“I am so glad I told my son how much I loved him before I let him go to live with his father.”
These were the words of a mother who experienced the grief of losing her son in an automobile accident a few months after he went to live with his father. This single parent mother shared how much she loved her son in one of our family counseling sessions and then, with many reservations, told him she would send him to live with his father because she just couldn’t manage his behavior. When our young adult leaves our home, we never know whether we might face a tragic loss such as this. It clearly highlights the need for us to take the time to say goodbye while they are still here.
Letting Go and Saying Goodbye
For both the young adult and us, we need to face the inevitable letting go and loss of a young adult to a new life outside the family. For us, we need to feel like there is nothing of the importance we haven’t shared that would not allow us to let go and our young adult to move forward. Call me old-fashioned, but I like to advise parents to do this ritual of letting go and saying goodbye through a handwritten letter, reading it to the young adult, and giving them the copy. By sharing these important messages with the young adult, we help both parties let go in a meaningful and concrete way. Keep a copy for yourself as a reminder of the letting go you promised. In my book – Growing Apart: Letting Go of Our Young Adults, I share a goodbye letter that I wrote to my son as if I may not see him again. All parents and their young adult children can benefit from such a goodbye letter.
Writing a Goodbye Letter
What are the suggested elements of such a letter? The components can be drawn from the practices that have been identified as significant to let go for parents. Although there is no prescribed order, such a letter ought to consider the following elements:
- Express our unconditional love for our young adults. How we love them at their core because they are our son or daughter and that nothing could ever change this love, we feel for them.
- Share significant memories of times with them and what we have come to appreciate as their unique qualities or skills. Describe what we understand to be important to them as they move forward in life – what they value, appreciate, strive for, and desire.
- Confess to them any specific incidents that require an apology on our part. This could include a general apology about being too harsh or not being there for them and a commitment to do better in the future.
- Consider where the young adult would be receptive and appreciative, express forgiveness for things that they have done, and promise not to bring these or other past offenses up in the future.
- Wish them well in their future and express your hopes and desires for them without being prescriptive. This is not the time to steer them in a particular direction relative to work or other considerations. It’s a time to express your hope for their happiness, love, and fulfillment as they continue on their path in life.
The letter must be “heartfelt.” Maybe in preparation, go back over old pictures or movies that would remind you of important experiences or accomplishments in their lives. Avoid preaching or warnings of things they should avoid. It should be free of exceptions to the positive things about them. No “however” or “buts.” Think of this as a love letter and ask yourself if everything you have said consistent with the love you feel as a parent for your adult child. In the same book that I referenced above, I had a parent describe such a letter that her mother wrote when she was a young adult but never shared with her. After she died, she found and read this letter and had this to say.
“I found a letter two weeks after my mom died that she had written to my brothers and me. Although I had seen this sealed letter in my mother’s jewelry box at an earlier time, I never opened it since I could see it was something she only wanted us to read in her passing. In that letter, she shared her feelings and values she wanted us to remember. Still brings tears to my eyes, but I am so thankful she wrote it.”
Hopefully, reading this has caused you to stop and think about what you have said or not said to your young adult. Or more importantly, what you believe your son or daughter has heard or not heard from you. Maybe you are contemplating writing to your young adult. I so, why not do it now? If not, when?