For many adult children, saying good-bye to a parent in death does not leave them in peace and can in fact leave them dealing more with guilt than grief. I am sharing such a story here, an excerpt from Chapter 5 of my book, Final Years Stories of Parent Care, Loss and Lives Changed. This is my interview with Helen. Helen’s words are in quotes and mine are not. My thoughts are in italics.
Helen, a pediatric nurse practitioner, and I were in intermittent email contact during her mother’s final months before she succumbed to pancreatic cancer at age 87. She passed in December, 2011 after being ill for 18 months. Helen’s father is 91 years old and still living.
I received the following email from Helen in March, 2012.
Mom’s Final Act Hurts Those Left Behind
“My mom died on Dec. 27. It has been a difficult time, NOT because she died but because of what she did as her final act. She changed her will and did not tell anyone, not even my brother who is the executor, and left the bulk of her sizeable estate to charity. It is so hurtful and so unbelievable that she chose to leave this world in such an unloving and hateful way. My siblings and I are having a hard time grieving…
We scattered her ashes out at the beach (this weekend – early March) and said our goodbyes, but we are all having trouble working through the normal grief process because of what she did. It’s even worse than that; she asked my 25 year old daughter a year ago if she would agree to be the head of a charitable trust she was setting up for after her death—and didn’t tell her how much money would be in it nor that her act would be very hurtful to her own kids.
My daughter was blindsided and taken advantage of. She agreed to keep this a secret from us at my mom’s request. She now finds herself in a terrible position, and feels that we are mad at her, which we are not. We are mad at Mom for taking advantage of her this way. The charitable trust will have THREE MILLION dollars in it—quite a task for a now 26 year old who is busy in law school, to administer. She has to research charities (mom designated human rights and conservation), decide how to invest the money, and decide who to give it to and when.
I’m someone who isn’t grieving the way most would grieve for a lost parent…”
My heart went out to Helen. Her situation is a prime example of how a difficult relationship with a deceased loved one and unresolved emotions such as guilt, hurt, and anger can complicate and hinder the pure experience of grieving.
When we spoke during our first telephone interview, Helen’s pained voice unmistakably expressed a deep sense of feeling betrayed and deceived by a loved one. I could sense her still grappling with her shock from this bomb that had been dropped on their family from seemingly out of the blue.
“You have to understand that it isn’t about the money. We’re all doing okay as far as money. It’s that my mom would do this and be so secretive, and have her last act be something that would hurt us so much and be so hateful. I just don’t understand how she could carry this secret and this hate in her heart and take it into death. And the position she put my daughter in as trustee— it felt like it was to create a wedge between us (my daughter and me).”
Maybe the upside of our interview not recording is that you can talk about it again, and maybe that will help you process it more. (Due to technical issues with our first recorded interview, we followed up with this second interview.)
“I don’t know. It’s all fresh in my mind again because my mom’s house sold; it closed on March 8th so the money was just put into the charity account. My daughter, as you know, is in charge of it.”
How are you doing?
“I’m doing—I’m mostly fine. I occasionally have a moment. But I’m considering getting some counseling. I’m just so angry with my mother for not—not letting us work this out before she died. It would have been so much easier, you know?
Oh, I get it.
“And, I’m just furious with her. Anyway—I’m doing well for the most part.”
Dysfunctional or Not?
How many siblings do you have?
“I have three siblings, 2 brothers and 1 sister. I’m 58, the youngest of four.”
What were the interactions like in your family? Were your interactions communicative and honest, or more dysfunctional?
“Oh, boy. Okay. I think our family was functional. I don’t think we were dysfunctional. But I don’t think there was a whole lot of communication.”
That’s pretty dysfunctional.
“Well, dysfunctional? I mean, I think of dysfunctional as, like, wacko.”
I think it’s a catchall word for …
“Okay. Well, it depends on your definition of dysfunctional. But, we were all happy and well adjusted and, you know, by all appearances, we were a functional family. It’s only in looking back, I think, that I see things that I wasn’t aware of then. There was sort of an emotional distance on my mother’s part.
Although interactions in our family were not honest or empowering, there was no abuse. My parents loved us.”
I Wanted More Boundaries Than My Parents Gave Me
Can you tell me more about your relationship like with each parent?
“My dad was and is very loving. After he retired from practice as a psychiatrist, he went to clown school. He loved going into the hospital as a clown to visit patients.”
My mom never knew really knew how to love.” Helen later developed an understanding about her mother and her past and why she was the way she was. “She did not have loving parents at all.
I wanted more boundaries than my parents gave me. Rather than getting grounded when I got in trouble, like the other kids did, my Dad made me talk about it instead. I hated that—it was harder than getting grounded. My mom was absent when this happened, both physically and emotionally—she’d just walk out of the room.”
She didn’t participate?
“I have memories of sitting at the dinner table after dinner with my dad, and my mother not being at the table with us. I don’t know if she was in the kitchen cleaning up or what, but I felt like it was my dad’s duty alone to work through stuff with me, rather than them as a team.”
That’s unusual. It’s usually the other way around, and getting the father to participate is a challenge.
“Right. That’s what I get for having a shrink for a dad.”
You also mentioned you didn’t feel like they gave you boundaries.
“Yes. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but looking back, I did a lot of things I regret. And I sometimes wonder if maybe I would have been a little better behaved as a teenager if I had felt more involvement from my parents. As I look back, I feel now like they just sort of checked out—like by the time I was a teenager, they’d just had it.
“And I don’t know if my siblings feel that way. I know the oldest one does not, because she said I was so lucky that they gave up by the time I came along.”
I only have an older sister and I know that my parents were more lax with me than they were with her. I had boundaries—probably too many, but I think you relax more with successive kids as time goes on.
But you wanted more guidance?
“Well, at the time, I didn’t. This is all as an adult looking back. I didn’t do anything horrible, but I was a little bit wild. I’m not proud of it. It’s … things I wouldn’t want my kids to know.”
Oh, we all make mistakes, if you can even call them mistakes. You grow. And you eventually realize, ‘this isn’t what I want to do or be.’ And you change.
You mentioned in our last interview that your mom constantly reminded you about ‘poor Jim.’ Why don’t you tell me more about that?
“I’m just 13 months younger than my brother, Jim. My mom was always saying, ‘poor Jim. He was just a baby when you were born.’ My mother tried to compensate him, telling him he got cheated because I was born; that it wasn’t fair to him.”
And your mom ‘constantly reminded you that you were an accident.’ Was that in jest?
“Well, she didn’t constantly remind me, but she did tell me on one occasion. I think I was 16 years old; it’s just seared in my mind because you don’t forget stuff like that. She told me I was an
accident; that they only intended to have three kids; that Jim was just a baby when she got pregnant again and she didn’t mean to. I think she only actually said it to me once, but …
Her actions spoke louder than words. She was always late to pick me up; and she didn’t seem to put many restrictions on me. I mean, now in looking back, I see as her not really caring very much about me. That’s the way I interpret it, that I was—I was a bother for he. I mean, she was always late to pick me up—vivid memories—very late. I was the last one at birthday parties, the last one picked up from school. Now, looking back, I think the message was that I was not at the top of her list of important things.”
That has to feel kind of crummy.
“Yeah. It’s a bunch of little things like that that I wasn’t aware of at the time. But now I can see it.”
If I’m hearing you right, it’s not that you grew up with ‘I was a mistake’ as a very young child. These other things were happening with your mom, and then you heard this comment when you were 16, and you played it all back and felt like, ‘oh, this makes sense now—I wasn’t wanted.’
Was she late with your other siblings?
“You know, I really don’t know. I really don’t know. And I should probably ask them.”
It seemed as though this possibility had not occurred to Helen before, that perhaps it wasn’t just her that her mom was late for.
It might be good to do that, because sometimes we decide things about our parents, and make it mean something about us or how they feel about us. It may certainly make sense to us, but they’re not necessarily true. It could be she just had a bad habit. It may have had nothing to do with you. But I can certainly see where you might have felt that way.
(Helen’s story will be continued in next post)