“Do Not Let Your Hearts Be Troubled”- Coping with the Death of a Dysfuntional Parent

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Mukilteo Lighthouse – Stormy Sunset

Before I became a parish priest, I spent twenty years as a professional hospital and hospice chaplain. During that time of my ministry, I provided pastoral care within a wide range of family dynamics (and dysfunction) as well as within some of the most compassionate and present families I’ve ever seen.

All the families that I encountered brought their hearts, needs, secrets, issues and gifts to the patient bedside like shepherds and wise men bringing gifts to the manger of the Christ child – not all the gifts and personalities that made the pilgrimage were beautiful or perfect. Yet, all did bring gifts, because they brought themselves. Truth does not come from perfection.  Rather, truth emerges only and always from the messy muck, the dirt and ashes, pressures and darkness that have conspired to give rise to  life itself.

Most family members had a moment during their loved one’s dying process when they expressed embarrassment for the depth of their emotion, vulnerability or attachment – as though they had learned somewhere that strong feelings indicate weak character. Vulnerability is a prerequisite for personal growth (as in, “Oh, crap! Here comes another learning experience”). Additionally, introverts grieve differently from extroverts; there are general differences between genders in the grieving process; cultural and social background influence grief expression or repression; and children express grief differently depending on age and developmental stages.

Grief is individual and complex.  The ability to grieve can be further complicated when there are challenging dynamics or abusive history between the one who is dying and the family member or friend who is struggling to cope with feelings of anger, guilt, relief or annoyance.

A funeral that I have done recently for the alcoholic parent of four adult children has caused me to reflect once again on the complex grief process involved for those left to either pick up or throw away the pieces.

The encouragements that I  share below are specific to adult children coping with the loss of a parent who was abusive, alcoholic, addicted or otherwise incapable of providing a healthy parent-child relationship. Family Systems Theory helps us understand that addictive disorders, sexual abuse and dysfunctional dynamics are commonly passed down through generations. Stopping the cycle requires intense and purposeful self-awareness and change in those who inherit the legacy.

The death of an addicted or abusive parent brings with it by default a challenged grief process for adult children. This is a summary addressing the most frequent issues that I have encountered in their complex grief process, though it is not all that has been, could or should be said. Perhaps, though, it can be a start for someone seeking a beginning…

Expect to Feel Many Emotions; Please Do Not Fall into a Cycle of Shame for Feeling Them

The parent-child bond is a fundamental human relationship. Whatever our relationship with or experience of a parent, the child within us will have as much (or even greater response) than the adult we may be now.  While everyone has unique feelings about the death of a parent, some of the more common emotions include: Sadness, Relief, Anger, Guilt. All that we feel is necessary to experience in order to move healthfully through the grief process. There is no “bad” emotion, though there can be unhealthy ways of attempting to cope with them. Be honest with yourself about how you feel (or don’t feel), and be even more honest with yourself about how well (or unwell) you are coping with the loss you feel or the issues raised for you by your loss of your parent.

Emotional Labor: Be Tolerant of Your Physical and Emotional Needs

While we are used to thinking about our work life as valuable enough to deserve compensation, our culture does not sufficiently value our emotional labor as real work. Because processing the emotions of grief is laborious,  while engaged in emotional labor, we need to find real ways to compensate ourselves through rest, renewal and nourishment. Your feelings of loss and sadness will contribute to genuine fatigued. Your ability to think clearly and make good decisions will be impaired. Your low energy level will slow you down, so respect the need that your body and psyche have for rest and care. Listen to what your body and mind are telling you. Nurture yourself. Get enough rest. Eat balanced meals. Resist over indulging in ways that you know are harmful to you or those around you. Lighten your schedule as much as possible, and take breaks  to do enjoyable activities. When you experience negative flashbacks to the past, look around your immediate environment – name five colors that you can see around you, identify five textures that you can feel, identify five sounds that you can hear, identify five smells that you can detect in the environment, then take five deep and slow breaths…repeat the sequence whenever necessary. Sink an anchor bolt into the present moment to help you be here now and not there then.

Realize Your Grief is Unique to You; Everyone Grieves in Their Own Way and at a Different Pace

Your grief is unique. No one grieves in exactly the same way. Your particular experience will be influenced by the type of relationship that you had with your parent, the circumstances surrounding the death, your emotional support system and your cultural and religious background. As a result, you will grieve in your own way and in your own time. Don’t try to compare your experience with that of other people or adopt assumptions about how long your grief process should last. Take each day anew, and grieve at your own pace. Allow others to do the same.

Recognize the Death’s Impact on Your Entire Family

If you have brothers or sisters, the death of this parent will probably affect them differently than it’s affecting you. The death may also stir up sibling conflicts. Try to do your part to encourage open communication, but set clear boundaries on what behaviors you’re willing to tolerate from others towards you, and stick by those boundaries. You may find, on the other hand, that the death of your parent brings you and your siblings into greater mutual understanding or clarity of your own relationship with them. Your role may change within the family, as other members either let roles go or accept new ones.

Acknowledge Your Parent’s History and Strengths.

Chances are your parent was raised by a family struggling with some combination of its own dysfunction, psychological issues, sexual abuse, tortured family relations, addiction, financial pressures, etc. At the same time, your parent probably would not have been as strong an antagonist unless she/he possessed underlying strengths, however misfired or unrealized. The goal is to learn to see your mother/father as a human being rather than judged through the lens of either the fantasy parent that we wish we had or a grotesque monster set apart from the context in which that person was formed. Through the death of a challenged parent, we can need to acknowledge both the death of the real person as well as the death of the possibility of the reality being different than it was. Recognize that both losses are valid causes of grief, and that you will be processing grief over both what you had and what you didn’t have.

Reach Out to Others for Support

Perhaps the most compassionate thing you can do for yourself is to reach out for help from others. Take responsibility for getting the help you need, and do not blame the dead then for what you fail to do for yourself now. You may need to re-parent the child of you that still lives in memory in order to nurture the child within with messages of self-acceptance, love, compassion and encouragement. Make a promise that you will limit how much time you spend a day dwelling in self-pity (which can develop when grief is used to justify addictive or codependent behavior) but you can certainly indulge in it if it’s helpful to you. Then, grab onto those who love you and move on with them.

The Relationship is Not Gone

Though the parent may have died, the impact of your mother/father on your life and sense of self will not suddenly be gone or resolved – for better or worse.  To be reconciled to the hurts of the past does not mean that the past or the person is forgiven or forgotten.  Rather, to be reconciled with what has been is to be reconciled with the nature and reality of life, of living within the truth of the human condition.  Happiness is not made by wish fulfillment – of longing for what cannot be changed. Rather, peace or personal happiness comes to us when we can turn our gaze from what is behind us that keeps us living from the past, towards the possibilities before us that draw us into the life to come. Your parent’s life is over, but yours doesn’t have to be. Whether you write a letter to your deceased parent, express your relationship through art, writing or therapeutic conversations – say what you need to say, how you need to say it, and live by the boundaries you set for your parent’s impact on your self-concept going forward.

Be Honest with Yourself, as you Sift Through Your Memories

Chances are that what makes a grief process difficult when it comes to the loss of a challenging parent is that not all the memories are bad ones. Pan through your childhood carefully, like a miner sifting for gold in the moving river of memory and time. Be deeply honest about the muck, AND lift up even the smallest grain of good and do not disvalue it. Those golden sands have formed you at least as much as all the muck, and the gold is what the wise miner keeps to invest in the future. Leave the muck – as much as possible – to settle silt-like in the riverbed of time.

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