Grieving a toxic parent: You do not hold any precious memories of your abusive father or mother

Wednesday, October 6th, 2021 00:00 |
Grieving a toxic parent.

“My only fear in life growing up was what would happen if mum passed away. Not that she was my only parent — my dad was present, but was probably the worst father ever. He did not care much about us.

He would publicly embarrass us by getting drunk while not bringing any money home. At the same time, he was violent.

A little mistake would get you a whole beating like he would pour hidden anger on his children. And the worst part was the violence towards my mum. I can recount the many times he nearly killed her.

I was only about six years old when my mum fell very ill and was admitted for weeks in hospital. It was scary.

“If it goes wrong, I would become an orphan for sure,” I would tell myself. My father did not count.

Well, she got better thank God, but my father still remained the same violent drunkard all the years I lived at home with most of my siblings leaving home as soon as they completed secondary school.

It’s been a struggle all my life being around the man,” 28-year-old Mombasa-based entrepreneur, Gideon Opare, shares about his toxic childhood experience.

About three months ago, his father passed on and he chose not to attend the funeral, faking an illness knowing too well that no one would understand his reasons.

“It was a tough choice because I did not even know just how sad I was or if it was really a loss. I was glad it wasn’t my mum though.

I chose not to be part of the funeral because I would have been made to say something nice. But… I really didn’t have anything nice to say about him nor lessons I had learnt from him.

Not that I was happy he was gone, but I am not in touch with the loss. Maybe this my happen later on when I have made peace with everything,” he shares. 

Complicated grief

Grief is a normal way for the brain to process the loss of a loved one leading to healing.

On the other hand, complicated grief is as a result of a negative belief or experience that an individual has attached to a loss.

In complicated grief, there is no processing of the loss. Individuals stay stuck in the process unable to bring healing.

 As psychologist Tracy Nyaguthii shares, losing a parent is difficult for anyone.

People miss the love, care and memories of their parent and grief stems from the fact that they will not be able to enjoy that anymore.

However, when a toxic parent dies, the affected child grieves that they will never experience a better parent as they anticipated.

They expected that their parent would change, but when they die, all those hopes and possibilities are gone. 

“Many times, it becomes complicated grief. This is because it carries with it trauma and disappointments of dealing with a toxic parent.

For instance, if a toxic parent had a mental illness, a substance problem, a personality disorder, a physical ailment, was violent or was involved in promiscuous behaviour, all these are weighty issues that make the grief complicated.

The loss of a toxic parent can lead to mixed emotions. Emotions of love, hate, anger, happiness or sadness. Individuals can be happy and relieved that the toxic individual is gone, but will be surprised that they feel sad that they will never see them again.

It is important to note regardless of how the relationship was with their parent, an individual will still go through the grieving process.

Therefore, it is important that the individual acknowledges the emotions that they are feeling and allow themselves to grieve,” says the expert.

Psychosocial support officer, Ruth Jebet shares that the decision on how to handle the loss of a toxic parent has to be a very personal decision, with the most important goal being to protect one-self emotionally while embracing the healing process. 

“Abusive families, by their very nature, do not acknowledge the feelings of its victims. So, don’t expect the narcissistic, gossiping members of a family to care what you could be feeling or thinking.

You are left unable to mourn properly. Gone forever is the chance to confront, to resolve arguments, to declare your love to them.

There is unfinished business, questions unanswered, words unspoken or words that can’t be taken back.

How would you want it finished? You got to create that beautiful ending in your mind.

You could write it down in form of a letter and use the empty chair technique to read it aloud to them and let them know how you feel, paint a drawing if you can, create a collage or a small memorial space in your room, or visit the grave days later and have a conversation with them,” she aays 

Both experts advise that it is important for  individuals who are dealing with complicated grief as a result of the loss of a toxic parent to access therapy to deal with the trauma as well as beliefs, thoughts and behavioural patterns that are as a result of their experience. It is not easy, however, it is possible to live a life that is free from the hurtful memories of a toxic parent.

“There are three basic feelings toward an abuser who has passed on: Love, hate, or conflicted feelings.

I suggest you also take time to think over your history with your parent who is gone by digging up all the past memories, background and scrutinise them.

Sometimes knowledge of his/her background can make you empathise with them, maybe he had a difficult childhood.

Pick out what bits are worth keeping. It is okay to hang onto good memories or lessons learnt from them and still hate the injustice done to by that person.

Regardless of your reaction, know that there is no wrong way to respond. You may want to seek out a counsellor to help you through this time.

Don’t depend on friends or family members to understand or have the knowledge to help,” advises Ruth. 

More on Lifestyle