Q: My father treated me horribly when I was a child, so my relationship with him was strained and distant until the day he died. I never worked things out with him in person, and now I'm struggling with feelings of bitterness, anger and even a little guilt. How can I get past this?
Jim: Losing a family member is never easy, but it's even harder when we have unresolved issues with the person who has passed on. Psychologists call this "complicated mourning."
One way to begin working through these issues is to write a letter to your father as if he were still alive. Put all your feelings down in writing, as clearly and thoroughly as you can. Express your hurt, anger, loss and frustration. Once the letter is complete, you might even want to visit your father's grave and read the letter "to him" there. That's purely symbolic, of course, but some people have found it liberating.
It may also be helpful, if possible, to talk to other relatives who knew your dad when he was younger. What was his relationship with his parents? Did he feel loved and accepted as a child? If not, it's possible that he was simply passing this legacy on to you without fully realizing what he was doing. That's obviously no excuse for his behavior. But sometimes knowledge of another person's background can give us empathy for them. In turn, that empathy can grant us a new perspective on the person's behavior toward us and start to heal our own psychological wounds.
Above all else, I think there's a very real spiritual component to all this, so I'd encourage you to talk to a pastor or Christian counselor for further insights. You can start by calling our counseling team at 855-771-HELP (4357).
Q: Our youngest child is getting married this summer. My wife and I are trying to prepare for the transition to being empty nesters. We know of other couples in our position that even divorced. Do you have any advice?
Dr. Greg Smalley, Vice President, Marriage & Family Formation: You're wise to proactively prepare for a life-altering transition of this magnitude. Your marriage can thrive after the kids leave home -- if you and your spouse are willing to make it happen. It will require constantly working on your communication skills while committing that both of you have a voice in decisions. It's also a matter of investing intentional effort to date one another on a regular basis.
Start by getting away for a weekend as a couple to strategically discuss your expectations for the post-parenting years. Conduct a thorough inventory of your marriage, including taking stock of the methods and strategies you use to confront interpersonal conflicts and challenges. Look for patterns that might become problematic when there's no one else around to act as a buffer between you. Strip away the layers of busyness and outward activity that go along with raising children and let your marriage stand on its own merits.
You should also be aware of -- and honest about -- your temperaments and personality types. Talk about how you interact with each other. If there's some baggage in those areas, professional counseling is a must if you want to preserve and revitalize your relationship during the empty nest years.
The goal is to rediscover what attracted you to each other in the first place and find new ways to fan the flames of romance. If our staff counselors can help in this process, call the number listed above. I'd also humbly suggest a book I recently wrote with my wife, Erin, titled "Reconnected." We wrote it for couples just like you.
Jim Daly is a husband and father, an author, and president of Focus on the Family and host of the Focus on the Family radio program. Catch up with him at www.jimdalyblog.com or at www.facebook.com/DalyFocus.
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