Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My husband passed away in five years ago. It was right before our oldest son graduated from high school and our youngest son was eight. My oldest son graduated with a degree in electrical engineering last year. My oldest son, I believe bottled up everything; he won’t even talk to me or his little brother. My youngest and I went to grief therapy through a local hospice. It helped us learn that it is ok to talk about dad. Also, that we would have good days and bad days. What I would like to know is how do I communicate to my oldest son? He moved from another state right before the holidays without a goodbye or anything. I’m still his mom, I love him to the moon and back. Every time I think of him in hurt. I hurt for my youngest son too.
Your heartfelt anguish for what amounts to a double loss comes through clearly in your letter: not only has your husband passed away, the father of your children, but you also feel as if you have lost your older son as well, as he protectively withdraws from the pain to great geographical and emotional distance. It is hardly surprising, then, that you ache when you think of this young man, both for yourself and out of empathy for his younger brother.
In view of this, your apt phrase that you love your son “to the moon and back” is strangely fitting–even if that distant moon is in another state. Some things require considerable time and patience to resolve, and the distance that can open up between family members following the death of someone who might once have been the bridge is one of these. A first step, then, might be to take a fearless inventory of the reasons your older son might have pulled away: Is his style of grieving more strong and stoic, whereas your own and that of your younger son is more expressive? Did he feel over-protected by you as he headed into college and beyond? Did he blame you in some way for the death, or cultivate anger over some circumstance associated with his father’s illness or manner of dying? Understanding as best you can the reasons for his seemingly angry cut-off could give you a clearer idea of how to reach out to him, beyond reasserting your love.
Prior to writing or calling your older son, you might find it helpful to talk with a family therapist who specializes in loss who lives near you, who should be able to talk through the questions raised above, clarify your feelings about this apparent rejection, and help you craft a style and strategy of response that is appropriate to the unique relational challenges that can arise in the wake of a death in the family. Most basically, however, you may want to extend love and understanding to him, with no immediate pressure to write or call back–merely an invitation to do so at a time that feels right to him. Be sure to express an interest in his life, and include photos of you and his brother as an emotionally evocative reminder of the family that loves him still. Few such cut-offs last forever, particularly when the parent adopts an open-armed, accepting stance that makes it feel “safe” to return. With love and patience, I trust you will find your way back as a family to greater wholeness, even after this devastating mutual loss.
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