So many self-help books tell you how to deal with your parent’s death if it was a good relationship. What if it wasn’t good? What if it was terrible?
If your parents were less than ideal, you aren’t alone. Parents are people, and people aren’t perfect. But when a self-help book assumes you are sad and distraught because your “pillar of the family” of “chief cheerleader” dies, you may be feeling even more lost. Your feelings don’t match up with what it says in the book.
Sometimes your grief comes from the fact that you are now doubly missing a parent. The person who gave birth to you is now no longer physically present, while they never were emotionally present. When an emotionally distant or abusive parent dies there is no longer any hope of having a healthy relationship with her or him. All bets are off, all chances are over.
Some books say that you can create a healthy relationship with the person even after the person has died, but this honestly makes no sense. It takes two to have a conversation and work on a relationship. The only thing left to fix is yourself and your understanding of the relationship. Do you let this bad start stop you from going any further? Or do you learn from it and go on?
There are a lot of conflicting emotions when your parents die, and it is made even worse when the self-help books make it worse by making you feel like something is wrong. Worse, it is not only that something is wrong, but something is wrong with you in particular. It is like opening up an instruction manual on how to put together a piece of furniture and the box is missing the bag of nuts and bolts. You don’t have everything necessary to make it work. The instruction booklet assumes you do. The booklet plunges right in, assuming you have all the parts. You read along, trying to make it work, trying to learn how to heal this rift, this grief, all the meantime you didn’t start out on the same ground that it assumes you did. When you get to the end, the picture of the finished product looks nothing like your result.
It can’t. You are missing some important parts that hold things together.
I’m not sure how to tell you how to find those nuts and bolts. I’m just trying to honor where you are coming from, because it is where I am coming from. I think a lot of us had less than ideal relationships with our parents.
I think it is totally normal to be sad that your parents died because now you will never have them as the kind of parents you need. That relationship has ended. They weren’t there for you, and now they never will be.
I also think it is totally normal to be relieved that your parents have died if the household was abusive. I know that there is a sense of guilt for feeling this. I think that is because society assumes you should be sad, when really you can’t be sad. I think to be sad that you are free of an unhealthy relationship is insane.
I think it is healthy to feel however you feel you need to feel, without regard to what people think you should feel. It think it is very healthy to get these feelings out – don’t bottle them in, and don’t deny them. If you stuff them down they will come out in ugly ways later. Trust me on this.
There are a few ways I’ve learned to deal with these feelings. Pick a couple. Try them out. If it doesn’t work, try something else. This is by no means an all-encompassing list.
Talk to a therapist or a counselor or a faith leader or a compassionate friend. Go for a walk or a run. Punch a pillow. Cry, sing, wail. Jump up and down. Dance. Journal – write it out. It doesn’t matter if you are good writer or not – you don’t even have to use sentences. Create – use non-word activities to get it out. Sometimes words fail us. Draw, paint, garden, make jewelry – anything where you can get your feelings out.
Most importantly, have patience with yourself. This work of grief, especially grief concerning a broken relationship, is hard, and it takes a long time. Know that what you are going through is normal. You aren’t alone. It is hard work, and it is important work.
What the books don’t tell you is that this isn’t the end. Just because your biological parent wasn’t up to snuff doesn’t mean you can’t find new role models. You can have second third and fourth parents. You get to pick your parents this way.
You can have one friend teach you how to cook. Another can teach you how to sew. Another can teach you everything you want to know about fly fishing. You can take a class too, or read a book, or watch a video. You aren’t stuck with just one set of parents. There are hundreds of people who are able and happy to teach you whatever skills you need to know.