Last year I turned 41. I am now officially middle aged. Apparently this is the point in time when my generation’s parents start dropping like flies. In the past two years, I have lost count of how many of my friends, neighbors and acquaintances have lost a parent. Each time, I have watched the ritual unfold. Condolences are offered, funerals are planned. The sordid mess of sorting through a lifetime of possessions and settling wills is dealt with. And everywhere the bereaved adult child goes, they hear the words “I am sorry for your loss.”
Whether their relationship was loving, strained, or a mixture of both. Whether the parent was nurturing or neglectful. Still the words “I am sorry for your loss” are offered up. A benediction for mourning. A recognition that the passing of a parent marks a particular shift in one’s life journey.
I have watched as space is made for the adult child to grieve. How it is understood that it will take a while to return to “regular life” after such a loss. I have watched as the bereaved talk openly about their grief, which comes in waves, over the course of years. And I have been jealous. Because this kind of understanding will never be given to me. And it’s my fault, isn’t it? Because it was my choice.
The decision to permanently cut off contact with my parents was almost anti-climactic. After years of trying off and on to figure out how to have a relationship with them without sacrificing myself, I realized that I was trying for the impossible. I was embroiled in yet another abusive drama, in which I was somehow to blame for a parent’s alcoholic misbehavior. This familiar ebb and flow of dysfunction had played out so many times in so many ways that I realized I wasn’t angry any more, I was just sad. I looked into my future and saw it play out for the rest of my life and I knew I just couldn’t do it anymore. My husband and I were planning to have a child. Was this what I wanted my child to grow up watching? Were these people going to have a positive impact on my child? No.
In the 10 years since I made that decision, I have never once regretted it. I am a happier person without them in my life. It’s sad, but true. However, there is no rite of passage for the child who has had to make a choice between her mental health and a relationship with her parents. There is no supportive community gathering around offering up condolences and casseroles. There is just a long, lonely adjustment to the reality that you are, in a way, an orphan now.
When my parents pass away, I will get a call, or an email, from some relative. I will be asked if I will attend the funeral, but I will not, because I have already done my grieving. I have grieved the parts of that relationship that were good. I have grieved for what could have been. I have grieved for all the ways I needed them to show up for me that they were not capable of. And I am done. And I am angry that I did it alone, with no one to turn to me and say “I am sorry for your loss.”
I am angry that in addition to losing my family, I lost out on the rite of passage, on the support of community, on the acknowledgement of this very significant transition in my life. There is no ritual to support a child who has lost her family in this way, and there should be. It takes incredible bravery to do this in the face of cultural backlash, to give up the comfort of the known pain for the unknown. To believe in spite of all previous evidence that I deserve better, and to walk away from people who will never love me the way I want them to.
I will never regret the decision I made, but I wish that it wasn’t such a lonely choice.
The writer of this article has chosen to remain anonymous.
10 thoughts on “On Grieving the Loss of a Parent Who’s Still Alive”
Whoa! I never thought about this situation. For what it’s worth, please know that I am sorry for your loss. After my mother died (she was the one who abused me of my parents), I was so relieved to no longer have to deal with her completely unstable (by that point) mental illness. And it took diving into my own healing work to even begin to grieve the loss of a mother figure that I never really had. She was not my safe place to fall. And when she died and everyone kept sending their condolences, telling me how lovely she had been to them, they never saw the side of her that would rip me to shreds. And then there was dealing with the house and things, that got some other effed up family dynamics to really show up. So, if you never have to deal with the funeral, will, dealing with stuff, that’s a lot of potential pain and turmoil you’ll get out of. No matter how it goes down, the end of the relationship with our parents, if they were dysfunctional and abusive, is always hard.
I am sorry for your loss. Your losses. I truly am. And so glad you write so openly and honestly.
I am in the same situation, and this is just so perfectly and beautifully said. Thank you. I’m sorry for you and all of us who live this reality, but also grateful to be able to make the healthy choice for ourselves and our children.
I’m actually in the same situation but I’m 17 and a senior in high school. No one understands what I’m going through. Everyone just tells me that they’re toxic people and I need to move on from them leaving or use it as a motivation to succeed. I cry every night and many people ignore the fact that I’m depressed. What do I do? How can I get over this?
I am so sorry for your pain, I can’t imagine trying to deal with that and still get up and go to high school in the morning. You are so very strong and courageous. You are going through something that is very difficult and finding a good support team to get you through this will help a lot. If you can find a counselor who specializes in family systems therapy and has a background in trauma that would be a good step. If you can find a creative outlet for your grief, that helps a lot too. Writing, singing, making art, dancing. It doesn’t have to be “good” writing, singing, art, or dancing, it just has to give you a place to put the feelings. Some kind of movement based healing really helps too, like yoga or hiking in nature.
The short answer to how you get over this is that you don’t get over it. It’s a heart break that you learn to live with. But people’s hearts are broken every day all around the world, and you have a right to feel your grief just like every other person whose heart is broken. You will find ways to live and love in spite of this heart break. One morning you will get up and realize that you didn’t cry yourself to sleep and the light will start to return. But this is not that moment, and that’s ok too. No one has a right to tell you how you feel right now, only you get to do that. If it feels right for you, here is a script you can use the next time someone tries to tell you that you need to move on:
“I know you care about me and you are saying what you think is helpful, but right now I really need you to just hear what I am saying. I need you to understand that my heart is broken and telling me to move on is not helping. The best way you can support me right now is _______” fill in the blank with the response that would feel best for you right now.
I hope something I have said here is helpful to you. I wish you joy, healing, and peace.
I love all that Joyelle has said. I’m so sorry for your loss. IT does get easier but it never stops being grief.
Your hunger for wanting a connection with primary people, family, and for that to be safe is instinctual, normal and healthy. And to lose that, because it’s ripped away in a tragic way or because it’s something you never had, is a lifelong grief. And there are many ways through but owning the truth of how you feel is essential.
For most in our culture family will always comes first and the people who say “leave toxic people behind” don’t function without a family now or in the past. We need family and connection. It doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to be healthy (in or outside of family or in or outside of some relationships or in or outside the family we create). But it’s not easy and it takes time to learn to protect ourselves, our own health and well being and safety and also to find ways to do this.
People who simplify it often have zero understanding and that just makes a painful situation so much worse. I am sorry for your loss. I am sorry for your pain.
If you have joys and passions, pursue those. If you have people or places that make you feel more at home in your skin, with others and in the world, do more of that. If you can find places where you feel safe to grieve or be sad or admit that it’s hard. Those are important. Books and communities can help when it feels like everyone else is already happy or bright and light.
YOU are a warrior. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. IT IS HARD. It’s really hard. It’s a loss. It is a big loss. There will be so much joy and so many gains, as well, and maybe some healing and reconnecting with some people. And maybe not. It’s hard either way and no one but you can navigate. Hang in there.
This is such a perfect description of what it’s like to let go of abusive parents. I’m trying to work out how to reconcile my own grief with the reality that they are still very much alive, just as abusive as ever, and involved with my siblings who I am close to. It’s so difficult to move forward in life when you can’t quite put them to rest, and I don’t know how to put them to rest yet. The grief is so complex too, because I can’t just mourn the loss of people who were positive parts of my life – I have to mourn the loss of what I had hoped they would be, as well as deal with the hurt and anger and self-hatred that comes with childhood trauma. And it is lonely. This was really therapeutic to read. Thank you.
I am grieving the mother I never had. Ever since I was a child I’ve been her shoulder to cry on, her support and therapist. I’m done talking to her, and my life is much better. Which makes me so sad. She’s never going to love me. I can never call her and get encouragement or support. I’m raising her youngest child, but I don’t even get a thank you. I raised my siblings for years. I gave her the best years of my life, and most of my income when I was working. She’s never going to love me. Only use me. And it’s so hard to grieve. Thank you for your article and expressing for us, what is so hard to say. Thank you.
I’m so sorry for your pain Sammy, and I’m glad that reading this helped you to find some solace in the middle of grief.