Another effect of the coronavirus crisis: Forgiveness

Why We Wrote This

When faced with a pandemic, do people become more forgiving? For some, this has become a time to prioritize reconciling with estranged family members.

Courtesy of Daniela Dawson
Daniela Dawson, age 12, and her brother Kenly Sommers, age 14, in an old family photo. The siblings recently reconciled.

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Jez Carleton told himself that he’d forgiven his adoptive father. But his therapist disagreed. When Mr. Carleton, a nanny in Melbourne, Australia, heard his father had been hospitalized with COVID-19, he had to decide whether to reach out. His father had expressed disappointment in his adopted son’s supposed lack of achievement. The two men hadn’t spoken in six years.

“I have always felt that he wanted to return me to the adoption agency because I was ‘faulty,’” says Mr. Carleton, who is gay. “I could never meet his high expectations.”

But the coronavirus crisis hastened introspection. “Everyone has faults and I have many faults,” he says. “Especially at this time of the world, I am trying to stop judging people. And then you have to forgive them.”

By stripping away the customs, comforts, and circumstances once taken for granted, the crisis has led people to reconsider what’s most important, and caused some to make efforts toward reconciliation or forgiveness.

Once Mr. Carleton plucked up the courage to call, he felt a calmness he hadn’t experienced during previous interactions.

“When the nurse told him that I was on the phone, I heard Dad say, ‘Jeremy!’ But it was a nice, surprised exclamation,” says Mr. Carleton.

“I told him I loved him at the end of the conversation,” says Mr. Carleton, who says he cried with relief afterward. “I meant it.”

When the COVID-19 shutdown started, Kristen Simpson’s thoughts turned to the father she barely knows.

He’d separated from her mother when she was a baby, and was never around much after that, even after her mother died. Battling a drug addiction, he’d ended up in jail. Ms. Simpson admits that her response was “really ugly” the one time he tried to initiate contact when she was a young adult.

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Thirteen years on, the arrival of the pandemic made her reevaluate their relationship. “I don’t want another one of my parents to not be here,” says Ms. Simpson, now an illustrator and mother in Fayetteville, Georgia. “We don’t know how much time we have to make things right in this coronavirus, knowing that he works for a job where he has to leave his house and safety.”  

She was aware that her father, long clean of drugs, works as a pizza delivery man in Florida. A few weeks ago, she cold-called him to apologize for how she’d spurned him.  

“I was scared he was going to reject me,” she says. “When we got on FaceTime together, his smile was just so bright. We were mirrors of each other smiling at one another. And it was a really good conversation.”

By stripping away the customs, comforts, and circumstances once taken for granted, the COVID-19 crisis has led people to reconsider what’s most important in their lives. Many of them have concluded that the security and affection of family – even if only at the other end of a phone line or video chat – is paramount. Consequently, some individuals who have long been estranged from family members have made efforts toward reconciliation and forgiveness, or are considering it. 

“When people do cut off contact with a family member or a parent, in their own heart and mind, it may not be with the idea that it’s going to be permanent,” says Joshua Coleman, a psychologist and author of the upcoming book “Rules of Estrangement.” “But the virus really shortens that timeline and provides a frame of ‘Well, how would I feel if I never reconcile with this person?’”

Shift in emphasis

The variety of reasons for estrangement underscore Leo Tolstoy’s maxim that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Some adults cut ties with parents or siblings who have been critical of their choice of spouse, their style of parenting, their sexuality, or their values. Sometimes adult children need to declare independence from parents who have either coddled or abused them. Then, too, say observers, a rise of individualism – particularly among millennials – has eroded traditional attachment to family.

“There’s much more of an emphasis on ‘What relationships make me feel happy or good and which ones don’t?’” says Dr. Coleman. “The idea that it’s an act of existential courage to cut off people from your life that don’t promote personal happiness, that’s a relatively new cultural concept.” 

Dede Hatch/Courtesy of Dr. Karl Pillemer
Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has estimated that about a quarter of adult Americans have an active estrangement with a relative.

Until recently, there wasn’t a lot of self-help literature or academic study about estrangements between family members. It’s been a largely closeted issue because of the stigma of admitting familial schisms to others. However, a yet-to-be-published survey of 1,300 people conducted by Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, found that about a quarter of adult Americans have an active estrangement with a relative. A series of follow-up interviews with around 300 of the random sample of respondents revealed that roughly 100 of them had mended the relationships, while the other 200 or so remained unreconciled with the other party.

“As time goes on, it becomes more and more difficult to take that first step,” says Professor Pillemer, sociologist and author of the upcoming book “Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them.” “What the current pandemic does is it offers that kind of an opportunity. Now it’s a logical time for a low-risk outreach of ‘How are you doing?’”

A time for reaching out

Since the onset of the coronavirus crisis, Professor Pillemer says several people in his personal network have reached out to him to share stories of how they have reconciled. They include a father and daughter who hadn’t talked for two years because of political differences and sisters who’d been distant for decades.  

Dr. Pillemer has also heard stories from strangers. Daniela Dawson was in her 20s when she cut herself off from her family in 2007. Growing up sandwiched between two brothers, Ms. Dawson says the close family was enmeshed with each other. Too much so. She began to feel judged by the others. 

“It’s not unusual for my family to talk about feelings – that’s probably why it’s so easy for us to get them hurt,” says Ms. Dawson, a data scientist who lives in Lake Forest, Illinois. 

Courtesy of Daniela Dawson
Daniela Dawson with her husband, Edward Dawson, and son, Evan.

Ms. Dawson credits her persistent mother and youngest brother for reestablishing their relationships some years ago. But she’d been unwilling to reconcile with her older brother. The married mother of four imagined funeral scenarios in which she’d died without ever talking to him again. Until the COVID-19 crisis, she thought she was OK with that. When Ms. Dawson’s mother mentioned that her oldest son had asked how his sister was holding up, something in her shifted. She called her brother.

“The first thing we did was just talk about what we’ve missed out on,” she says, laughing. “Both of us, just immediately, kind of were like, ‘This was silly.’” Now they’re video calling each other almost every day.

Those who’ve either reconciled with or forgiven others often talk about feeling as if a burdensome weight had been lifted off them. Their experience was one of learning something about themselves. That’s often led to improvements in other relationships, including romantic ones. Dr. Pillemer’s interviews also revealed that those who’d made efforts toward reconciliation said it was a powerful engine for personal growth. Overcoming that big challenge equipped them to tackle other limitations.

For Ms. Simpson, the reconciliation with her father has given her a new perspective on other areas of life, including the strength to set aside a lifelong debilitating fear of spiders that has affected her ability to spend time outdoors. She’s also now eager to take her family to visit her father once travel becomes possible again. “Our whole household is at a balance that we haven’t had before,” she says. 

Careful consideration and humility

Still, people who reconcile need to think through all the ramifications first, Dr. Pillemer and others note. Therapists and those who have reconciled also say extraordinary grace is required.

“The first thing is, are you making this decision from a strong place or a place of fear?” says Becca Bland, whose series of online workshops for adult children, “COVID-19 and Family Estrangement,” have quickly filled up in the past month. “The second thing is also understanding that if it’s going to be reconciliation, it’s not just going to be you reconciling. It’s ‘we’ and everybody in that situation is going to have to change and move for it to work.” 

Some counselors encourage patients to look for the kernel of truth in the other person’s complaint. That doesn’t mean relinquishing the integrity of one’s own experience, but it does help build one side of the bridge. 

Courtesy of Daniela Dawson
Daniela Dawson with her oldest brother Kenly Sommers (left), from whom she had been estranged, and her youngest brother, Josue Sommers. At the time of the photo, Kenly was 23, Daniela was 20, and Josue was 18.

Following her own reconciliation experience, Ms. Dawson says that she now realizes that her family members weren’t malicious or trying to hurt her. But her youthful insecurities meant that she began to develop a pattern of cutting people out of her life rather than reveal vulnerability and address the situation directly. It was the sincerity of her family’s outreach that spoke to her.

“Nothing is more compelling to another person than when we say, ‘I failed you, or I hurt you, or I damaged you,’” says Dr. Coleman, whose practice centers on parents whose children have cut ties with them. “Sometimes parents will protest, ‘Well, I’m not going to humiliate myself with my own child.’ My perspective is it’s not humiliation, it’s humility.”

Weighing forgiveness 

What people often grapple with, too, is how to forgive – which can look different and happen at a different pace for everyone, counselors say.   

“Forgiveness does not mean that reconciliation is necessary,” says Dr. Bland, founder of Stand Alone, a U.K. nonprofit that supports adults who aren’t in contact with their parents. “Forgiveness is about leaving something behind. It’s about letting it go out of view. It’s not saying it was right, what happened. ... And it’s not saying that you could ever stomach risking anything like that ever happening again.”

In Ms. Dawson’s experience, letting go of her grudging feelings toward her older sibling required her to be honest with herself.

“I was like, ‘I don’t wish harm upon my brother. I don’t go out of my way to be mean to him.’ So that must be forgiveness,” she says.  “That’s not forgiving. You’re still holding on to that resentment.”

Similarly, Jez Carleton told himself that he’d forgiven the adoptive father he was estranged from. But his therapist disagreed. When Mr. Carleton, who is employed as a nanny in Melbourne, Australia, heard that his father had been hospitalized with COVID-19, he had to decide whether or not to reach out. He says his father has long expressed disappointment in his adopted son’s supposed lack of achievement and success. The two men hadn’t spoken in six years. Since 1999, they’ve only had three conversations. 

“I have always felt that he wanted to return me to the adoption agency because I was ‘faulty,’” says Mr. Carleton, who is gay. “I could never meet his high expectations.”

But the coronavirus crisis hastened introspection. “Everyone has faults and I have many faults,” he says. “Especially at this time of the world, I am trying to stop judging people. And then you have to forgive them.”

Once Mr. Carleton plucked up the courage to call his father in a hospital in Sydney, he felt a calmness he hadn’t experienced during previous interactions.

“When the nurse told him that I was on the phone, I heard Dad say ‘Jeremy!’ But it was a nice, surprised exclamation,” says Mr. Carleton, who says the conversation went so well that he intends to travel to Sydney to see his father now that he’s been released from the hospital.

“I told him I loved him at the end of the conversation,” says Mr. Carleton, who says he cried with relief afterward. “I meant it.” 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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