Are you grieving a parent you considered unloving, not present or abusive?

You may wonder, “Why do I feel so grief-stricken?” You may not have felt loved nor feel like you loved your parent. You may not have experienced “unconditional love” and wonder, “ Why am I so sad? Why am I so anxious and confused? Do I really care?”

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Perhaps, more often than not, forgiveness is an unexplored option and a better one than storing anger, guilt and regrets and running out of time because your parent dies. Long-term family estrangements usually happen for very good reasons and rarely is there a “Hollywood ending.”

You may wonder how that looks and feels to grieve a parent who dies. What is meant by abusive and how does that experience impact the grieving process of an estranged child?

People who have had an abusive parent die have no “emotional road map” for dealing with the death of that parent. It’s someone they didn’t like and someone who had been an extreme source of pain in their lives.

The death of a parent is difficult at best, but grief experts agree that mourning a parent who was abusive and unloving adds an additional layer of complexity.

There are two separate losses:

  • There is the loss of a dream of what the relationship could have been.
  • There is no longer room left for repairing the relationship.

How sad for the survivor of a relationship where you feel so much anger and regret and sadness, all at the same time.

These losses are very different from the actual loss of the parent themselves. Gone forever is the chance to confront, to resolve differences and to let your parent know how much you wanted their love. There is much unfinished business and no time left to heal your wounds.

If you talk to someone who has experienced the death of an abusive parent you might hear, “My estranged father/mother died a few weeks ago and the unexpected emotions and feelings I’ve endured have been all over the place. I’ve gone through sadness, anger, guilt and cavernous loss. I’ve wept deep, sorrowful tears. I’ve experienced intense and powerful grief and it has left me mourning not only his death but also the loss of an imaginary, what-may-have-been  father and daughter relationship”

(For more insights into this, see Grieving the Death of an Estranged Parent.)

When you have an abusive family member and that member dies, one of the most common issues brought to mind is, “Do I go to the funeral?”

Another feeling that engulfs people estranged from a deceased parent is “guilt” — guilt about what could or would have occurred had a different path been chosen.

This guilt is pervasive and keeps a surviving child from moving forward to accepting the death and learning that it is possible to experience two powerful feelings at the same time: One of relief and one of loss.

There is no right or wrong answer regarding how to grieve an abusive parent. There is an inherent birthright that every child deserves — that is, to have parents who love and value them, who support and encourage them. When this is missing, there is a longing for what could have been and no one can fix the pain or replace the loss.

The experts say that it is essential for a griever and those supporting the griever to know that all of us are complex and capable of feeling more than one emotion at a time as we go through our grieving process.

You may ask, “What are the possibilities for healing from a loss such as this?” The situation sounds so hopeless. There is hope, but no magic. It will be helpful if you will consider the following steps:

  • Recognize that no one can take away your pain.
  • Find a therapist and or a group to help validate your feelings and thoughts.
  • Give yourself space to grieve. Don’t depend on others to give you space.
  • Talking about your grief and pain can be cathartic; be sure to find non-judgmental listeners.
  • Forgiveness isn’t always about the other person, forgiveness is about you letting go of your feelings of guilt and being a victim.
  • There is no timeline for anyone to heal.

Trying to imagine the complexity of the death of an estranged parent is as futile as trying to imagine that we can recover from that death. Yet, we do heal and it is the gradual realization that we will survive the loss that makes parental death so transforming.