It's OK to Have Complicated Feelings About an Abusive Parent Dying
I saw an interview the other day with actor Jennette McCurdy where she talked about the complicated feelings she had regarding her mother’s death. Her mother had been extremely abusive throughout her childhood, so when she died, Jennette struggled to mourn her passing. She even wrote a book entitled “I’m Glad My Mom Died.”
While many other people may have been shocked that a child could ever utter such words about their parent, I understood completely because I felt the same way when my own mother died.
I endured a wide range of abuse growing up and my primary abuser was my mother. My memories from when I was a child are like Swiss cheese because my mind has repressed so much, but I’m honestly OK with that because what I do remember is bad enough. I’m in my mid 40s now and I still regularly have nightmares about my childhood.
I remember multiple times when I was less than 10 of being hunched in a fetal position on the floor, backed against the wall, trying to make myself as small as I could as a barrage of my mother’s fists and feet struck. Sometimes there was a wooden handled brush or whatever else she had handy. If I was lucky, it was just a backhand or a blow to the back of my head. When she got angry, it was almost always a given that some sort of violence would occur. As strange as it may sound to say, the physical abuse and beatings I endured at her hands were the least impactful, because bruises heal.
There were other abuses that were far harder to endure. There was an old reusable enema bag in the bathroom that I dreaded. Suppositories, as well. I used to try to hide getting sick because my mother was never gentle. I remember many times I cried out in pain during, and bled from my rectum afterwards.
There were a myriad of spiteful actions throughout my childhood that regularly reminded me of how little I mattered in her eyes. My punishment once for having my elbows on the table was to have my dinner dumped on the floor because “if I was going to eat like an animal, I could eat with the animals.” One year, she demanded that we take down every last stitch of Christmas decorations one week before Christmas because we were all ungrateful, nasty creatures who didn’t deserve a Christmas, only to force us to stay up all night and redecorate Christmas eve once she realized company was coming on Christmas day.
The worst, though, was the verbal and emotional abuse, because those words stick with you. Nothing I ever did was good enough. I was reminded often that my sister was the pretty one. She told me more than once that I was inherently unlovable and a waste of space. I was 8 the first time I remember her telling me that she hated me and wished I was never born. I wish I could say that that’s the worst thing she ever said to me. Towards the top of my list happened when I was 11 and had been raped. When I tearfully told my mother, she emphatically told me not to tell my father because “daddies don’t love little whores.”
It may sound equally strange for me to admit that my childhood and my memories with her aren’t all bad. She taught me how to cook and do many types of arts and crafts. We had lots of vacations, day trips to museums and historical sites, saw many shows at our nearby arenas and theaters. I remember us giggling as she taught me to swing dance in the kitchen. I often compare it to that old nursery rhyme with the little girl with the little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When things were good, they were very, very good. But when they were bad, they were horrid.
Unfortunately, though, over time the darkness overshadows the light. All the family vacations, nights out to see the circus, magic shows, Globetrotters, or Icecapades, all the new toys in the world couldn’t erase the darkness of the abuse that was happening behind closed doors.
When I was 16, my mother shot my father. He thankfully survived the assault, and even more thankfully, it released me from being under her thumb. She spent the next handful of years in and out of jail and mental wards while awaiting trial. By the time she was back home again, I was an adult with young children of my own.
From that point on, I got to choose the extent of our relationship. Periodically, I would long for some semblance of family and reach out. Time and time again, it didn’t take long for me to see that nothing had changed. She hadn’t received the help she needed. She wasn’t taking all of her medication as needed. Her behavior was still erratic, quick to rage or to cry. Though an adult now, I still felt unsafe in her presence. More than once, we would become estranged for long periods of time. Eventually, the longing would set in again and I’d reach out. Reconnection and estrangement went in cycles.
We were estranged when she died back in 2010.
I got the call from my sister on Thanksgiving day. From what I was told, my mother had taken a bunch of her medication the night before, supposedly forgotten and taken the medication again, forgotten and taken it all again a few more times. She died in her sleep of what was determined to be an accidental overdose.
Knowing my mother, and having seen her exorbitantly large pill organizer that separated pills not only by day of the week but by time of day as well, I found the term “accidental” to be highly unlikely. None of her children saw her or spoke to her regularly at that point. To me, it was one last F.U. to us all, one last way for her to ruin a holiday on her way out, much like she did multiple Christmases when we were kids.
You would think that a child’s initial reaction upon hearing that their mother died would be almost inconsolable grief. However, what flooded every inch of my body was pure anger and rage.
How dare she?!
How dare she try to ruin another holiday.
How dare she bring me into this world and not even teach me how to be a mother myself so that I went into the role starting over with my own children.
How dare she check out before I ever had a chance to confront her for all she did, all she put me through.
I lived with that anger for what must have been months. I didn’t attend her memorial services. I didn’t shed a single tear. As long as she had been alive, part of me was eternally that scared little girl. Her death birthed a woman full of rage.
Part of me was admittedly relieved that she was dead. Gone. Unable to ever hurt or torment me again. Though I thought those words, I was unable to actually say them out loud because I didn’t think anyone else would understand. Part of me wondered if I was a horrible person for even feeling that way.
It took well over a year before I finally was able to talk about many of the abuses I had endured in silence as a child. I could finally call them out for what they were.
It was months longer before I shed my first tear, months more before I could reunite the abuser who haunted my nightmares with the other half of the woman I called my mom.
These days when I think of her, it is bittersweet at best because I am torn in two, pulled back and forth between the good and the bad. Part of me misses her, longs for her, even dreams of the life we might have had if things had been different, if she had received some semblance of help. Another part of me, however, will always be that scared, traumatized little girl, afraid to speak up, trying to make myself as small as I can be, wishing I could shrink down so much I disappear, just wishing the pain would stop.
In a perfect world, children grieve the loss of their parents. Unfortunately, however, some of us did not grow up in a perfect world. For better or worse, we are entitled to feel the full range of emotions that come with our loss. When there was abuse involved, some of it is not going to be pretty. And it doesn’t have to be.
Your experiences are your own, as are your feelings. You do not have to conform to some societal standard of grief. You do not have to mourn your abuser, nor do you have to place them on an undeserved pedestal now that they’re dead. Feel whatever you need to feel in order to heal yourself. You don’t owe your abuser anything, not even your grief or your tears. Your loyalty is to yourself.
Getty image by Triloks