Growing older allows you to remake yourself without the pressures, harried pace, or ego concerns of youth. In this change is a chance to heal wounded relationships, too. Parent-child relationships, like all human interactions, can suffer from slights, wounds, and thoughtless bruising. As a child develops his own personality, it is normal for him to come into conflict with his parents. But as he matures, he may gain greater sympathy for the struggles, challenges, and anxieties that drove his parents’ actions. This process of mature understanding is at the heart of adult relationships between family members.
I have seen the sad effects of lingering resentment on the lives of seniors, and their children, when these scars are left unhealed. Nan lives in a nursing home because of physical disability from a stroke, but her mind is sharp as ever. Most of the home’s residents have dementia, making Nan one of the few who can even communicate. Stuck without social ties, lonely and depressed, Nan is only in her early 70’s. She expresses a feeling of dread about her remaining years. Nan keeps pictures of her only son, Don, and his family on the wall of her room, and tells the occasional visitor about his good job and darling daughter. She is clearly hungry for visits from her son, which could bring joy to her daily life. But, Nan’s son sees her only twice a year, for 15-minute visits that are painfully brief. In his defense, Don says that Nan was never supportive of him; if she didn’t sacrifice for him, why should he do it now? Only Don knows whether Nan’s neglect was unforgivable, but I can’t help wondering: are those old resentments strong enough to justify withholding the love and attention his mother desperately needs?
It is not only the younger generation that can be callous: elderly parents, too, often carry ancient grudges. Impeccably-dressed and self-confident, 79-year-old Lucille treats her youngest son shabbily, even though he is the only one of her children who visits, takes her shopping, and sees to her medical needs. Lucille says Tom was always a “trouble-maker” and is untrustworthy, valid accusations over 50 years ago; but since then, Tom has become a stable, responsible father who raised two loving daughters. What prevents Lucille from forgiving Tom for past mistakes and acknowledging the fine man he has become?
The loss of a mature friendship between an elderly parent and adult child is grievous. Certainly, some family relationships are too far gone to save, and the only healthy option is to sever the ties. But it is more common that the relationship can be salvaged, and is worth saving, if the parties are willing to make the effort. If you are holding a grudge that prevents a mature parent-child friendship, consider these steps to mend the rift. First, try to sincerely understand why the other person disappointed you, and ask yourself whether the person, and the world, has changed since then. Second, consider whether your own behavior could have played a role – even if the conflict wasn’t your fault, could you have been kinder or more honest in your handling of it? The next step is to challenge yourself to see how big your heart can be. Can you forgive someone for wounds that caused permanent scars, can you rise above the resentment and see him as a fragile human being who, like you, makes mistakes? Without forgetting or denying reality, can you grant your parent, or your child, amnesty for his crimes?
If you can find a way to move past the hurtful history, you may be able to launch a new relationship that would not have been possible when you both were younger. Children may find that aging parents often have a different take on life: priorities shift, judgments soften, and love and affection become more important. Parents may find that their children have turned out to be good people, maybe even a source of pride.
We all look up to the parents who’ve gone before us, and smile down to the children behind. That is the way of life, isn’t it? Your relationship to your parents is the model by which you evaluate your relationship with your children. To wisely teach the next generation, you may have to make amends with the last.