My first wife and I divorced many years ago. My oldest son (from that marriage) sided with her at that time, and still has no contact with me today, more than twenty years later. What action, if any, is necessary on my part in order to rectify this situation?
Divorce is always difficult, and when it leads to estrangement, it is even more tragic. I'd love to answer your question more personally, except that you don't give me enough details to do so. You don't say, e.g., how old your son was, then and now, or the factors that led to his siding with his mother. Both of those are important in terms of whether I'd recommend efforts to rectify the relationship.
Building only off the fact that it's been so long, though, let me suggest that there might be room for rebuilding a relationship. That would involve, first, your coming to your son without bitterness or anger, and would probably involve some kind of full accounting on your part for whatever he saw wrong in you that led him to side with his mother. If you can do that-- and I don't minimize the strength of character such self-reflection takes-- there are roles that Judaism requires of a father and (if or when your son has children) grandfather.
Most specifically, the Torah tells Jewish fathers they have to teach their children Torah in general, and the story of the Exodus in specific. When it comes to grandchildren, the obligation goes one step further, according to the Book of Deuteronomy-- the (grand)father has lto teach his children and grandchildren of the events at Sinai, the fact that the Jewish people witnessed God giving the Torah to Moses, and on that day became eternally convinced of God's sometimes communicating with humans.
More broadly, I guess, the Torah is telling us that fathers and grandfathers are the links that connect us back to our past. I have no idea of whether or how your ex-wife has educated your son, but that education is a lifelong process, and I believe that if you can ever recreate the opportunity to serve that kind of a role for your son (and any children he may have), from a Jewish perspective, you will have made a major accomplishment (not to speak of the greatness of healing others' emotionally, a very great kindness in whatever circumstances the opportunity arises).
I don't at all minimize how difficult this is, but if you can see it through, knowing there may be a lot of anger and hurt to wade through on the way, I think you'll find yourself in a much better place for having made the effort, let alone succeeding.
First, let me say how hard this must be for you. Divorce is so emotional and complicated on so many levels, and while it may be what’s best for a relationship, it does not necessarily relieve the pain that is caused as a result of going through the divorce itself.
It is incredibly difficult to try and heal the brokenness that has been created over the last 20 years, that of being estranged from your son, separating from your spouse, and having a child side with one parent over another. There is no easy answer to your question. One place to start is to try and explore for yourself why it is that you want to reconnect with your son. Is there something you want to say to him, perhaps an apology or something that feels incomplete? Why now? Have you tried at some point over the last two decades to reach out to him? If yes, what worked well and what did not? I think it is always important to begin by exploring your motivation. Remember, there is a chance that even though you want to see your son, that he may or may not want to see you. So it’s incredibly important to understand your own desire for beginning the mending process of your relationship with him.
In the Jewish tradition, the notion of teshuvah, of returning, of forgiving, plays a pivotal role in our relationships, in mending our connections with others, in starting anew with the hope that we’ve learned from our past. What have you learned about yourself over the course of these years a part from your son? How did you behave toward him during the divorce and in the years that followed? What do you wish you had done better? Often times we have to first begin by examining where we’ve come from in order to determine where we want to go. Even if you are unable to repair the relationship with your son, is there a way you can grow personally from your past?
If you are able to make contact with your son, I wish you the blessings of patience and the ability to listen empathically. I’m sure that you have things you want to say to him, 20 years of conversations that you’ve played out over and over again in your head. Our instincts tell us to share everything in that moment. What’s more challenging is to give your son the space to share how he feels, how he has experienced the separation, and what he needs in the moment. Often times, sitting in silence can be profoundly meaningful, listening to the kol demama daka, the small still voice that exists within us, within the silence of listening and simply being present with your son.
Lastly, don’t go it alone. Seek support from loved ones, from friends, even from someone professionally like a therapist or a counselor. It is crucial that you have the ability to process what you’re thinking before you reach out to your son and during the process of reconnecting. Whether you succeed in your goals, come up short, or simply hit stumbling blocks along the way, part of your own healing can come from having someone to fall back on, someone who can lift you up if you fall. This is an incredibly hard journey. Going it by yourself can cause you even more pain than you’ve already endured.
Above all, follow your heart and keep an open mind. May you be blessed with patience, the ability and willingness to listen to yourself and to your son, and the courage to face your fears as you embark on this journey toward healing.
This is a very difficult and clearly painful question, and a timely one as we leave Tisha B'Av (the commemoration of the destruction of Jerusalem, the parent bereft of her children) and move toward the High Holidays--celebrations of reconciliation of repentance. To have no contact with your child for so long, and the implications of that breach of relationship, will make it hard for both of you to do the necessary teshuvah in order to rebuild that connection.
I would start with a letter. Not an email or a Facebook message, but an actual letter. Be neutral and keep your emotions in check as much as possible: laying guilt on your son will not cause him to seek you out, and overly blaming yourself might come across as false after so many years. Explain that you'd like to try to have a relationship with him, that you understand how difficult it is, that you accept your responsibility (again, without laying it on too thick) in your relationship with him (or lack thereof), and have no expectations of some kind of Hollywood ending, but, as you said, you want to 'rectify the situation', If you're in the same town (or will be at some point in the near future, i.e. for work, vacation or a family get-together) suggest meeting for coffee or some such. Make it clear that you want to give him the space to rebuild the relationship in a meaningful way. And be prepared for him not to respond, or not respond immediately. Do NOT use mutual acquaintances or family connections as go-betweens, even to see if he got the letter. It puts them in an uncomfortable spot and may put pressure on your son such that he would refuse a connection.
At the same time (if you haven't done so already), do you own cheshbon nefesh, your own spiritual and moral evaluation of yourself. How have you changed since the divorce? What mistakes did you make, and how did you/can you correct them? Those are hard questions, but necessary if you're going to have any possibility of rebuilding a relationship with your child.
I pray that the two of you are able to build a relationship of respect as adults and may enter the new Jewish year (only two months away!) with joy.
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