NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Sunday, June 16, 2013

Deciding Whether or Not to Reconcile With Your Father

I've seen it happen so many times among friends, family and with clients in my psychotherapy private practice in New York City:  A relationship with a father or mother, which had been fraught with problems for many years, is reconciled in later years.  

Some of these changes represent a reconciliation of sorts of a problematic lifelong parent-child relationship.

Deciding Whether or Not to Reconcile With Your Father

This often involves a recognition that time is passing and there might not be a chance in the future. At times, the change can be dramatic.

There's an article in today's New York Times Modern Love section by Heather Sellers, Do Not Adjust Your Screen or Sound - NY Times 6/16/13 that describes this type of reconciliation between a father and a daughter as the father approached the end of his life.

Of course, there's no guarantee that a problematic parent-child relationship will change, but I've seen it happen often enough and in relationships where no one would ever expect it to happen to know that these reconciliations aren't just isolated incidents.

Since this is Father's Day, I'll focus on relationships with fathers, but I've seen these type of changes occur in relationships with mothers as well.

The following fictionalized case, which is a composite of many different cases, is an example of how the adult child-parent relationship can change after many years:

John was the youngest of five children.  His father, Jim, left John, John's mother, and four siblings when John was 10 years old.

When Jim loved with the family, his mood was dependent upon his luck at the race track.   When he won, Jim was on top of the world.  He came home in a jolly mood with gifts for everyone.  John loved those times the best.  Jim would take the family out to the amusement park, to dinner, and or on a  weekend get away.

But when he lost at the race track, which happened more often than not, Jim came home irritable and despondent.  During those times, Jim was unapproachable.  He holed up in the den and isolated himself from his family.

As a young child, John loved his father very much, but everyday John felt leery about seeing his father because he never knew what type of mood his father would be in.  He would pray for his father to win so his father would be happy and loving towards John.

But, more times than not, John felt that his prayers went unanswered, and he wondered if he was doing something wrong:  Maybe he wasn't praying enough?  Maybe he wasn't being good enough and God was ignoring him?  This created a lot of anxiety in John as he tried harder by praying more and being extra good.  But nothing changed.

Jim's compulsive gambling often left the family unable to pay the rent, buy food or take care of basic expenses.  Jim also couldn't hold onto a job for more than a few months before he was fired for not showing up.  Instead of going to work, Jim was at the race track betting on horses he thought would be "a sure thing."

When John was nine years old, his mother, Ann, took a job in the local factory to help make ends meet.    This meant that when John and his siblings came home from school, they had to fend for themselves.

John's older sister, Maddie, would start dinner and help John with his homework.  John could detect how much his sister, who was only 14, resented these responsibilities and longed to be out having fun with her friends.

Then, one day, Jim went to the race track and never came back.  John's mother, Ann, called everyone she knew who might know where Jim might have gone.  But no one had heard from him.  She drove around the neighborhood, going to Jim's usual haunts, including the neighborhood bar, but she couldn't find him.

By the next day, Ann filed a police report with the local precinct and she kept calling Jim's friends and families.  But there was no word.

The family was devastated emotionally and financially.  John knew how upset his mother and siblings were, so he kept his feelings to himself.  He didn't want to add to their concerns by showing how upset  he felt.  He just prayed harder and vowed to be the best son that he could be so his father would come back.

Years passed, and no one ever heard from Jim.  His disappearance remained a mystery.  With each passing year, John and his family gradually gave up hope of ever hearing from Jim again.  The family got by on a combination of his mother's meager wages and her family's financial help.

As they got older, each of John's siblings left their home town to take jobs in other cities since their home town offered little in the way of employment.  So, John was the last child at home.

By that time, Ann's father left her enough money to get by and to send John to college.  John wanted to leave his small town and go to college, but he was worried about leaving his mother by herself.  He knew she would be lonely living by herself, but she urged him to leave home and go to college so he would have a better future.

Fast forward 30 years:  Life went on.  John was happily married and living in NYC with his wife, and his daughter and son were away at college.  Ann had died several years before.  From time to time, John thought about his father, especially on Father's Day or on his father's birthday, but he had long ago gave up any hope of seeing his father again.

Then, one day, out of the blue, John received a phone call his older sister, Maddie:  She got a call from their father, who was living in Florida.  At first, she thought it was someone's idea of a heartless prank, but their father assured her that it was him.

When he called her by her childhood nickname, Maddie said, she knew it was him.  He told her that he had pancreatic cancer and he was coming back to NYC to attend treatment at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.  Maddie said she wished him well, but she wanted nothing to do with him.  Then, she hung up on him.

Maddie knew that John missed their father, so she gave him the father's telephone number, in case he wanted to talk to him. She told him that, even though she and the other siblings wanted nothing to do with their father, she knew John might feel differently.

John was so shocked that he felt like he was in a dream.  He didn't know what to say, but he felt, once again, that deep longing that he felt when he was a child to see his father.

Soon after that, John began therapy to process his mixed emotions of shock, sadness, and anger.  In situations like this, there's no right or wrong.  Each adult child has to make his or her own decision, and what's right for one sibling might not be right for another.

After much going back and forth, John called his father.  That first conversation was very awkward.  John hardly knew what to say to his father and he felt like he was going to burst out into tears at any second.  He told his father about his life with his wife and children.  His father listened and seemed to be genuinely happy for John.

When John saw his father for the first time in 30 years, his father was receiving treatment at Sloan Kettering.  He looked much older, but Jim still had the same old smile.  At first, they could barely look into each other's eyes, and there were awkward silences.

Then, Jim broached the topic that was on both of their minds:  He told John that he left the family because he was so ashamed that he gambled away the family's meager savings on a horse.  This was something that Ann had never revealed to John and his siblings, so John was completely unaware of this.

As he listened to his father express his shame and regret, John could only imagine how betrayed his mother must have felt.  But he shifted his thoughts to his father and forced himself to stay present.  He knew that it would be only a matter of time for his father because the cancer was already at an advanced stage.

During the next several weeks, John went to the hospital and processed his feelings afterwards in our therapy sessions.  He felt tremendous grief for all the wasted years.  He also regretted that he never tried to locate his father.

John and his father reconciled their relationship as best as they could in the time that they had left.  John's wife and children also came to the hospital, and Jim told John that he was proud of him, which made John feel both happy and sad.

On the day Jim died, John was holding his hand and talking to him about a particularly happy day when Jim took the family on an outing.

Jim was heavily medicated, so John wasn't sure that Jim could hear him, but he thought his father suddenly look peaceful and calm.  And then he was gone.

John was, understandably, sad after his father died, but he was glad that, at least, they had reconciled their relationship to a certain extent before Jim died.  John continued in therapy to deal with the permanent loss of his father.

Reconciling Your Relationship With Your Father
When you're going through a very difficult time with your father, it's often hard to imagine that you and your father could ever reconcile.  But, as I mentioned earlier, this turn of events occurs in many families.

In order to reconcile, it has to be acceptable to both the adult child and the father.  The adult child also needs to be realistic about what to expect.

Reconciliation and Forgiveness
Reconciliation can occur on many levels.  You and your father might not be able to work out all the earlier problems, but you might be able to work out some form of reconciliation, even if it's not perfect. It might be good enough for you and for him.

Forgiveness is a process that often works from surface to depth.  It often begins with your decision that you want to let go of the painful feelings so you can heal.

Even if you can't reconcile with your father because it's not right for you or for him or he's not around any more, if it's right for you, you can work through your anger and resentment so that it's no longer eating away at you.

Letting Go of Resentment So You Can Heal Emotionally
Letting to of resentment doesn't mean that whatever happened was okay.  It means that you no longer want to harbor the negative feelings which can be so emotionally toxic for you.

Getting Help in Therapy
This is often something that's hard to do on your own, and many people find it helpful to work with a licensed psychotherapist to work through these issues.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.  

I have helped many clients to let go of resentment that they've felt for their parents, in some cases, for many years.  

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.

Also, see my articles:

Fathers and Son: Improving Your Relationship With Your Dad

Fathers and Daughters: Daddy's "Little Girl" Is All Grown Up Now

Discovering a Father's Secret Life After His Death

Trying to Understand Your Father

Looking Back on Your Relationship With Your Dad Now That You're a Father