Monday, September 9, 2013

Complicated Grief: Mourning an Abusive Mother

Reviewed and updated December 18, 2022]

It may be hard to play the role of the mourning [daughter] when part of you is saying, ‘Free at last.' ~ Helen Fitzgerald

A reader writes: Two weeks ago, my mother died of metastatic cancer. We had a strained relationship our entire life together. Growing up she could be very cruel to me, and that is what ensued as I tried to care for her. Before her illness, we hadn’t spoken in almost 3 years, but I wanted to be there for her and support her. I forgave her before she died and asked that she forgive me, and I feel a certain amount of closure which we were able to create.

But just when things were going beautifully, it was as if some demonic entity took over her being.

Right after we had a beautiful, forgiving, loving moment, her pulse stopped and then it started again. When she came back she was a different person: angry, yelling, saying horrible things to me and about me. I know it was probably the cancer talking, but now I just feel so alone and am fighting the feelings that I am trash and unworthy, even though I know that is not true.

My response: I’m so sorry to learn of the troubles you’re having in the aftermath of your mother’s difficult death, which is complicated by the continuing tension that existed between the two of you for many, many years.

When there are significant problems in a relationship and one of the parties dies, a lot of business is left unfinished, including arguments unresolved, words unspoken, questions unanswered, and love undeclared. The survivor is left hanging in mid-air, unable to complete her relationship with the deceased, unable to mourn, and stuck in the pain of her grief.

In The Mourning Handbook, author and grief support expert Helen Fitzgerald offers various ways to finish what we call “unfinished business” (such as not having a chance to say goodbye or “I love you” one more time; feeling a strong need to apologize for something you said or did or failed to say or do; or needing to confront your mother on her behavior toward you before her death).

She suggests listing and writing down everything that was left unfinished, thinking about each thing on the list, then considering what you could do to get some relief and put some closure on it. For example, you could write a letter, make an audio tape, write a song or poem, paint a picture, make a collage – whatever works for you – addressing your unfinished business and stating how you would have wanted it finished.

If you find this too difficult to do on your own, you might consider seeking the understanding and support of a grief counselor or therapist. Turning to trusted friends and family members for support is fine, but sometimes such folks may worry too much about you, or get too involved in your personal affairs, or not be available to you at all. When it seems that support from friends and family is either too much or not enough, a few sessions with a bereavement counselor may give you the reassurance, understanding and comfort that you need.

When your grief at losing your mother is complicated by the abuse that you’ve experienced, you may find it difficult to share it with other family members or friends. (For example, you may have found it hard to sit through your mother’s funeral or memorial service because of what you know about your relationship or how you are feeling.)

How can you find grief support in your own community? Look up your local mental health association or your local suicide prevention center. Either agency will have good grief referral lists. You need not be suicidal to get a grief referral from a suicide prevention center.

Use the phone book and call hospitals and hospices near you. Ask to speak with the Bereavement Coordinator, Social Worker, or Chaplain’s Office to get a local grief referral. Many hospitals and hospices provide individual and family grief support to clients for up to one year following a death, and offer bereavement support groups to the general public at no cost. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization maintains a database of hospices for each state in the United States. To search for a hospice in your own community, click on Find a Hospice and enter your search criteria.

I also want to recommend to you a book about this sort of loss, entitled Liberating Losses: When Death Brings Relief, by Jennifer Elison and Chris McGonigle. In the words of noted grief expert Ken Doka, “This book is a gift to those struggling with unfinished business and ambivalent feelings.”

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