Friday, April 12, 2013

The Art of Forgiving The Dead

A friend of mine was contemplating the beautiful 50-something woman she has grown into as a survivor of parental dysfunction. “I grew up with a calamitous mother who called the National Guard over my constipation.

“She would say to my stepfather, ‘The car caught on fire today while carpooling the girls to school!’ -- overheated radiator.

“Perpetual hysteria and distraction was the daily norm. She missed my whole life--all of it! I wonder if I will be this angry and sad when she finally dies?”

I thought quite a bit about forgiving the dead for the rest of the day.  And I arrived at a crossroads: the death of our parents has no impact on our adult-reactions to childhood ‘mismanagement.’ If there were hurts or downright assaults, we’re going to remain as angry as we need to, for however long it takes. 

For me, I had to remain angry through my 30s and part of my 40s about my mother’s idiosyncratic parenting, her sporadic affinity to over-serve herself evening cocktails and some of the resulting hurtful words aimed my way.

When abuses of any caliber or source have taken place, the toll it takes is often some langorous, multi-decade sojourn into examining the FACT of the abuses.  Finally stating they existed can take much of a lifetime. Next comes the courtesy – the right -- we extend to ourselves, to manifest a handful of righteous anger.

The satisfaction in giving ourselves permission to allow anger and blame into our hearts – without fear, without invoking The Wrath of Khan? Gosh, when it finally feels okay to BE mad about some damage we finally acknowledge, well that’s when the door to healing opens a crack.

For some of us, there may be multiple triggers where other family members have their own worlds of denial: denial of their own assaults – but perhaps worst of all is their denial of our assaults.  I think that’s the part that is especially painful for survivors of childhood hurts:  having sisters or aunts and uncles or an entire family deny the truth of our pain.  That can feel unforgivable. 

Meanwhile, how to forgive the dead.

My own mother's death had absolutely nothing to do with how I felt about her various verbal ‘launchings’ or any number of poor decisions she was afflicted into making while I grew up.  But I think I was lucky, because I had been able to delve into what made her tick, what caused her defenses, what brought her such self-abuse, because I wanted to understand it.

I can never let a thing go until I know fully its cause. I recently asked my doctor what, precisely, was causing a certain symptom and her answer was that it didn’t really matter.  My symptom was non-threatening and likely stress induced, and stress just DOES… things.

Well.  My mother “just DOING things” was no more satisfying than learning my symptoms “just ARE.”

I recognized that, had I experienced, myself, my mother’s cacophony of life assaults, I’d have been destroyed by them. She wasn't. 

All she did was behave in idiosyncratic ways aligned with assault-residue. It was actually a pretty functional response. 

As for me? I didn’t feel I had ‘earned’ the right to behave in ways that seemingly adopted her residue.  

I, for example, did not grow up during the Great Depression, living an entire winter on parsnips from the previous summer’s garden.

Me? I was not physically assaulted by a father and step-mom, with hushed-tone speculation about 'other' unspeakable assaults.

My mother did not die and abandon me when I was 10 months old.

I was not made a Ward of The State by the first grade, bounced from foster home to foster home until my emancipation, while my older brothers 'got to' remain back on the family farm in rural Maine.

I hadn’t adopted an uncle and aunt as surrogate-parents as a young woman so I could feel somehow complete.

I did not learn ‘the rabbit died’ -- that I really REALLY was pregnant -- on the same day the local newspaper’s social section announced the engagement of my beloved – to another.  Someone of the same wealth and social standing – and religion – as the father of my unborn child.

I was never forced through necessity to give up for blind adoption a baby that I loved more than my own life.

I never was so damaged by my own father that I denied his existence and told everyone in my life that he was dead.  Until he actually died. 

And once I finally found real, abiding love in a husband – the kind of love I had deserved but never received for all of my 29 years, that happiness was ripped away after only 14 years of marriage due to unexpected medical chaos.  

When my mother’s husband died, I lost my father and for a 13-year old girl, it was brutal. But my mother lost the only adult ‘love’ she had ever known.

Without having what I came to view as ‘real assaults’ – compared to my mother’s – I had no business being dysfunctional. I reconciled that I had several un-earned flaws.  This felt intolerable.  So much so, it became imperative for me to forgive myself.  Finally, I conceded I was just another flawed human being.

And insodoing, oddly enough, I simultaneously forgave my mother, and maybe even her family-of-origin and their love that she never had.

By the time she contracted acute leukemia and then the ovarian cancer that took her life, I'd had a full decade or more with her in her years of total sobriety and mental health.  She had forgiven herself. And maybe her own family.

That’s I guess where it all clusters up for me as some kind of ‘epiphany’.  Before we can get to the business of forgiving people who have hurt us, don’t we have to forgive ourselves for whatever it is we do so poorly -- or fail to do? I’m not sure why it works this way, but at least for me, it does.

Occasionally, some flicker of near-anger to this day – twelve years after her death and more than 20 when she found her balance -- will lap at my consciousness.  But it’s an anger-memory.  A habit.  Whatever it is, it is dormant.

The active anger long ago did its work.  The forgiveness came once I watched myself take periodic strolls down the same paths that brought my mother acts of self-destruction.

I told my friend that her situation was wholly her own. Much different from mine.  But I think sharing our stories has value.  

However, I don’t have to share a single thing to know in my marrow that the death of a burdened parent doesn't facilitate healing.  It doesn't do much of anything. The person evacuates our world, ironically failing to take with them our pain. It’s not their job to chase off our pain. It’s ours.

I also told my friend that I didn’t know what stage or flavor of anger she was in.  And it didn’t matter.  Anger doesn’t fix much.  It’s just one stage we stand on, so we can step over to grief. It is grief that turns the key to recovery and reconciliation. Grief must be a part of our story. We grieve over the life we did not have, or the parents, or the love. We grieve because we know we deserved all of that and more. 

Grieving for the loss or absence of a family charged by moral law to cherish and protect us, to know us more profoundly and accurately than we know ourselves, is hard, but worthwhile, as it marks the start of legitimate forgiveness.

I had a most fortuitous experience with my mother's purposeful sobriety -- and my own self-forgiveness once I succumbed to personal and parental flaw.  By discovering I, too, am a flawed parent with potential to damage my kids, I not only forgave us both, I used my more healthful adult time to enjoy the mother who did get better with time and age – like wine, yogurt and sour dough bread.

The mother who looked at my flaws through the timeless eyes of experience, then forgave ME.  That was the year before her death.

That was my seminal-moment; the one where I knew all the grief and anger equated to ‘a job well done’ and there could be no more ‘useful past-examination.’  To see in her eyes forgiveness.  To see my own forgiveness of us both reflected back from her to me. It’s a very lucky place to visit, as memories go.  

Maybe that’s the secret and the art of forgiving the dead.  Once they leave our world, all that’s left are memories. Once the hard, healing work is done, we are able to choose healthful memories of those we so loved or were supposed to love – or those whose flaws made love more difficult.  And in my case, someone so capable of deep, sustaining and healthful love despite knowing so little of it throughout her own first decades. For her, I choose to reflect on her 14 years of complete marital happiness.  The art of forgiving let's me do this.