Letting go of the Anger of Failed Succession Plans

By Elaine Froese

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 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 2 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 a better point where you can see other opportunities to fill your passion besides the failed plan?

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 counseling to be a great tool to help process the grief and loss of a life-long dream. The counseling 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 counseling 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 counseling first, and the husband followed when he witnessed the freedom his spouse was finally experiencing. Today with zoom you can have a counselor anywhere in the country. I recommend Emotional Wealth Management in Calgary and Recovery of Hope in Manitoba.

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

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 farmer’s self-worth comes from what they do in agriculture. I have seen folks move to a non-family member in a joint venture type of relationship to build a new farm career. 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. Counselors will likely help create an emotionally healthy response to other’s 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 to move on?

You might want to do some coaching to discover new meaning and purpose in your career. What is it that 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 impacting their environment. These strengths and tendencies will help folks 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. So women in agriculture, 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 relationships will go faster if there is unconditional love. If the toxic behaviors 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.

Folks can get help from their doctors and local mental health workers. 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, or if it exists, you can start treatment under the care of your doctor. Many times we need a trusted professional to 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.

Privacy on social media entices women to share with some trepidation. I would encourage you to reach out to counselors, coaches, and nurses who are familiar with grief and emotional pain.

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” (2010) offers wisdom on this topic, and you can get an audio copy. 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.