5 Things to Know When an Abusive Parent Dies

“Family is supposed to be our safe haven. Very often, it’s the place where we find the deepest heartache.” ~Iyanla Vanzant

My brother called me at work on a random Tuesday to say that my mother had suddenly died. Powerful emotions of shock and relief ran through my body, like someone rang a gong right next to me. The war was over.

Like most people with an abusive parent, I had previously wondered how I would feel when my mother died. I was not surprised at the relief, nor that I wasn’t sad.

I did not think about what would happen next.

The Funeral

One brother and I flew to Houston to meet my second brother. As happens with death in the South, the neighbors loaded us up with food—bless them. While we were tasked with making plans for the funeral, my mother’s extended family converged upon us.

I should have won an Academy Award for keeping my cool and not exploding on them. I learned to act from the best: My mother was one person in public, another person at home. My mother’s extended family thought she was amazing. I stared stony-faced at the relatives telling hilarious stories and talking about her excellent character.

The hardest part was when the extended family compared me to my mother. Given what I know about her meanness, tantrums, and childishness, it felt like being compared to the schoolyard bully. I just tried to not roll my eyes out loud.

After all the hoopla of the memorial service, everyone went home, and my brothers and I had our own memorial in the living room. We laughed at some of her greatest hits. “Remember when she screamed at the cashier who wouldn’t take her coupon?” “Remember when she said my house was too small and she hadn’t even seen it?”

The Aftermath

When I got back home, people who cared about me kept saying, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I just looked at the ground and mumbled, “Um, thanks.” Now, when I hear about a death, I say, “Oh, wow” and give that person space for their truth.

My father died six years earlier. I knew from personal and professional experience that after a death, reality hits at about the two-month mark, when the numbness wears off. I braced myself to dig into the hard emotions.

The anger and sadness about my mother were like a bomb—everyone in the area felt it. I previously worked through the feelings of unworthiness, knowing the abuse was not my fault (thanks, therapy!). I gained thirty pounds of grief weight. Now I was also furious that grief issues were invading my body.

Family Stuff Goes On (Of Course)

I was still in touch with my extended family, of course. When they wanted to regale me with stories of my mother’s fabulousness, I tried to set the story straight. We would just gridlock.

On my mother’s birthday, the family posted memories about her on Facebook. I then posted a photo of the two of us when I was about seven years old. We were at my dance recital, and my mother had her arms open wide, smiling for the camera, while I clung to her. A friend privately messaged me, “She’s not even touching you.” I messaged back, “Exactly.”

One aunt finally admitted, “Yes, your mother was hard on you.” I was shocked that people knew about the abuse but did nothing about it. The fact that my family left me to rescue myself as a child caused an emotional setback for several months.

To this day, I avoid the topic of my mother with these people.

And Then, Healing

I purged the grief in my journal, with my therapist, through art and sports. As I sifted through the rubble of my emotions, I became grateful for the many women who were mothers to me over the course of my life.

I changed my nutrition. I learned to nurture myself in ways I never got as a child. I became my own mother.

As the smoke cleared from grieving, I unpacked my automatic behaviors from childhood. I started hearing my true Self and made better choices. For example, I found that I have a gentle nature at my core. I couldn’t hear my Self because I was locked in battle with my mother.

Through even more journaling, more therapy, and more time (seven years at this point), I was finally able to release the situation. People use the word “forgiveness.” More accurately, I can see the wholeness of the debacle of my childhood. I found real peace.

Tools To Use

I have seen other people in my practice who’ve feel relief when an abusive parent dies. Like me, they often don’t think about emotions or situations past that point.

Some things to think about:

1. You might get compared, favorably or not, to your abusive parent. People outside of the immediate family rarely say bad things about the deceased.

2. Even though you feel relief, there is still grief, even if it’s “What I should have had…” Boxing up your feelings will make them come out sideways. Grieving is a hard and time-consuming process, but worth it for your healing.

3. Even though your abusive parent has died, they are alive in your head. Every mean thing they said, crazy thing they did—it’s all still there. Do trauma work to reclaim your life.

4. You are more than what you’ve survived. Listen for your true Self. Who are you underneath the abuse from your abusive parent?

5. Family members often push the abused person to forgive WAY too early. This is like sticking a band-aid on a wound. Forgiveness sets you free, but only when you are ready.

From a Distance

I am not sad that my mother has died, and I don’t miss her. She was mentally ill, and I am glad that she is not suffering any longer. I’m also glad that she is not hurting me or my siblings any longer.

Seeing the situation from a distance, I can see my mother for her incredible flaws (I haven’t forgotten), but her strengths as well. She was artistic. She loved animals and senior citizens and tried to help them. She was a feminist before it was cool.

As expected, her death brought a ceasefire, but it also brought much more. It gave me the chance to unshackle myself from this long-running war so that I could walk away, towards my true Self.

2024-06-19 13:50:28


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