewing in my emotions. I embraced the misery as though there were something righteous about wallowing in the anger. For weeks, maybe even months, the mere possibility that I could be okay after what happened felt like letting him off the hook.
It’s not a way to live.
There’s a commonly bastardized quote, frequently misattributed to the Buddha, that whatever its origins has helped me many times over the years. It goes something like: A grudge is like a hot coal, it burns only the person holding it. Letting go of deep-seated anger is easier said than done, and it takes time — often more time than people may expect or be comfortable with — but there’s nothing virtuous about not trying. The compulsion to punish yourself for someone else’s actions can be toxic.
A few years later, I can attest that things do get better. I still get sad about it sometimes, but it doesn’t drag me down on a regular basis. As surprising as the source sounds, the best description I’ve heard of this sensation of healing came from tough guy Mike Ehrmantraut in an episode of Better Call Saul:
Well, here's what's gonna happen. One day, one day you're gonna wake up, eat your breakfast, brush your teeth, go about your business. And sooner or later you're gonna realize you haven't thought about it. None of it. And that's the moment you realize you can forget.
The only place I take umbrage with how Mike explains this is the end. Because moving on doesn’t mean you have to forget.
As far as I’m concerned, time has healed my wounds. Strangely, other people disagree.
I don’t believe getting over acute pain necessarily means resuming or rebuilding your relationship with the person who hurt you. For reasons I neither want nor should need to explain here, but have been repeatedly reaffirmed since I cut off contact, my life is better without my dad in it. It’s a point of indefinite equilibrium borne not by rash emotion but by years of sober reflection about who each of us is.
Yet many people have taken the liberty to tell me I’m wrong. They insist that I am still emotional when I am clear-headed; that it is petty to limit the company I keep to those who are positive influences on my life; that so long as his son does not call him on Father’s Day, the situation is still a dissonant chord, waiting to be resolved.
From casual suggestions to persistent prodding, you’d be surprised how many people decide that your estrangement from a relative is a mistake that is their job to fix. For some people, particularly those who have relationships with both of you, I think this stems from their own discomfort. Humans are naturally conflict-averse, and tension creates awkwardness. Often they’ll layer in an appeal to sympathy for my dad, too: think how sad he must be. In either case, though, the sentiment is based on centering someone else’s feelings above my own — a good sign that, whether they realize it or not, the advice they’re giving is not coming from a place of pure concern for me.
Others will at least be more direct about the impact that estrangement has on you. There are deleterious effects from casting away old memories and declining to make new ones. There are conspicuous absences at holidays and celebrations. Most of all, there’s the knowledge that every day you don’t reconcile brings you one day closer to never getting the chance to. People will judge you for abiding such tragedies, saying you’re not taking them seriously. It doesn’t occur to them to try to fathom how serious the preceding events must have been if you have chosen this path.
Whatever their angle, one thing remains the same: The implication that this hasn’t occurred to you before. Maybe the first time someone points out that your estrangement affects other people too, that’s a helpful perspective to offer, but at this point I don’t need help to feel guilty about that. I spent months agonizing over the decision not to invite my father to my wedding. I’ve thought long and hard about the risk I am taking by continually kicking the can of a possible reconciliation down the road. Yet people who don’t like your conclusion prefer to assume that your steadfastness is flippancy.
I don’t need the people around me to agree with the decisions I’ve made, or even to understand my reasons. What I need is for my loved ones to respect them. And if you’re nagging someone to reconsider their choices about something so serious and so personal, it’s a sign that you don’t.
It turns out that there’s some truth in the clichés people offer you in times of tragedy. Time really does heal all wounds. But the scar forms long before the blade that cut you dulls, and finding peace doesn’t mean going back to the way things were.
If anyone reading this has rekindled a positive, fulfilling relationship with someone with whom you had cut off contact, I am sincerely happy for you. If you are in the midst of an estrangement that you want to be temporary, I hope you get the resolution you crave. But if there is someone who was once close to you who has demonstrated that your life is better without them, I wish you luck in healing, peace on your path, and a network of loved ones who give you the support you need.
May we all treat each other with the same kindness, patience, and understanding that we would hope to receive from our own parents. Happy Father’s Day.
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