Living Columns & Blogs

Carolyn Hax: What to say when you don’t approve of what you hear

While I’m away, readers give the advice.

On greeting a fait accompli: My beloved mother, who was the best source of advice for me, passed along a wonderful nugget that has come in handy many times: When someone presents you with an irreversible decision – They have sold the house and are moving to the North Pole! They have gotten full-body tattoos! – the only appropriate response is, “How wonderful for you.” Not “Are you sure?” or “What made you decide to do that?” or “Oh you should change your mind.” It will save a lot of ill will.


On not being all that mournful about mother:

I “divorced” my mother when I was 40. When she died, 16 years later, I was filled with regret – regret that I hadn’t “divorced” her 20 years earlier than I did. Why had I let myself be saddled for so much of my life with efforts to stay connected to someone poisonous to my mental well-being?


When my mother died, lots of sympathy came to my brother and to me, but we were just grateful that it was over – that we would no longer suffer from her cruelty. We kept our gratitude to ourselves, having already experienced lots of advice on later regret. If you could see inside my heart, you’d see scar tissue with her name on it that will never go away. No one but my brother understands. It’d be nice if someone – anyone – just took my word for it.


And, on being on the receiving end of estrangement: Estrangement has become a serious problem in America. Often, as in my case, parents are not even clear why they are estranged from their adult children, only that they are summarily rejected for mind-bending, illogical reasons.

The pain and loneliness of estrangement goes beyond understanding, unless you have experienced it. I worked with a therapist and my minister, and they helped me tremendously.

After that, I began to tell the story of my estrangement, and to listen to the stories of others. It is not something people tend to mention and isn’t a comfortable topic. I found that so many people are experiencing this same thing, and they were often grateful to have the chance to talk about their bewilderment and pain. Talking about it raised the awareness of people I know, and this year I received several invitations to spend Thanksgiving with friends.

My talking was not about whining and complaining, but more to find out if I was alone in this estrangement thing, and I found out that I am not. So start talking. If we’re lucky, our adult children will eventually realize we are not the unforgivable parents they think we are. If we are not so lucky, at least we will know we’re not alone. I will always love and miss my children, but I can’t stay stuck in rejection because I still have a long life to live.


Email Carolyn at