When I was a little girl, my family and I took a lot of vacations to visit my grandparents. I always looked forward to it — we’d hop in the car, go to Friendly’s for breakfast, play games, and in 8 hours, we’d be there.
I loved the smell of their house. My grandmother always had great food we didn’t get at home; she’d make popcorn on rainy days, and let us slide on our butts down her carpeted spiral staircase.
She’d take me and my sisters out to lunch and buy us an outfit at stores my parents couldn’t afford. I loved spending time with her. I loved seeing all my aunts and uncles and cousins because they all lived near her and she’d plan a few gatherings during our week-long stay.
I had a deep, dark secret though. My grandfather was molesting me and I didn’t tell anyone until I was 16. One, because I was petrified, ashamed, and scared. He told me not to tell anyone and he’d give me money.
But the part I’ve struggled with the most has been the fact that I’d held onto the secret for so long because I was afraid the family trips, the fun, the connections, the special memories of going shopping with my grandmother would end. So I kept my mouth shut for as long as I could.
As soon as I told my mom about it when I was 16, though, what I feared would happen did — they all thought I was a liar and wanted nothing to do with me. Even my own mother struggled between protecting her daughter and siding with her father.
I didn’t see or talk to anyone on my mother’s side of the family for 25 years and it deeply strained my relationship with my mom. It left a big void in my life and when I’d hear people talk about going to visit their grandparents, I felt a flutter in my chest and a kind of nostalgia that hurt.
When I had children, they had a great-grandmother who was still alive (my grandfather died when before my daughter was born) and lots of great aunts, uncles, and cousins I never told them about. It felt like my deep, dark secret was never going to end. But one day, when I was 36, something came over me and I wanted to let go of it.
One of my aunts came to visit my mother and they asked if they could come over see us too. As we sat on my front porch, the three of us deep in conversation, a humming bird came by and buzzed over my shoulders, then my aunt’s shoulders, then my mother’s. I felt like it was a sign and I went with it.
The next thing I knew, we were talking about a family reunion and together we decided the best thing to do would be to have my grandmother visit me and my children first and the following summer, we’d have a big family reunion. All would be forgiven and everything would be right in the world. At least, that was the hope.
I really wanted that to be the case. I tried, but reconnecting with family members after a few decades is trying, stressful, and can bring up a lot of painful memories, at best. It can be downright traumatic, at worst.
If you are debating whether to reunite with an estranged family member — or have recently and you are struggling because you thought you were ready but are wondering if you made the right decision — Leah Samler, a faculty member at Pepperdine University online clinical psychology master’s program has some advice. She reminds us, “When making the choice to mend ties, it’s important to consider the seriousness of the matter and the reasons for the conflict.”
Susan Finley, another faculty member with OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, has a good rule of thumb to follow when deciding if you are going to reconnect with a family member or not: If it’s not completely your decision to reconnect with someone from your past, “then table that decision.” Finley also adds, “reconnections are best when there’s a genuine motivation to heal and reconcile.”
It’s important if you are going to take the steps to invite a family member from your past back into your life that you feel safe. Some tips to consider before meeting up with an estranged family member are:
1. Think about having a mediator present.
2. Be prepared to be rejected.
3. Ask for help if you need it.
4. Never show up unannounced; connecting with an estranged family member should be a planned meeting you are both comfortable with.
5. Make sure you have done the appropriate work on healing yourself first.
Also remember just because you have agreed to reconcile, that doesn’t mean you are bound to this person. It is still okay if you decide you’ve made a mistake and you aren’t ready yet, or seeing them again has cemented your decision that you are better off if they aren’t in your life.
Finley reminds us, “It’s okay to cut ties, and it doesn’t make you a bad person.”
Only you know what is mentally healthy and can make you feel like your best self. A person, even if they are related to you, doesn’t belong in your life if you don’t want them there and it’s important to listen to that voice.
Finley adds, forgiveness may look different to everyone. “Not having resentment surrounding it, and not keeping score” is really important if you want to move forward.
I decided after seeing my grandmother again it was too much for me. I had to believe in my feelings enough to walk away again. She didn’t believe me — she hadn’t come to me wanting to heal and move on. She wanted to reconcile under the assumption I would change my story and make it right for her, and that wasn’t something I could do.
Not then. Not now. Not ever.
And after trying to reconnect, I can know that I am truly healed. Because I didn’t — and don’t — need that in my life any longer.