How to Prepare for All the Possible Outcomes When Reuniting with an Estranged Family Member

How to Prepare for All the Possible Outcomes When Reuniting with an Estranged Family Member

 Ashley Darby longed to connect with her dad, but she wasn't entirely ready for what happened when they finally met.

By Marni Eth

Ashley Darby has been very open about the complicated dynamic she has with her father, who left her mom when she was 1 and she hadn't seen since. Ashley explained that she “had all these strong desires” to meet her dad, but after three attempts at connecting over Facebook, she was blocked. When she became pregnant, she longed for that connection even more and felt that she owed her baby a grandfather.

On the latest episode of The Real Housewives of Potomac, Ashley finally comes face-to-face with her dad, which she described as an “out of body experience." But then he closed the door in her face, as soon as her Aunt Sheila tried to introduce them.

Whether someone is in a similar situation to Ashley, only raised by one parent, or was adopted and is searching for the biological parents, there are ways to emotionally prepare for both the positive and negative outcomes that come from reuniting with unknown family members. Personal Space spoke to Sharon Kaplan Roszia M.S., co-author of Seven Core Issues in Adoption and Permanency, to learn more about the tools you need to cope with potential feelings of rejection, shame, and guilt, and how to process grief, if a reunion proves disappointing.

Tune into Core Issues

Roszia explains that a situation like Ashley’s is similar to what occurs in cases of adoption. Those who experience lifelong inter-generational losses and complexities face seven core issues when searching for those connections: Loss; rejection; shame and guilt; grief; identity; intimacy; and mastery and control.

During Ashley’s journey, she’s explained her feelings of loss, rejection, the guilt her father may feel, identity struggles, and intimacy issues that have occurred between her and her partner. Mastery and control derive from the desire to take charge of one’s life, since those who have been abandoned by a parent “had no input into the decision that changed their life trajectory.” Understanding this paradigm can help someone tap into their feelings and find healthy ways to cope in similar circumstances. In addition to reading books or listening to podcasts, Roszia also suggests joining “an online support group of other adults who have been down this road before.”

Manage Expectations

If someone has the opportunity to track down an estranged birth parent, Roszia notes that the “search” aspect is solely about the information" you find out. Roszia warns to be mindful, because “information can also change your view of yourself” depending on what you find and “you may have some identity confusion to address.”

The reunion itself is about the relationship you hope to form. Roszia explains that “you have the right to information, but perhaps not a relationship.” One reason is although “you have been preparing for this, they have not.” A good way to reframe the situation is to “put yourself in their shoes” — it’s possible “they may have never told anyone about you, have not expected you back in their lives, may be shocked, embarrassed, stunned, afraid, or overcome with emotion.” Therefore, “be clear about your fantasies about the person/s you are searching for and what, at the very least, you want from them.”

Roszia also notes that a “reunion may take a long time” or can even be “with another member of the family.” In Ashley’s case, it was her father’s sister (Aunt) Sheila, whom she reconnected with to find her dad. Ashley explained on The Real Housewives of Potomac After Show (clip above) that she, her mom, and Aunt Sheila all “needed closure from this man.”

Prepare for Disappointment

Understanding the birth parent’s perspective can help manage expectations of a joyous reunion and help brace for an undesirable outcome. Roszia explains that “no matter how you are greeted or what you find, it will not be what you expected.” It’s important to “be clear on how you deal with disappointment.”

Preparing for feelings of sadness and grief in a way that is constructive can help a person from spiraling into despair after a disappointing reunion or unreciprocated feelings. Also, Roszia reminds that it’s important to keep in mind that “first contact is not always the long-term picture… You may have to give it some time.” Also, “information is less threatening than expecting a relationship,” so asking for information you may need, such as a “medical background,” can be an easier route.

If a reunion goes better than expected, “set your expectations and boundaries in place from the first contact and ask them to do the same.” If it becomes overwhelming, Roszia advises to “talk about it” and “let them know.” You can tell them that you want to take it slowly, or that you would like to readjust the boundaries to feel comfortable. Either way, “plug into your support system and tell them how you want to be supported.”

Focus on Positives

Roszia notes that “it is normal and natural" to want to know everything you can about yourself,” which can include birth parents. If you had a disappointing reunion, she suggests focusing “on what you did gain from the experience, not what you didn’t.” Ask yourself, “How your life has changed or not changed since the search?” Keep in mind, the good news is that “you are still you.”

Ashley also admitted on the After Show that she felt extremely sad when the door was literally and figuratively closed to her by her dad. However, she realized that “it really confirmed to myself that I'm a strong woman.” She explained that she didn't know how she was going to react, “if he didn't reciprocate in wanting a relationship” and that she “surprised” herself. Ashley admitted that she “came out much stronger” and “grew a little bit more.”

Roszia advises those in that type of situation to find “new goals/ skills you want to achieve/accomplish” as a coping strategy. This can help “gain mastery and control in new areas of your life,” which can be cathartic. Another good way to move forward in a positive way is to “support others” who may be having similar experiences.

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