Since before Mother’s Day I’ve been thinking about this topic because I grew up with a toxic mother. When I was fifteen, she threw me out of the house and I went to live with my father and his wife. (Before you feel sorry for me, it was the best gift she ever gave me. My new home was full of love and responsibilities and discipline.) Every Mother’s Day I struggle. The thing is, I don’t struggle because I miss her, I struggle because I don’t have a mother. There is and has always been a mother sized hole in my heart that can’t be filled. I grieved it long ago and have come to terms with it, but, still, it’s there and it rears its ugly head every year.
I’m not alone. Over the years, I’ve counseled scores of clients who also grieve for difficult parents. Whether their parents were dealing with addictions, mental illness, poor parenting skills or any number of toxic issues, this kind of grief is a form of disenfranchised grief. In a recent group, a participant openly spoke about the toxic relationship with the parent who just died and the sense of relief now being felt. I was so proud of the other participants who didn’t judge and gave encouragement and normalcy to those emotions expressed.
How, then, do we navigate through a national “holiday” devoted to loving mothers and fathers? How do we navigate through this kind of grief over the course of our lives?
1. Recognize that it is a form of disenfranchised grief, which is defined, in a nutshell, as a grief that is not met comfortably by society. You may get negative responses if you say that you are glad or relieved that your parent has died after a lifetime of toxicity and pain and disappointment. “But it’s your mother!!!!”, they’ll shout. Yep. It was your mother, but she wasn’t a Hallmark mother and for those people who have Hallmark mothers there is no amount of explanation that will help them understand. Just nod your head and keep walking….away from them…
2. Since it is a form of disenfranchised grief then you will need to find someone to talk to who won’t judge you or try to talk you out of your emotional reactions. Just one person. That person can be a family member or friend or professional, but please try to talk it through. It really does help to tell the stories and release the emotions…
3. You may experience some real rage because they are dead and you have to live with the damage. There is a danger here of becoming a victim rather than an overcomer. This is where the talking it out part comes in handy. Recognize that the anger/rage is normal and natural and find ways to release it in a healthy way. Hurting yourself or others is not an option. Maybe channel it into creativity (journaling, art, music, poetry, etc.) or physical exertion (exercise, training for a marathon, home and yard projects). And direct it where it belongs: with them. Not you or your family or your friends or your possessions. The rage is real and justified. Feel it, talk about it, release it.
4. You may find that you have a strong grief reaction. Maybe you expect that once they are dead, you will be relieved, but instead you find yourself crying all the time and canonizing them (this is when you put them on a pedestal, minimize the negative and maximize the positive). One former client found herself having a very strong grief reaction after her abusive father died. This is actually more common than you might imagine. Why? You are grieving the fact that there is no longer a chance that the person who died will become the parent you always needed them to be. They can no longer wake up one day and realize how they’ve hurt you, apologize profusely, take you into their arms and tell you how much they love you. Whether you realize it or not, we all hope for this from a difficult parent. Again, having someone to talk this through with is crucial.
5. “It is what it is, but it becomes what you make it”. I despise the expression “it is what it is”. To me it represents a defeatist attitude, a lack of choice, but there are ALWAYS choices. We can wallow in our pain and disappointment or we can dust ourselves off and grow from the experience. By a certain age, we have to stop blaming our actions and attitudes on our “bad” parent/s and upbringing. We are adults and are now responsible for ourselves and must act accordingly. Will you be bitter or better? Will you break the cycle of abuse/addiction/etc.? Or will you continue it? This takes a certain amount of resilience and insight, but it is absolutely doable by absolutely anybody. You have the power to change your current circumstances if you’re unhappy/unsatisfied. If you struggle with this, it helps to talk it over with a professional to help you get started….
6. Journal a list of positives you learned from this person. Huh? What? Positives? From her/him???!!!??? Yep. That’s what I’m saying. For me it was that I learned how to be a better parent. My sister and I determined at young ages (19 and 17) that we were going to break the cycle of damaging mothers and we have. That is my proudest accomplishment. I learned resilience. I learned that no matter what comes my way, I can cope. Those are no small lessons.
7. This all applies if your person is still alive (as my mother is) and you are grieving the loss of the relationship and not their death. It is okay to not have a relationship with your parent if they are toxic. Sometimes you have to separate yourself from those to whom you are related to save your own sanity and emotional well-being. I’ve never, probably for obvious reasons, been one to insist that because someone is biologically related you have an obligation to be in relationship with them…be it parents or siblings or cousins or, even, your own children (I hear the gasps!). Do what you need to do to take care of yourself.
And there you have it. Seven helpful hints to grieving a difficult parent. I hope this has been helpful. It’s not an easy grief journey, but it can be done in a healthy way. I believe that knowledge is power and knowing why you do/think/feel what you do/think/feel is crucial to any effort you put forth to navigate through this kind of grief.
If you struggle with any of these issues and would like to speak with a professional, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1.518.930.2429
Copyright 2015 Lisa B. Wolfe, LMSW, Translating Grief, LLC