The Excruciating Pain of Estrangement

“Father’s Eyes” Original Watercolor by Randy Elrod

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 6 seconds.

Behind every great hatred is a love story. This amazing quote by Justin Cronin in his riveting book The City of Mirrors is a mantra to which I cling  when I think about the estrangement between my two grown daughters and myself.

If a parent complains about a teenager the groans will be met with knowing nods and words of empathy. There are myriad books, television shows and news features offering sympathetic understanding

But dare to speak about problems with your adult child—about years of estrangement, and how a divorce from their mother has been treated as the unpardonable sin—and your voice is likely to be met with either a steely silence or a masked show of sympathy that loudly proclaims an unwillingness to hear more. Even from the closest of friends and the most pious of Christians.

It is a misunderstood and isolating subject. Estrangement from family is among the most painful human experiences.

What is estrangement, exactly? Therapists define it as: Contact cut off in a way that’s upsetting to the one left behind, rather than a mutual parting. And those who have dealt with estrangement are often too ashamed to talk about it.

“It’s a silent epidemic,” says Joshua Cole­man, Ph.D., a psychologist in San Francisco and the author of When Parents Hurt. 

No one keeps an official tally, but Coleman says “estrangement is ‘epidemic’ for many reasons. And most often, it is between a parent and adult child.

Parenting has changed more in the last 40 years than it did in the few centuries before that. As a result, today’s adult children don’t view their relationships with their parents the way their folks did with their parents. The principles of obligation, duty and respect that baby boomers and generations before them had for their elders aren’t necessarily there anymore.

Sometimes estrangement creates a wall between grandparents and grandchildren. I have been estranged from my two grown daughters (my only children) for over six years.  Between them they have three grandchildren under the age of six. I haven’t seen the children—ever. And it’s not just me, those children are also being deprived of a loving family with an aunt, uncle, cousins, and unbelievably, their great-grandparents (my loving mother and father). The grandchildren have never met any of their fellow Elrod family members.

It’s impossible not to feel that refusing to let me and my parents see our grandchildren is my two daughters way of punishing my entire family for my sins and a subsequent divorce from their mother. And even more ironically, my daughters spouses and in-laws are immersed in the hyper-religious christian entertainment industry, specifically contemporary christian music and comedy.

Don Henley (of Eagles fame) penned the poignant lyric to The Heart of the Matter. The words cut through the pain more empathically than any dull and meaningless christian lyric:

I’m learning to live without you now
But I miss you sometimes
The more I know, the less I understand,
All the things I thought I knew, I’m learning again
I’ve been tryin’ to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness
Forgiveness
Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore.

The words of the Bible feel pointless as well,  “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.” (Luke 17:3-4)

I have repented and asked forgiveness countless times. Privately and publicly before all people. In my memoir, A Renaissance Redneck, I penned these words:

Again I begged for forgiveness, but this time my marriage of thirty-two years was over. My wife had had enough.

There are fewer things I regret more than the way I handled those six years after I stepped off stage and left the ministry; and there are no feelings from that time that compare with the sadness I feel over the pain I caused my family (especially my wife and two daughters) and friends and those who trusted me as their leader at re:Create.

Except for a few of my closest friends, I was ostracized by the Christian community. I had sinned—and that made me bad for business. My expansive social networks dried up overnight and people and sponsors began to pull out of my conference and my life. It was as though I did not exist. For months on end, I would not receive one email or call.

And over six years later, I remain estranged. Unforgiven by my children, their husbands, and their families. After six years, I’m learning to live without my girls now, but I miss them every minute of every day. I miss meeting my grandchildren. I miss our love.

Behind every great hatred is a love story. Until my 48th birthday our family  was a beautiful story of love—not perfect—but functional and healthy. After two years of intensive professional therapy, I have come to understand that a mid-life crisis and disillusionment after a thirty year career as a minister led to a devastating personal breakdown. A crisis in every sense of the word.

But try as I might, I cannot comprehend any crisis capable of wiping out twenty-three years of loving, sacrificing and providing for my children. Henley’s lyric rings true for me, “The more I know, the less I understand, all the things I thought I knew, I’m learning again.”

If the result of a great love story—a sweet family, a father doting over his daughters with a pure love for decades—is great hatred, then I don’t understand. Everything I’ve known is false. All the things I thought I knew, I’m learning again.

Can a great love turned hatred turn back again to love?

Oh, I hope so. Because I know that when each of my newborn daughters held, with their little hands, their father’s finger, they trapped me for the rest of my life.

A father without a child
is like…

dance without music
music without sound
sound without sight
sight without beauty
beauty without nature
nature without land
land without sea
sea without stars
stars without night
night without moon
moon without time
time without meaning
meaning without freedom
freedom without life
life without body
body without soul
soul without hope
hope without religion
religion without god
god without love
love without another

is like…
a father without a child.

10 Responses to “The Excruciating Pain of Estrangement”

  1. Chuck McElhannon August 11, 2017 at 19:51

    Gut wrenching. Brutal. Honest. Standing beside you in spirit.

    • My most quoted Henley line outside of no luggage racks on the hearse down the block. And Mike Reids “I can’t make you love me” comes to mind as well..
      If you’ve not listened to Mikes last release, you must;) and the song “when a man breaks a womans heart”. All reminders to us, the exposed fallen in a judgemental world of religion (we were a part of creating) that there are more broken looking for mercy than righteous looking for grace. “And the scars they will heal, and the choices will change, and I’ll be on my way..”

    • Thanks, Chuck, so much for your thoughts.

  2. Painful to read. Even more painful to live it, I’m sure. Thinking about my adult children, I can’t imagine the loneliness and heartache you must feel every day. You are loved by many. But I’m sure that’s no consolation. I hope and pray your daughters will forgive one day. Life is too short to live with bitterness. Thank you Randy for sharing your most private thoughts.

  3. I am right there with you. In my case seven years and not a word from my daughter or acknowledgment that I exist. peace2 u

  4. I have learned there are always 3 sides to every story: His, Hers, and the Balanced Truth. I have loved you for years — that has not stopped even though my heart was crushed a bit for you and yours during the process. My condoning or my condemning would do little other than give me an emotional shield from the struggle of hurting with you. I choose to stay a part of ALL your lives, if allowed. I long to see mended relationships — ones with patches that cover up the holes, but also draw attention to the remaining fact that holes have been created. I want you to see those grandbabies that I have had the privilege to see — and then cried that you have not.

    • Thanks, L.C. I appreciate your thoughtful words, as always. I understand the heart of what you are saying, and it touches me greatly. And in the spirit of dialogue, I must say that after living in the wilds for over two years and building all sorts of structures, I have come to find that balance is overrated, the most important thing by far is the concept of level ground. I have also come to understand there are no melodramas in life…to which you allude in your first statement. And I have come to understand through the professional and thoughtful guidance of Dr. Steve (with three phd’s in psychology, therapy, and psychiatry—and with a bigger heart and compassion than all his education) as he did not spare me the truth about my culpability in the situation—but also strongly advised me not to assume the role of Joaquin Phoenix (in terms of the melodramatic movie “Gladiator”) and to not let my children and former wife and community assume the role of Russel Crowe. There are two sides (or three)…but there is no level ground in this situation. Sigh. I love you, L.C. and I LOVE that you are there to love everyone involved in this situation. That is a huge deal and a feat that almost no one else has been able to manage.

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