The Grief That Comes With Learning More About a Parent You Idolized and Then Lost
These are weird times, to say the least. Not only are we navigating a global pandemic — something I’ve seen played out a hundred times in fiction and never thought I’d actually live through — but I’ve been trying to navigate an inner turmoil only made more uncomfortable by the coronavirus (COVID-19).
With the beginning of May, I find myself approaching a trifecta of traumatic days I have dreaded every year for almost a decade.
May 9, 2011 was the last day I saw my father alive.
May 12, 2011 was the day he died.
May 16, 2011 was the day we laid him to rest.
These days have been hard at the best of times, as I’ve written about before. I’ve never really come to terms with my father’s death, a man I revered and idolized. Now, however, his memory has been tainted by recent realizations and I find myself struggling with more than just his passing. How can you grieve for a man who never really existed? Where does the line fall between the man I loved and the man he truly was?
My father was, by no means, an abusive man — at least, not while I knew him. His past battle with alcoholism was no secret in our family, but it’s only in the years after his death that I learned, initially secondhand, that he was physically abusive toward my mother before I was born. She presented him with an ultimatum — quit drinking, stop the domestic violence — and he did so. He quit drinking. He became a caring and loving partner and, eventually, father.
My mother was (and is) a different story. The revelation that I was sexually abused, and knowingly exposed to my abuser when my parents knew he had abused other children, has led to further awareness. In discussion with my therapist, the depths of my mother’s narcissistic tendencies and emotional abuse has taken center stage. The way she compared me to my half-siblings and their shortcomings; the emotional manipulation and jealousy; the volatility; the constant criticisms of my father and I; the fear with which I would live in childhood, waiting for another outburst, have all stepped into the spotlight and I finally see her for the person she is.
My father may have been a victim too — indeed, she criticized something he did just moments before his death, a fact that has haunted me — but he also provided the mantra with which I lived my childhood. I was instructed, all the time, to “keep the peace.” Whenever things would kick off between my mother and me, he reminded me, in desperate tones, to “keep the peace.” When I did something “wrong” and needed to set it right immediately, “keeping the peace” was the eggshell path on which I walked.
“Your father did anything for an easy life,” my therapist told me, and she’s right. He agreed with everything my mother said. If she wanted something, it was hers. If she needed something, he accepted. Narcissistic tendencies don’t come out of nowhere, of course, but perhaps it’s the tool she used, albeit unwittingly, to control his behavior and even punish him after his physical abuse.
Does this mean, then, that he exposed me to a child abuser in order to, likewise, keep the peace? It’s an interesting question and one which will have no answer. I know that he knew my abuser’s history; both my parents knew that man, and knew what he had done. The only other explanation is that he treated my childhood safety with the same care as my mother: with negligence.
It’s no wonder that I’ve grown into the man I am today. I have all the traits of childhood emotional abuse: people-pleasing, negative self-talk, self-blame, minimizing and identity struggles, to name a few. Engaging in schema therapy, I have every single one of the maladaptive schemas — patterns of thought or behavior about oneself — formed from not having my emotional needs met as a child. There were other ways, of course, that my emotional needs were not met — I was subject to extensive emotional bullying and ostracization for most of my school life — but I have to wonder if the root of my problems can be found in my home environment. When I asked my therapist if she was aware of my emotionally abusive upbringing before I’d mentioned it, she told me she suspected as much.
“Clients often tell me they had a good childhood,” she said before I’d ever revealed my own, “only to list all the ways they were emotionally abused without realizing what they went through.”
So, with all of this considered, where does that leave me in my grief, and this trifecta of days I find myself standing on the cusp of once again? Is it possible to grieve a man who never really existed, or is it a different kind of grief? Am I now grieving not only for the man who died on that early morning but also for the man who died again once my eyes opened to the truth?
My therapist told me that one of adulthood’s key moments lies in when you realize your parents weren’t all-knowing, all-powerful, wise and benevolent beings. It’s when you realize they were human beings with flaws and shortcomings of their own, imperfect in their many ways. “I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman said. My parents contained multitudes too; it just so happens that, like many, they were loving and they were flawed.
My mother is financially generous and shows her love in the only way I think she knows how, but she is also narcissistic and emotionally immature. She still tries to wield that power the way she did when I was a child, only now the capacity with which I’ll accept it is extremely limited.
I have no explanation for my father’s behavior, and I likely never will. I don’t know what caused him to live the way he did, preferring an easy life at my mother’s whim. Maybe he was comfortable with that, but I can’t help but feel that he failed me. I’m simply left with the man he was in all its multitudes, grieving both the man I thought he was and the man I now know him to be. The line between them is so blurred that I cannot tell them apart anymore. Suffice to say, against the backdrop of a worldwide pandemic and my already-sensitive emotional state, this year’s trifecta will be more complicated to navigate than ever.
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