my broken family

It's bringing us back together after we suffered a worse tragedy

This pandemic has had a profound effect on my life. All of our lives. Many of them severe. Loss of income, limited contact with friends and family, difficulty balancing family and work-life are just a few of the more serious repercussions. I know people whose loved ones have died from COVID-19. Many of our families have been broken, including mine.

To my surprise, one area of my life has changed for the better. Dramatically, even. Sheltering in place has brought me closer to my kids. Our improved relationship has been an unexpected gift— a huge blessing.

My Life as Mom

I was one of those moms whose home was filled with my sons’ friends. If my children made a plan of getting these kids together, I would drive out of my way to pick them up. I did this deliberately. I wanted them to have a different kind of experience than I had had growing on a rural farm.

On my days off, my kids and I played video games, worked on 4-H projects, completed puzzles, and built model rockets. We camped, swam, and roasted marshmallows to make s’mores. Each Wednesday was “library day.” After finding my armload of summer reading, I would head over to the Young Adult section to help my sons make their selections. Then we would stop by the local coffee shop and sip hot chocolate and read.

Not My Kids’ Friend But Encourager

I wasn’t my kids’ best friend, but I was an involved mom. That’s a challenging distinction. I refused to lean on them for emotional support but made myself available to encourage them. I went out of my way and invested in the things that mattered to them.

My late husband used to say, “The kids are ‘your boys,’ Kerry.” I knew what he meant. He loved them dearly but was easily bored with subject matters and topics that interested them. Reading one of their books or watching one of their films so that they could all talk about it together was tough. He had to be in the mood.

Not true for me. Granted, I had the luck of liking similar genres and types of movies as my sons, but devoting myself to my kids’ interests came naturally for me.

Respect for Sons’ Privacy

Giving my kids the space to have a private life was vitally important. As a psychologist, I had witnessed the damage done, mainly to men, when an overinvolved mom regularly invaded their growing son’s emotional space.

It’s easy to understand why these moms did that, though. I, too, wanted to know all the details of my sons’ day-to-day lives — to hear about their friendships, their love interests, and other seemingly innocent mundane things. To feel included. To experience the same kind of relationship some teenage girls have with their mothers.

In my counseling practice, men raised by this type of mom distrust others. To protect themselves, they have learned to compartmentalize their lives. They camouflage their true feelings, and then present a false but acceptable social persona to mask their real selves. This defensive structure wreaks havoc on these patients’ intimate lives. It’s hard for these men to meet a partner, and if they do marry, their relationships are often troubled.

I waited to be invited into the private spaces of my sons’ lives rather than pushing for that privilege. Such respect kept me from knowing the details of things that mattered to me. Their autonomy, however, meant more than my desire for a closer relationship with them.

Tragedy Changed Family Relationships

That all changed when my late husband became ill with cancer. At that time, my oldest son lived in another state, and the other two kids lived at home — one was a working adult and the other finishing his senior year of high school.

Diagnosed with rare terminal cancer, my husband went from being an active, hard-working man to weak and dying within a matter of weeks. He needed immediate radical surgery. And then progressive dementia appeared. He no longer could be home alone for long periods.

I shifted my attention from work and raising kids to him. Guilt-ridden over this decision, I told myself my sons were old enough and would understand.

I don’t blame myself for the terrible decision I had to make between being there for my kids or for my husband. We all do our best with what life gives us.

That’s what I did during those awful months. I got up, took care of my husband, cried myself to sleep, woke up, and did it all over again. There was no choice — it was what had to happen. If faced with the same set of dire circumstances, I’d do it again.

Shocking Fallout

But my absence impacted my sons terribly. While they were dealing with the impending loss of their dad, their mother went missing. When they needed their parents the most, they lost both of us.

Then my husband was gone, and two of my sons were, too. In pain, grief, and anger, they discontinued contact with me. One son ignored all of my phone calls and text messages for over a year.

I was devastated.

I know I didn’t deserve to be ostracized. My internal voice of reason and wisdom that comes from having some life experience under my belt tells me so. But I also know I hadn’t just gone through what my sons did. I lost my husband; they lost a father at a critical phase of life. Those are two very different realities.

For several years I limped along and made the best of my damaged relationship with two out of three adult children. What could I do? Demand they contact me so that I could take comfort in a sterile, monosyllabic conversation with someone who doesn’t want to talk to me? No thank you.

COVID-19 Struck

Then, my oldest became sick. A different type of aggressive cancer struck my family. I dropped everything and moved to be near him and his younger brother at his request. But as his treatment came to a close, those two sons pulled away one more time. Though it deeply hurt me, I stuck to my principle and refused to be an invasive mom who wanted more.

I lived one block away from my sons but rarely saw them. One more time, I swallowed hard and worked to develop my own life in a new community.

Then the pandemic struck. Since all of us were responsibly socially distancing, we felt the freedom to celebrate one of my sons’ birthday as a family. As the party ended, my oldest said, “Can we do this again? Next week? Maybe a movie and dinner?”

I gulped and held back a desperate urge to say yes, yes, yes! Instead, I smiled and said, “Of course.”

We met again, and as we prepared to say our farewells, one of my sons said, “You know, I looked forward to this all week. Would it be okay if we planned to make this a regular thing?” The other son nodded his head in agreement.

I worked to calm my breathing. “Sure,” I said as I masked my desperate eagerness.

Enjoying the Blessing Amidst the Crisis

For over three months now, we’ve met weekly. We watch foreign films, eat every type of cuisine, and talk about matters of the heart. Slowly, our relationship is healing.

The scientist in me wants to dissect what’s changed, but I tell that part of me to shut up and enjoy the process.

The global crisis has given me a fantastic blessing. An unexpected gift. It has allowed me and my sons to reconnect in a new way and to heal after suffering a terrible loss. It’s odd how something so challenging and unwanted can have beautiful unintended consequences.

Dr. Kerry McAvoy is a clinical psychologist, mother of three grown sons, writer, and author of the devotionals: Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Bringing Hope and Healing, Jesus, The Ultimate Therapist: Healing Without Limits, and Pain as a Starting Point.

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