Question

My still unmarried, returned missionary, and only child, is now in his early thirties and is basically a good church person who wouldn’t hurt a fly. I think he still lives with his mother, yet something has happened in his life (a damaging seminar? Cult? …or false teachings of only being able to love one parent?) to cause him to suddenly become estranged from me and my side of the family.

It’s been four years since he cut off contact and since then doesn’t communicate or respond in any fashion. He and his mother send back mail as “not at this address.”  His mother and I were divorced almost 30 years ago, and I’ve tried to be a loving part-time father as best as I can. When he was young, I made efforts to work close to him for a month at a time so I could spend the evenings during that time trying to be a better part-time father even though I lived in a different state.

Over the years, my new wife and I have included him in many vacations – several overseas. Over the years, we generally talked on the phone on Sunday evenings and eventually started FaceTime calls. However, a month after a beautiful vacation together almost four years ago, he abruptly stopped taking telephone calls and would not respond to texts or emails. He eventually sent back Christmas and birthday cards with checks. It has been very hurtful to me – almost like a death has occurred.  How do I cope with my estranged adult child? I don’t even know if he will be around to eventually bury me or if I need to make other arrangements with nieces. He stands to receive a nice inheritance should he lovingly re-enter my life.

Answer

I can see how suddenly losing contact with your son for an unknown reason can be terribly distressing. Despite the challenges of divorce and long-distance parenting, you’ve worked hard to keep him as close as possible. Obviously, something has happened, yet you’re not given the opportunity to repair the breach. While you can’t force a relationship with your son, you aren’t powerless to act in the best interest of your relationship with him.

It seems that much of the recorded scripture we have involves examples and stories of how God responds to his children who seem to want nothing to do with him. Instead of irritation and immediate punishment when we ignore him, he faithfully extends his perfect patience and love for us. The following verse comes to mind when I think of this dynamic between God and his stubborn children:

“For notwithstanding I shall lengthen out mine arm unto them from day to day, they will deny me; nevertheless, I will be merciful unto them, saith the Lord God, if they will repent and come unto me; for mine arm is lengthened out all the day long, saith the Lord God of Hosts.”[i]

Another beloved reminder is found in the hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”, where the author petitions:

“Let Thy goodness like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to Thee

Prone to wander, Lord I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love”[ii]

Your son has made his decision by moving far away from your reach and influence. He’s not giving you the opportunity to choose contact and closeness, but you can still choose how you want to be in relationship to him. Your relationship with him is more than phone calls and vacations. Relationship is how you connect to him through your thoughts, feelings, words, and actions. Now is an important moment to ask yourself what kind of relationship you want to have with him.

When we push God the Father away, ignore him, or even curse him, he’s made it clear how he still chooses to relate to us. The response of the father in the Savior’s story of the Prodigal Son is a clear reminder of how Father responds to us when we’re non-responsive to his invitations to be in relationship with him.[iii] Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone described this story as a “parable of great hope and compassion”, which, I believe, is the model for how we are to respond to our children when they reject us.[iv]

Understanding the reasons for relationship rupture isn’t a prerequisite for God to continue extending his arm in hope of reclaiming his children. You don’t know why your son pulled away, but you can still stay put in loving relationship to him as you patiently wait for him to return. In your pain, you might be tempted to retaliate by cutting him out of your life emotionally, financially, or even relationally. While I can’t tell you how to respond to him, I want to invite you to measure your responses against your relationship goals for you and you son.

I’m guessing you’ve done what you can over the past four years to track him down and establish contact with him. If he’s making it clear that he doesn’t want a relationship with you, then accepting this will be one of the most painful, but necessary things you can do to stay emotionally and spiritually healthy. This is a time to reset your expectations for how you thought things would go in your relationship. Accepting this new reality means you’re honoring his agency. It doesn’t mean you forget him or cancel him out of your life.

You can work to have compassion for the confusion and challenges he’s endured as a child of divorce. You can work to draw on the love you’ve had for him that has motivated you to sacrifice your time, finances, conveniences, pride, and comfort for him all of these years. That same love will help you stay out of a victim mindset and allow you to face him with the same open and loving heart that will receive him when he’s ready.

Be careful to not criticize him to others or complain about what he’s doing to you. These types of reactions are understandable and quite common, but they will leave you feeling bitter and powerless. Your love is much greater than his distance, so trust your true feelings about him as your son.

If you have legal questions about how to handle your estate upon your eventual passing, I’m sure there are proper ways to handle this without resorting to punishing him. Continue living in a loving and generous way so you know you’re passing on a legacy of love, even though it may not be directly to your son.

Continue to create meaning and purpose in your life as you extend your wisdom, experience, and interest in the lives of your other family members. You have much to give and offer, even if your son isn’t open to receiving it right now. You need to know that your gifts and offerings matter to those around you.

It’s painful to accept that something may never be fully understood in this life. I do trust that you will get answers and there will be repair in a coming day. Center your hope in the great plan of our merciful Heavenly Parents whose sole purpose is to gather their wandering children. President Harold B. Lee’s reminded us about how, “We forget that we have a Heavenly Father and a Heavenly Mother who are even more concerned, probably, than our earthly father and mother, and that influences from beyond are constantly working to try to help us when we do all we can.”[v]

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]  

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.geoffsteurer.com 
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT
Instagram: @geoffsteurer
Twitter: @geoffsteurer


[i] 2 Nephi 28:32

[ii] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/music/text/other/come-thou-fount-of-every-blessing?lang=eng

[iii] See Luke 15:20

[iv] https://www.thechurchnews.com/archives/1991-04-27/lesson-of-the-prodigal-son-146970

[v] Harold B. Lee, “The Influence and Responsibility of Women,” Relief Society Magazine 51, no. 2 (Feb. 1964): 85.