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Hannah and Jeff – How a Mother coped with her Estranged Son

In the previous article on Hannah and her two sons, we looked how Hannah dealt with the difficult relationship she had with her younger adult son, Cam. In today’s article we will be following Hannah as she works in therapy to decide how best to cope with the estrangement from her elder son, Jeff.

Jeff is now 27 and has slowly ceased contact with his mother over a period of a couple of years and now refuses to answer phone calls, texts, emails and has blocked Hannah from his Facebook page. As we discussed in the previous article in this series, Jeff refuses to tell his mother why he is acting like this. Hannah’s response has been to overeat, and after four years of trying to alternatively contact her son, and try to forget her son and “get on with it”, she is now morbidly obese and faces enormous health problems in addition to the depression she feels about her son.

As we saw in the previous article, Hannah’s son Cam was taking advantage of the situation and using his mother in the knowledge that she was too scared to say “no” to any of his requests in case she lost him too.

Through therapy, Hannah was able to regain her sense of self worth and set boundaries with her younger son and after several disagreements over boundary issues, Hannah has re-established her sense of self and decided she no longer will be a door mat to Cam. At present Hannah sees Cam and his partner once a week and they share a meal - something so simple yet once so hard for Hannah to achieve while she still was in fear of losing her son. By setting boundaries with Cam, her positive feelings have increased, she is exercising more and feels more in control of her life. But there remains the problem of Jeff – her estranged older son.

It was important in therapy to remind Hannah that Jeff had not only rejected Hannah but also his father and his brother. While it didn’t solve the estrangement problem, it did help Hannah to realize that it was not only her that was being targeted by this behavior. The overeating continued whenever she got on Facebook, or at special times of the year such as Jeff’s birthday, her own birthday, Christmas and especially Mother’s Day. Then there were just “bad days”. Even a movie with a mother and son could trigger Hannah off if she was in a delicate state of mind.

However her revelation that she was slowly killing herself and that “my son isn’t worth dying for” continued to work its way into her subconscious. She talked about plans for the future – plans that no longer included Jeff. She spoke of her helplessness to “fix” the situation. She cried over the fact that he wouldn’t tell her why he had rejected her. Hannah said that was the hardest thing to bear – that they were so estranged that they couldn’t even talk about it because Jeff wouldn’t allow it.

One day, Hannah got angry at the situation. In the session she announced that she wasn’t being given a chance, she was discarded without knowing why, that whatever was wrong she couldn’t fix because she had no idea what it was, that he was controlling the situation and that her health was failing being stuck in a situation she couldn’t change. She acknowledged that in a strange way she could cope better if he had been killed four years ago in a car accident.

This statement of Hannah’s is true on one level. When a person is killed, they don’t voluntarily abandon you and cut you out of their lives. Of course, with a death there is no hope that that person will ever return. In Hannah case, she lived in hope that one day her son would contact her to talk. However, it was this hope that was making her ill. Hannah did not know what to do to remedy the situation.

These scenarios are never easy and there is no one solution for everyone. And each client has to make up their own mind as to how to deal with estrangement. After a particularly gruelling round of medical tests that showed that Hannah’s health was declining, she made a decision. She was going to end the relationship with her son.

She realised that Jeff was calling the shots and she had no control in the situation. It was this lack of control that was making her depressed and also physically ill. She asked herself “what am I losing if I end the relationship?’ Over weeks, she concluded that she would lose nothing, because she had already lost her son. And while there was some hope that he might change his mind and re-establish contact, she didn’t have the time or the health to just let this situation continue.

So she wrote to her son. Hannah needed closure and writing for her, meant closure. She was not able to successfully just tell herself that “the relationship is over, and that is just how it is”. She had tried that, but the spectre of hope always re-emerged. We discussed in detail all the ramifications for her of ending the relation. We discussed the feelings of regret, the feelings of “what have I done?”, what would happen if there was no reply to her letter and most importantly, what plans she had for the rest of her life without Jeff in it, because this was a definite possibility as to how this move would end.

As I mentioned, all cases are different and after three months of working through all the possibilities, Hannah opted to officially end the relationship. She wrote a letter to her son telling him how much she loved him but that she couldn’t go on with a relationship that was so skewed in one direction. She did not mention her illness as she did not wish to make him sone feel guilty. She just stated that that it seemed he wanted to end the relationship and despite her best efforts to revive it, she had been unsuccessful.

And so the relationship ended. Her son did not reply, but Hannah was in a position to know that he definitely received the letter and read it. So what happened to Hannah after voluntarily letting go of her beloved son?

Because of the level of therapeutic intervention she had received, she already knew that Jeff would never answer the letter. So that expectation was gone. She had done a lot of crying and a lot of grieving. She made up two photo albums – one for herself and one for Jeff, and passed the latter onto Jeff via her contact. She officially said goodbye in a ceremony in a forest reserve near her home in which she and Jeff used to play hide-and-seek.

Today, Hannah has no regrets. She does wish that things had worked out differently and birthdays are still hard. But she is no longer helplessly waiting. She has stopped filling herself with food to stave off feelings of emptiness. She has lost weight and socialises more as she feel less depressed because, for the first time in years, she feels a sense of personal control.

Her relationship with Cam has continued to improve as she keeps boundaries in place and he has slowly learned more respect for his mother. Hannah is now a grandmother and enjoys her little grandson. She knows that Jeff is missing out on being an uncle, a son and a brother but has come to the realization that this is his choice. She has now met a new partner after many years of being a slave to both of her sons and she is enjoying life. The pain of the loss of her son is still there, but she does not cry anymore and she does not need antidepressants.

The world is as good as it gets for Hannah.

In continuing articles on estranged adult children, we will look at examples where ending the relationship is not the answer, but setting boundaries is.


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