How can I practice gratefulness regarding a family situation? My daughter is estranged from the family. I have not seen her or my grandchildren in 5 years. I have tried to keep the connection but to no avail. I know she is in God's hands but my heart is sorrowful. — M., United States

Dear M.,

To be estranged from a daughter or son even for one day is excruciatingly lonely and disorienting, like losing part of yourself. Five years must seem like eternity, especially when you want to share in your grandchildren’s lives as they grow and change. No wonder sorrow has moved in with you!

Estrangement is a uniquely challenging form of grief. You experience cycles of numbness, depression, anger, self-doubt – as you would with any loss – except that this loss, unlike death, holds out a continual hope of restoration. People do change, forgive, and reconcile with each other. Not knowing when or even whether you will come back together makes your sadness agonizingly prolonged; it’s hard to reach closure. And it’s particularly hard to be grateful.

Even so, you seem already to know much about gratefulness in your relationship towards yourself and your daughter. You know that sorrow may need to become a companion rather than an enemy. You may need to turn to it for the wisdom and sensitivity it can provide. As Naomi Shihab Nye writes in her poem, “Kindness”:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

That’s no easy lesson to learn! You also know that you cannot wait around for your family to return to you before you experience again a sense of great fullness. Rather, with prayers for their well-being – and having done what you could to lay the groundwork for eventual reconciliation, if your efforts are reciprocated – you need to identify what’s missing in your life and find the most fulfilling ways to address those gaps. Do you miss nurturing? If so, where in your community – a neighboring child, a day care center – is there a need you can meet? Do you miss a certain intimacy of companionship that you shared with your daughter? If so, what friendships can you cultivate and deepen so that you again experience this richness?

When you do not allow your own life to be on hold, when you give your creativity free reign, when you become all that you want to be, you free up energy between you and your daughter. As in any parent-child relationship, you are so closely connected that even if she doesn’t consciously know what you are doing, the reverberations of your attitudes and actions reach her. If you do everything you can to be whole, in some part of her being she will know this and become more whole herself.

This mutual wholeness could bring you back together; who knows? But the point is that you can change only one thing in this estrangement, and that’s your own approach to life. By knowing that you’ve done what you can to foster reconciliation, and then letting go and making your life the best it possibly can be, you will have truly given the situation over to G-d, who always takes our good intentions and makes of them something even more blessed than we ever imagined.

With warmest best wishes to you and yours,
Patricia Carlson