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Let go of the anger of failed succession plans

Elaine Froese for Progressive Dairy Published on 31 March 2021

I can’t imagine what it feels like to think you are getting married and then find out at the rehearsal that the wedding is called off. Who do you go to – to ask for help to process that hurt, disappointment and embarrassment?

There seems to be a parallel type of anger that follows a failed succession plan, when generation two walks away from the dream of being on the family farm – a different kind of “marriage.” How do you get around this disappointment in the short term to reach a better point where you can see other opportunities to fill your passion besides the failed plan?

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As a seasoned coach, I have witnessed the journey young farm couples take to find healing and wholeness when things don’t work out. A young dairy farmer alerted me to this fact: “I’ve been seeing a theme among the Ag Women’s Network forums: women reaching out to ask others for next steps after failed succession plans.”

Women typically take on the role of the emotional officers of their families. These are the questions they are asking:

  • The farm’s been sold to someone else. How do we move on?

  • The farm’s been sold. How do we mend relationships so we don’t lose the family, too?

  • Where do we go to get mental and physical help?

In the cases I am familiar with, the farm has not been sold, but another sibling has been deemed the successor. The anger of the son leaving the operation stems from hurt, fear and frustration. This person found counselling to be a great tool to help process the grief and loss of a life-long dream. The counselling for his wife started first, as she was more ready to embrace outside help. When I questioned her motives, she courageously said, “You need to do counselling for yourself to quit being sad and angry. It’s a good place to get a neutral view and tools. Close family is too emotionally tied to the situation with all their emotional input.” In this case, the wife sought counselling first, and the husband followed when he witnessed the freedom his spouse was finally experiencing. Today, with virtual meetings, you can have a counsellor anywhere in the country.

Also, check out your physical well-being. One of my clients went to her doctor and discovered her sadness came from a low-functioning thyroid and depression.

Letting go of pain and working through the complexity of family business dynamics takes time. You need time to process your grief and find healthy ways to create a new identity. Many farmers’ self-worth comes from what they do in agriculture. I have seen people enter a joint venture with a non-family member to build a new farm career.

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What may sideswipe you is the unexpected backlash of community gossip or opinion on the “failed succession or transition.” My coaching client did not expect the backlash of negative comments from family or the community. Counsellors will likely help create an emotionally healthy response to others’ comments.

Dealing with the loss of a dream is a form of grieving. Our culture is pretty messed up at the moment with the Great Pause and the restrictions on grieving as a group to bring closure and healing for loss. Losing the opportunity to be part of the family farm is a huge loss. The question is: How do you move on?

You might want to do some coaching to discover new meaning and purpose in your career. What is it you do where you lose all track of time? What gives you energy? What do your closest friends see in you as your strengths? Could you spend some time strategizing new opportunities? What sounds like a good thing to test out? Currently, I am guiding an older farmer and his spouse in “adopting” a couple to run their farm. We are using a value style indicator and a personal style assessment to gain insight on what values are aligned and how each person deals with people, tasks, details and how it impacts their environment. These strengths and tendencies will help each individual be clear about which roles and responsibilities they can tackle well.

Part of moving on is having something to look forward to, or something that fuels your desire for life-long learning. One young farm woman is taking more training in conflict resolution, with the desire to do farm family coaching and combine that skill set with her deep understanding of the grieving process in her other profession. What are you looking forward to? What gives you a sense of excitement and energy? What do you need to let go of in order to create space for the new mission?

Navigating family relationships after a farm split or succession fail takes warmth, grace and patience. Building the bridges of relationship will go faster if there is unconditional love. If the toxic behaviours of manipulation continue, then relationships will likely always be fragile. People get up every morning and choose how they wish to behave. They can reach out with grace and forgiveness to build stronger family ties, or they can choose to continue to be mistrustful and nasty. You can choose to be open to blessing the other family members with grace and kindness regardless of how you are treated in return, but that takes strong emotional health and clear boundaries of what is workable and what is not acceptable.

Doctors and local mental health workers are there to help. If deep pain, hurt and emotional exhaustion is creating physical distress, you need to see your family doctor. You can ask for a depression test to rule out a low-grade depression and, if it exists, you can start treatment under the care of your doctor. A trusted professional can help us work out issues in a safe and respectful manner, and that is where a mental health worker can be a huge support to you on your journey of letting go. I encourage you to reach out to counsellors, coaches and nurses who are familiar with grief and emotional pain.

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Dr. Henry Cloud’s book Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward offers wisdom on this topic. Gary Thomas authored When to Walk Away: Finding Freedom From Toxic People. Thomas reminds us that “life is about learning to live with loss.” My book Farming’s In-Law Factor has insights on conflict and what to do when things don’t work out.

Remember to pay attention to the health of your marriage; you want your couple knot to stay strong. end mark

PHOTO: Photo by Mike Dixon.

Elaine Froese, CSP, CAFA, CHICoach celebrates 40 years of marriage on Independence Day. (That’s an oxymoron for marriage!) Send her your best love story: Elaine Froese.

Elaine Froese
  • Elaine Froese

  • Certified Farm Family Coach
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