It’s been a long time since I cried over my children. I have felt sad, shed a few tears, sat quietly as I watched other parents celebrate special moments. But it has been a very long time since I have felt the deep grief that is stored in the depths of my psyche. I keep it hidden.
But today I cried. I cradled my face in my hands, since there was no one there to hold me. I sobbed and my whole body shook. Wave after wave of grief poured forth — scaring me — soothing me.
I suppose I pretend that I am fine. No one asks me how I am coping. No one seems to comprehend what it is like to be an alienated parent. Most people don’t believe it actually. They say silly things like, “I am sure your daughters will come around someday.” Or they laugh and say, “Oh my goodness, my Mom sure makes me annoyed too!” But they get to see their Moms on Thanksgiving. I spend every holiday by myself.
It’s been 16 years since I have seen Bianca and 8 years since I have seen Phoebe. Both daughters are now in their 30s. I missed the decade of their twenties entirely. My grandson Jameson was only 8 months old when Phoebe screamed, “You’ll never see Jameson again!”
I can’t tell if my grief is over the loss of my girls, or if it is over how cruel they are. It is confusing. I adored my daughters and threw myself into mothering. It is beyond my belief that my love was wasted. It can’t be true, can it?
This is the nature of parental alienation — or rather, where it ends. Profound unremitting grief. The targeted parent can never seem to unravel the tragedy. Am I unlovable? Are my children just brainwashed? Will they come around to the realization that they still have a loving mother? What have I done to deserve this? Is there no way to escape this searing pain?
I am strong and resilient. I find ways to keep the grief at bay. I have long stretches where I don’t feel it — so much. But every once in a while it gushes forth – like one of those unpredictable volcanic eruptions. It’s not an on-time geyser like Old Faithful at Yellowstone Park. No, it erupts without warning and tears the landscape apart, killing everything in its path. I can’t bear it. I want to die.
I saw Bianca’s picture today, on LinkedIn. I was having a Zoom call with my website developer. We were discussing some improvements to my website that involved stories of my life with my daughters. My web developer googled Bianca and her picture popped up. When I saw her beautiful face — and she was wearing a cute pink hat — I felt so much love for her. Later when I went to LinkedIn on my own computer, I found that Bianca had blocked my access. I just wanted to see her — to have a little moment with my daughter. But she blocked me.
My colleague googled Phoebe too and found her on Facebook. But again I was blocked, when I tried later. My daughters have gone to great lengths to shun me, to deny that I exist, to cruelly banish me from their lives. Why? If you asked them, I suspect they could not tell you. There is nothing that warrants this abuse, but that is how parental alienation works.
It’s not reasonable. It is destructive beyond belief. It is not just cruel to me, to the mother. Like the volcano, it spews scalding hot ash and burns the landscape of the lives of everyone in the family.
The moment I say, “I want to die,” I know it is not true. It is just a way of saying that I am in pain. How does a mother live without her children? For the rest of her life? She takes back her life the best she can. She devotes herself to her work and her writing and taking care of her home and her pets. This is my life, if you want to know.
Last week, I attended a professional conference in Sedona. It’s a beautiful place, in the high desert, with pine trees and waterfalls and ancient Native American pueblos nearby. As I pulled my rental car into the B & B, a young employee approached me. He welcomed me and asked if I needed anything. I had rented a modest little cabin next to the rushing stream.
He looked intense as he asked, “What are you here for?’
I answered, “I’m attending a conference. I am a psychologist, so I am attending a professional health conference.”
He brightened. “Oh, that is amazing. My name is Edwin. What’s yours?”
I smiled. “I’m Kathy, Edwin. Nice to meet you.”
I thought the pleasantries were over, but Edwin persisted. “Would you have time to talk?” he asked. “I’d like some help.”
I am used to this. I am often asked to help. Out of the blue total strangers seem to recognize that I am a healer. It must be something that I radiate. “Of course I will help Edwin. Let me get settled into my room and I will find some time for you tomorrow.”
Edwin beamed a huge smile. “Good night Kathy. Thank you very much,” he said.
As it turns out Edwin is 19 years old and has never talked with a psychologist. He wants to break away from childhood trauma. His father is a heroin addict and ex-con. His mother is chronically depressed and in and out of the hospital. He frets over his younger brother who is acting out and following in his father’s footsteps. We talked at length over the next few days, but especially on my last day at the conference. I taught him some meditation techniques to keep him calm in the face of his family’s distress.
I didn’t expect to hear from Edwin again, as I dropped back into my busy week with clients. Now all of my work is remote. Monday morning, I turned on my laptop in preparation for Zoom meetings with my clients — started a cappuccino in my Nespresso machine. Each day is like this — punctuated with snuggling my cats — watching the ocean — doing a few household chores — writing — taking a short stroll on the beach.
By Thursday I learned that God had another lesson for me. God came to me through a woman, who is married to a man with High Functioning Autism (HFA). She is suffering terribly in this marriage due to verbal abuse. She found no solace in her religion, or her therapy, and turned to me when she discovered my books. It is bad enough that the couple now sleeps in separate rooms, but her worst fear is materializing — her children are angry with her for being “mean to Papa.”
“I want a divorce, Dr. Marshack,” she says. “But I am terrified that I will lose my children. Instead of a divorce, maybe I should just go back to grad school and become a psychologist. My friends encourage me to do this, since they know I’ve wanted to for so long. But my kids will hate me for this too.”
“Whatever you choose to do, Rebekah — it is not wrong to take care of yourself,” I said.
“But what if all of my children turn on me? One of them has moved far away and hardly ever talks with me. The youngest is complaining that I am never there for her. I can’t believe it since I have been her only parent — really — for years. Her father is all wrapped up in his work, so it has just been me and the children.” Rebekah is tearful and distressed as she explains her double bind.
“Of course these are not easy choices, Rebekah. But because of your life and these heartbreaking choices, you would make a good psychologist, wouldn’t you? I mean to say that you could reach your clients from your heart, not just your head.”
Rebekah looked at me plaintively and said, “But who would trust a psychologist who has lost her own children?”
I smiled at Rebekah — a knowing smile meant for both of us. “Well you know Rebekah — that’s my story too. My children have been estranged for years. You already know that, since you’ve read my books.”
Rebekah dismissed my statement quickly. “That’s different, Dr. Kathy. You’re famous. You’ve written books.” Rebekah gave me a look of confusion as she blurted out this last statement.
Once again I got it. “I know it’s hard to believe that you could carry on without your children. I certainly hope you never have to live with the grief I do. However, it’s also important to live your life for your blessings, not your fears. Sadly we tend to manifest the worst when we try to avoid our worst fears.”
Rebekah wiped tears from her cheeks. “I know Dr. Kathy. You have told me this before. It’s just that it is so frightening to be my authentic self when it could be the loss of everyone I hold dear. I wish it were easier.”
I left Rebekah with those painful and confusing thoughts. I know we will talk again, as she grapples with a life that she hadn’t planned. I wrapped up my work week after that call. But before the day was through, I got a text from Edwin.
“Dr. Kathy, are you still in town?” Edwin asked. “I just had lunch with my Mom and it didn’t go very well. Can you help me?”
“Hi Edwin,” I said. “No, I am back in Oregon but I am here for you. What’s going on?”
“Is it wrong for me not to want to see my mother anymore? It’s so hard to be with her.” Edwin is young and wanted permission from me to take his next step. But how could I tell this child to never see his mother again?
“Edwin, I suspect your mother loves you very much, but as you have told me she is troubled. I know you love her too or you wouldn’t have met her for lunch. It’s OK for you to take time for yourself if you need to. Sometimes we love someone so much that it hurts. Give Mom over to God, even if you can’t help her right now. Don’t stop loving her, but allow yourself time to find your inner strength. Life is a crazy, mixed-up thing isn’t it?”
God has a way of reminding me that my life is not a waste — that I am loved — and that there are other mothers’ children who need me. – and other mothers too. No doubt I will have more times when the grief over my daughters is unbearable — and I want to die — but what keeps me going is the resilience of young people like Edwin – and the anguish of a mother like Rebekah. Edwin, Rebekah, and I are a team, along with the rest of you who won’t let the unbearable grief hold you back from your mission.
This blog is very personal to me. I had to write it as a way out of my deep despair recently. It is also an excerpt from a book that I am currently writing. The book is about the devastation in families that occurs when a parent is targeted for parental alienation. I may change the title eventually, but for now, I am calling it “Love Gone Bad.”
Please give me your feedback on this blog. And if you are willing to share similar stories from your own life, please do. Only when we are willing to share our fears does it become easier to come to terms with our grief – express our authentic self – and create a radiant life.
25 Replies to “I Had a Good Cry Last Night”
Thank you for writing this blog Dr Kathy, I absolutely feel your pain and grief.
Being alienated from family in this way is devastating and so hard to bear! Having experienced this kind of abuse from both my parents at different times as a way of try to control me, I understand the ongoing grief.
Sending love and healing. Julie x
Thank you Julie. I appreciate your kind thoughts.
Dear Dr Kathy, the healer of many,
My heart leaps across the country to comfort you in your time of intense grief. Your life’s journey has been fraught with great hurdles and it has been an arduous path. I admire your brave example to honestly share details of the struggles. Because of your tireless work to benefit those that also hurt, you have created a group of like-minded people from around the world: bonded in challenges and joined in moving ahead best we can. I send supportive hugs and enormous gratitude to you and the entire community of kind-hearted beings. With gratitude, appreciation, and love, Christina
I honestly didn’t expect such kind responses but I love them nevertheless. Surprises like this are the best. To know that I am loved this much breaks through the painful losses. Thank you.
Dr. Kathy, I am new to this group, but I want to say how very sorry I am for your situation. I am a stepmother, not a “real mother,” as my stepkids took care to let me know for the 38 years their dad and I were together. Nevertheless, I loved them, helped them, took care of them, did a lot for and with them. After my husband died in 2016, my stepdaughter wanted to get control over my finances. The answer was NO. We have become estranged since then. It makes me very sad, tempered only by my reminding myself that I always felt sort of used by them, so it’s really not unexpected. The “not my real mom” comments always hurt. Their mother and I were like sisters for many years, however. I can only imagine how much worse your pain is due to this being your own flesh and blood. Huge hugs and love to you. They are missing out hugely, and I’m so sorry. I wish I had something to say to make things better, but I don’t.
Thank you Sally. I know there are a lot more of us who can tell a similar story. It helps to have this understanding and kind support.
I’m so sad to read this Dr. Kathy. You have touched so many lives including my own with your kindness, wisdom, wonderful advice and compassion. I am very grateful to you for the help you have given me in reclaiming my life after a neurodivergent relationship. I remember some Friday nights feeling miserable and empty in the bath, but listening to your live sessions and it bringing me hope. I know it’s not the same but you feel like a mother to us all. Certainly my autistic mother will never understand me the way you do. I hope things get easier for you to bear and that one day things are different with your daughters. But until then please know how appreciated you are. Your contribution to the world is magnificent and so important to so many of us.
Thank you Amanda. One way I am still a mother to my daughters is through my work. I hope one day they will understand as you do — this is a very tough life in a NeuroDivergent relationship.
Hang in there Kathy. The thing that has gotten me through is something I read a few years back that really resonated. I’n summary it said….our children come into our lives but they move through us as they are not us..we don’t own them. (Ouch) Our souls each have things to teach and things to learn during this process. I have 3 grown daughters. One loves me to death, one loves me as much as I am useful to her and her 3 daughters who live with us and one is hot and cold (the most neuro diverse and the one I have to walk on eggshells with to avoid a blow up). Then there’s my husband…..I am an island.
I stay…it’s my choice…I love but do not let their misperceptions of me defeat who I know I am (you know this is really hard). I think you do the same…keep doing what you do…you are valuable and worthy. Hopefully a time will come when they see you.
…or need you enough to at least look. If not…it’s their loss really, but you don’t have any control over that. Keep following your souls purpose.
Thank you Cathy. You bring up a good point. Marian Swenson suggests that women who choose to divorce ASD men lose twice. Rarely do any of us go through life without heartbreak, but to lose one’s children forever — we’ll that is unexpected and harsh. Still I have rebuilt my life upon the ashes that are left. Those are fertile ashes too. Ironic isn’t it, that my tragedy moved me to write and reach out to others in similar situations?
It’s also an odd benefit to me that I don’t see my children at all. I don’t have to live each day with the Soul crushing disrespect they showed me before they left. My memories of them are mostly of the good times — their laughter and beautiful faces, the silly times, the earnest discussions, the joy of a mother sharing in their accomplishments.
The grief that emerges from time to time is not unhealthy. It’s the true experience of acknowledging that those wonderful mothering days are over — and some of them never were true.
I was overjoyed to be able to relate to your blog post!
Two of my adult sons have more or less emotionally abandoned me out of busy ness and responsibilities and probably anger, but still it hurts. I try not to let my feelings drive my actions. I have long standing abandonment problems among other things. I react with intense anger to situations with my Aspie spouse and I feel guilty afterwards and then I cannot pray. All that being said I loved your words “live your life for your blessings, not your fears!
Your story is touching and heartfelt. Such intimate irony in using your own painful experiences to inform others, in hopes of a better outcome.
I estranged myself from my father for the last 14 years of his life. He was dead for over 8 years before I developed enough understanding to forgive him and to regret that I had shut him out.
I am sorry now that I missed so many opportunities to love him for who he was. I did not understand it at the time, but I now believe he had undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome, and so could not provide the emotional support I yearned for. It was a coping strategy for me, but very painful for him.
After he died, I discovered and began exploring my own experience of Asperger’s syndrome. I could not understand his lack of empathy until I explored and understood my own.
I would encourage those in a fruitless relationship to not eliminate contact entirely, but find some small token of a message that doesn’t take a lot out of you, but will still let the other know you exist and still care.
I left short “happy birthday” messages on my father’s voice mail. I was relieved that he didn’t answer so I didn’t have to speak to him. I didn’t expect him to return my call, and probably wouldn’t have answered if he had. It was all I had emotional energy to do, but at least it was something.
Even if this is all you can emotionally afford to give, you can say you gave it your best, and proceed without the expectation of getting something back. It is more self empowering than working to shut someone out entirely.
Wise words, Bruce. I too shut out my father at the end of his life and figured out he had Aspergers after his death. I now feel badly about it but I also couldn’t be around him or speak to him after the horrible things he would say to me. There is hurt there that will never go away. I wish it could have different. I now understand and forgive him but at the same time I am shunned and blamed by any family I previously had, and I am completely alone because of it. There just aren’t any happy endings when Aspergers is involved.
Dear Dr. Kathy,
I read this blog last night and was so overwhelmed by your soul crushing, tragic estrangement experience. I wanted to reach across cyberspace to hug you. It seemed unfathomable that the kind, generous and loving person I’ve come to know could be treated so cruelly. I also wondered how you could muster the strength to givie so much to all of us. I was thinking this morning about a podcast I listened to with David Kessler about grief and extreme loss and the key to making it bearable is service to others. You give that in spades.
I hope this tardy post finds you well.
With love and gratitude,
Kind words are never tardy, Lori. I am touched that you care.
You are very brave. Thank you for this. I live without my younger sister whom I raised through crazy childhood. And my mother. And my father. I imagine being estranged from children is a greater pain. Thank you for your honestly, it makes me trust you even on a deeper level. My husband is AS and it’s a rough ride.
Thank you Hannah. Life on Earth is so convoluted. I imagine the tragedy going on in a war zone like Ukraine, and I wonder how anyone can feel OK about holding back love in anyway. Life is precious. So are our loved ones. We need to hold them dear each and every day.
I am so sorry Dr. Marshack. I had no idea you had all this going on. I knew you were divorced but losing your children, this makes me sad. You have been so kind to me. You have helped me and my relationship considerably. I thank you with all my heart.
Thank you very much Brigitte. Even though I cry over my children, I also know there are wonderful people like yourself who can connect with me. It’s all about connecting isn’t it?
I am so sorry to hear your story, , but I had sensed it for some time and wondered how you bear it. Now I know… you are a gift to us who don’t have your life experience but need your wisdom and understanding!!! Who knows what will happen in their lives and how they might be changed. We can hope and pray that they wizen up before it’s too late. You are, for sure, a diamond, a treasure for us who aren’t your relatives!! May they one day see their lives with open eyes and see gift they have given up. And thank you for what you’ve done with unimaginable grief.
Your support means a lot to me Louise. Some days I do not bear the pain very well. One thing that works for me is to know that I have the wonderful group of truth seekers and loving souls to surround me. Thank you for being one of those amazing people in my life.
Your story really resonated with me Dr Marshack. I left my husband of forty-three years in July 2018 for my first love which I’d never gotten over and who was now widowed.
My first marriage was the standard 1970’s ‘I’m quite fond of him’ relationship but I’d forgotten what it was like to feel truly in love and when I ran into my first love six years ago, I knew I couldn’t resist him especially as he still had his boyish good looks and we’d been split up when we were young due to malicious rumours. In the 1970’s no-one spoke out about feeling and how we really felt about each other. It just wasn’t cool. So, after years of domestic violence, heavy drinking, a two-year separation but with an eight-year sobriety followed by a continuous sobriety-break since 1995, I felt I had paid my dues and followed my heart.
However, my three adult children, two of which have the Asperger’s communication issues, alienated me as my first partner was always seen as the good guy no matter what he did and me the feisty yet responsible one but since our separation my first partner has developed a terminal brain disease and is wheelchair bound in Aged Care which probably makes me look even worse. I visit him regularly to keep his spirits up and my children know this, but it makes no difference to how they feel about me. However, it’s weird as now I feel I have two men in my life which wasn’t my intention.
To make matters worse my eldest son went through a nightmare divorce in 2020 and blames his family for not supporting him which we did. The Court decided it was a ‘too hard case’ and gave her full custody so now I have a severely mentally ill Asperger’s son, who only talks to me if he feels he can manipulate or use me to his advantage. My daughter lives in Melbourne and I see my grand-daughters when I visit but there’s no relationship with my daughter and I only see my two grand-sons about twice a year even though they live close but always buy them presents. The other two I don’t see and one I’ve never met as custody was given to my daughter-in-law so I understand the raw hollow feeling of loss.
On the up-side I’m working my way through this course and it helps me tremendously to know that I’m not to blame for all of this as I’ve mentally-tortured myself countless times wondering if and what I could have done differently or better.
Thank you for being so open Margaret. More people need to know about the devastation that can result in NeuroDivergent families. Yes, our lives turn out so differently don’t they, once we unwittingly step onto the path with a NeuroDiverse person?
Thank you for sharing your beautiful yet sad story. I am sad for you. At least I catch glimpses of my daughter when I visit Melbourne and interact with my cute grand-daughters in the city while she goes off and makes other plans. Who was that person who made such a ridiculous comment, ‘A son is a son until he takes a wife. A daughter is a daughter for all of your life!’
I feel so sad for you. At least I get to catch glimpses of my daughter when I travel to Melbourne to see my two cute grand daughters while my own daughter goes off to do her own thing while I spend some time in the city when them. The person who made that ridiculous comment, ‘A son is a son until he takes a wife. A daughter is a daughter all of your life’! It’s such rubbish.