December 2, 2015

How to Handle the Death of a Difficult Parent.


My Mother passed away this summer.

I always imagined that there would be more time for us to heal the rifts.

I was wrong.

She died at 76—dizzily falling to the ground and banging her head while alone in her apartment.

Her death was harsh, as was her life.

She was a remarkable woman, both in her capacity for overcoming and in her absolute refusal to be awakened by her challenging life experiences. She fought for her right to live with a tremendous ferocity, and then would place her energy into self-distraction after claiming victory. If she had channeled the energy that she used to uphold her emotional armor into personal transformation, her awakened consciousness would have lit up the world.

She was that powerful.

I did tremendous amounts of therapeutic work on the relationship over the years. I somehow knew that I had to: the emotional debris was obstructing my path, and I didn’t want the impossible nature of the connection to haunt me.

Despite my most genuine efforts, I fell prey to the most common occurrence after losing a parent: self-blame.

Death offers us new eyes—sometimes through a hazy lens. It’s always amazing to me how quickly we can forget the reasons that we were not close to someone after they have died—suddenly they were saints, suddenly we didn’t try enough, suddenly it was all our fault. If only we had called them more, if only we had sent them gifts, if only we had forgiven their actions, if only we had taken them to that one medical specialist who would have saved them from themselves.

On and on it goes.

But these kinds of thoughts are just us shaming ourselves, as though we alone were responsible for the state of the relationship, as though we alone were the crafters of their pain and misfortune, as though their issues and patterns did not exist before we came into being.

It’s quite a thing the way that finds a way to perpetuate itself. It’s quite a thing.

I spent the summer inside of this inner narrative, paying attention, trying to understand where it comes from within me. The most obvious answer—internalized guilt from a shaming family—didn’t quite explain it. I had done enough work around the relationship to know its impossibilities, to know that I had done my best.

It had to be something else.

And so I stayed with the narrative, and then it dawned on me. My mother is no longer in her body-suit. She is no longer emotionally threatening. She is no longer difficult to relate to. She is more vulnerable than I have ever known her. And through these eyes, it’s easy to glorify her. It’s easy to feel safe with her. She feels saintly, kind and accessible. She feels like someone I could easily love and connect with. And it is therefore easy to blame myself for ‘neglecting’ her. After all, she is non-threatening and harmless.

She is finally quiet. But it isn’t real…not even close. Because when we were both in these body-suits at the same time, a deeply loving relationship wasn’t possible. There was too much pain in the way, too many issues and differences. And her armor was still intact, armor that she had developed through her life to shield her from emotional risk. In fact, our real-time relationship was a true reflection of its inherent impossibilities.

There really was no way in.

It’s important to remember this after a close family member with whom we’ve had a challenging relationship with goes: There was a whole world of events, experiences and choices that led to the state of the relationship. All of them are embedded in our cells as memory and are in the way of healthy connection. As glorious as we may imagine them after they have gone, that was simply not the way they were when they were struggling down here on Mother Earth.

They were human, and so were we.

Until you lose a parent, you are somewhat asleep on the path to awakening—it’s a whole different world after they go, whether you are close to them, or not.

The preparation work you do before they go may be the most important inner work you ever do. Left to its own devices, the shame game postscript will obstruct and distort a real healing—a healing that is rooted in the reality of the dynamic itself. It’s best to do real work around this before the parent dies, if there is anything that is unresolved in the dynamic itself. There is no perfect preparation for their death—I will continue to work through these issues for years—but there are ways to soften the blows.

I offer the following suggestions in service to you.

Connecting with the Difficult Parent

If one or more difficult parent is still alive, and if it’s safe to connect with them, do all that you can to connect to work through and express everything left unsaid: unhealed grief, unexpressed anger, unresolved experiences—anything.

Leave no stone unturned in your efforts to heal and come to terms with the past. If you can bring them into therapy to deepen the process, do so. If not, find any way that is available to you to express what is true for you.

Dive into the relationship to understand the dynamics and toxic elements of the relationship.

The focus of this process is not on forgiving them for their actions. It may well happen organically, but the focus here is on healing your own heart and coming to terms with what you have been through. To make sense of the effects that their messaging, availability, and ways of relating may have had on your ways of moving through the world.

And, if necessary, forgiving yourself for anything that you mistakenly blame yourself for within the dynamic.

Of particular importance is doing anything possible to humanize your lens on the difficult parent—that is, to see them for who they really are and walk in their shoes. Again, you don’t do this for them, you do this for yourself as a part of healing but also so that you will be less likely to glorify them after they are gone.

The more you see them in their humanness, the less likely you are to forget what you were dealing with later. The more you understand where they come from, the less likely you are to blame yourself for the limitations of the connection.

One of the great ironies of our relationships with difficult parents is that they can be held on a kind of primal pedestal, often more elevated than loving parents who gave their children what they needed to individuate and become adults. Through a healthier lens, loved children can often see their parent(s) more clearly. But those of us with a difficult parent are often trapped at an earlier stage in our development, still waiting for the elevated parent to reach down, pick us up and give us what we need.

There is an aloofness and confusion in the dynamic that can keep them somewhat elevated, and this projection can become a recipe for our own self-abuse after they die. Because we don’t really know them, we carry forward the childhood belief that we must be to blame for all that happened or, at the least, that they would have loved us if we were worthy.

To avoid this shame trip, do all that you can to see them for real while you have the chance, so that you are less likely to mischaracterize them later. This includes understanding the context they emerged from, the choices they made with respect to their own path, their patterns with respect to connection and vulnerability, their unactualized dreams and unresolved memories.

The bridge from stagnation and self-blame to empowerment and self-love lies in our ability to see the parent(s) for who they really are; to take them off their primal pedestal and recognize their human limitations.

This is certainly not easy—the hungry child-self clings to fantasies—but it is necessary.

Healing in the Absence of the Difficult Parent

If the difficult parent is not available or open to a healing process, we can still work on the relationship. We don’t need a willing counterpart to work through the effects of a connection. If you can afford it, work with a therapist on the many ways that the relationship has landed within you.

Clear emotional debris. Become conscious of the connection between their hurtful words and actions and your own issues and beliefs. Work determinedly to shed any internalized negativities, patterns of self-blame, ancestral shame. Confront and fully name the ways in which the dynamic has lived itself out in your daily life.

Centuries of survivalist conditioning have made it difficult for many parents to live up to a healthy standard with respect to their children. As a result, many of us are left with a negative imprint of their unconsciousness, carrying it forward often without realizing it. Fully confront and name those imprints, in an effort to liberate yourself from the parental ties that bind. Of particular value are body-centered psychotherapies, both because they allow you to connect in more deeply with the repressed emotions, and because they have developed techniques that are effective at moving them.

Talk therapy can be effective but if too cerebral it can concretize our issues and challenges: excessive analysis perpetuates emotional paralysis. Whatever you do, be sure that your therapeutic process supports the excavation and release of the feelings held in the body itself.

This will lead to a more thorough, sustainable transformation.

Because the parent is not available for process, it may be more difficult to develop a deeper understanding of who they are and the context they emerge from. We can dialogue with their friends or other family members to help us understand. We can talk to anyone who can help you to understand the pressures they faced, the childhood they experienced, the messages they internalized. Looking at old photos help too.

Work with these tools in an effort to clarify your own lens.

Devote time to studying the era that they lived in. All too often, we forget that the ways that a parent behaved were consistent with their times. Recognize generational and cultural influences about things like gender, child-rearing, duty and obligation, religious perspective.

It can be especially helpful to spend some time watching films, reading old newspapers and magazines, to develop a richer understanding of the limitations and relational patterns of their generation—not to excuse their behavior, but to understand their context. The more we understand where they were coming from in their relationship with us, the less likely we are to personalize the state of the connection after they die.

We go back in time in order to move forward more freely.

Resolution doesn’t have to look a certain way.

Whether you are doing this preparation work in the presence or the absence of the difficult parent, it is important to remember that resolution of the relationship is not always possible.

The bridge between you may be destroyed, or you may be dealing with an impossible person, one who is simply incapable of doing the reflection work necessary to heal the rifts. If the latter is the case, accept this without continuing to come back for more disappointment.

I know someone who hated his father but went back every day and sat with him for hours, hoping and waiting to finally get the attention he had been craving earlier in life. He never got it, and looking for it in all the wrong places only perpetuated his own stalled development. Only after his father died did he begin to look for it in those who actually valued him and to begin the work of learning how to validate himself from the inside out.

Until we accept the limitations of those who cannot love us, we cannot embrace the willingness of those who can.

In addition, it is also important to remember that resolution doesn’t always look a certain way. Sometimes it is soft and kind. Sometimes it is choppy and erratic. Sometimes accepting the impossibility of the connection is the resolution. And sometimes the resolution is accepting that it was perfect, despite its impossibilities and challenges, because it carries us to the shores of our own empowerment.

I think about my relationship with my Mother. She was a difficult person, but she gave me great gifts, somehow balancing the just right tension between worthy adversary and protective mother. For many years, I bought into the idea that we had to find our way to a perpetual peace, that our ultimate resolution had to be smooth and tender.

But why is that?

Why must resolution look a certain way?

Perhaps the connection was exactly as it was meant to be, in order to bring me through to this awareness, this form of expression, this balance of vigilance and tenderness. Perhaps she gave me the exact gift she came to bring, and that is the resolution right there.


Either way, the more deeply we work with the material around the relationship, the less likely it is that we will beat ourselves up after the difficult parent is gone. This way, we offer ourselves a more healthy and clear path to grieving.

And, in this way, we break the cycle of shame and abuse that has carried forward from one generation to the next. We set the stage for a new way of being. We heal humanity forward–maybe backwards too.

With every clearing of our emotional debris, with every foray into a kinder way of being, we heal the collective heart. So many of our familial and karmic ancestors had little opportunity to heal their pains.

They just carried them with them, not realizing that there was any other way.

When we heal, their spirits surely breathe a sigh of relief. We heal them backwards, while healing ourselves forward. We heal in unison.

That healing begins in the trenches of our own transformation.





Healing Family Karma.

How to Grieve a Parent Who has Hurt You.





Author: Jeff Brown

Editor: Renée Picard

Image: author’s own 

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