5 top tips for when your abuser dies
My mom died last month. Even though I live much of my life on social media, I didn’t really talk about it because… it’s complicated. Supposedly, in February 2017, my mom had been able to drive her car, hang out with her boyfriend, drink ridiculously scalding hot Earl Grey tea, with milk and sugar, but by April 3rd 2017, at 1:16AM, she was dead.
At least that’s what I imagine her last month to be like.
In March, I received a Facebook message that my mom, Carol, was very sick in the UK, it was terminal, and that she had Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). CJD is a rare, degenerative, invariably fatal brain disorder. It affects about one person in every one million people per year worldwide. CJD usually appears in later life and runs a rapid, aggressive course. In the early stages of disease, people may have failing memory, behavioral changes, lack of coordination and visual disturbances. When I got the call, my mom was at a point that she didn’t know where she was, how to write her name, or even that she had children. And that meant by proxy, she had also forgotten that she had abused her children for much of their formative years.
1. The loss of an abuser can be very triggering. It can bring up memories you haven’t thought about for years and you can find yourself returning to old patterns of thinking, feeling, and reacting.
Suddenly, life shifted. My eldest sister connected with me. We never speak, hadn’t done so for close to 20 years. At first, our exchange was cold and awkward. I suspected trickery, lies, and manipulation of some sort by my mother. Was this all a ruse, for money, for love, for a rekindled relationship?
However, it quickly became clear that Carol was no longer the person that I had known and was a woman completely free of all memories, floating into certain death. I geared up into survival mode. The weight of those memories and her impending death now would rest on those she would leave behind. I knew she would have no money, no legal will, and absolutely no plan for her estate or debts. That was her modus operandi.
My focus shifted to my sisters. My eldest sister was in the UK watching my mother slowly fade into nothing. Her relationship with Carol was less strained, slightly more amicable. She called her “mom” easily. This was hard on her. She felt compassion for someone old, scared, and confused. My middle sister was in Texas. She had been the most abused and had the longest period of time being estranged from the family. She had left home for fear of death and rarely glanced back. Just contacting her I knew would trigger PTSD. I became a conduit between my two sisters, caught between two diametrical forces. One edgy, toughened by life in foster care and on the streets, the other petite, risk averse, and book smart. We all come from different fathers, a blonde, brunette, and redhead, but all are distinctly images of my mother. People say I look just like Carol, and sometimes lost in an unhappy memory, I will glance in a mirror and see her glaring back at me.
I tried to manage the memories that spilled over in Facebook conversations as my sisters and I retold the stories of our childhood. We narrated the events, not to revel in pain, but rather to commune in the sort of forgiveness found in a shared confessional. We looked to each other to validate our choices. There is a certain shame that comes from being a product of a broken home. All of my siblings, my sisters, four younger, two older, and two step-brothers avoid each other. We are tied tight by this invisible bond but being in each other’s presence is painful and sensitive. We remembered getting locked in closets, being starved, being hit, being hissed at. We giggled at the horror, laughed at the torture. We know socially it isn’t funny, but this is how we have learned to process our experiences. We hide our shame within trauma-humor that is unique to children who have survived.
Our stories were not just of our mother though, we named the people we had trusted, that knew of our lives, and did nothing. We pointed out the flaws in the education system, the welfare system, and the church. We took ownership of the ways we hurt each other to survive, each sister retelling our origin story and ultimately coming round to how we felt in the face of our abuser’s impending death.
2. Not only do you grieve the loss of the abuser’s life, but often grieve the loss of hope for the relationship to be something different or for the abuser to take responsibility for the abuse and ask for forgiveness.
I had to imagine my mom's final month alive because our last exchange had been in September 2013, and before that it had been over a decade since we had spoken. That fall I responded to an email she had written me. I wanted my mom to admit her wrongdoing, to work towards reciprocity and she demanded I let it go and provide carte blanche forgiveness. She answered my email with, “So be it.” It was our last exchange.
3. It’s important to allow yourself to feel whatever feelings come up for you. Grief is messy and hard. It’s normal to feel a variety of feelings, sometimes all within a matter of minutes.
I had spent so many years grieving my mother; during her actual death grief was absent. I was baffled that she could use getting pregnant to garner the security offered by men. I didn’t understand how she could be so selfish and clothe us in hand-me-downs while she shopped for expensive leather. I was confused as to why no one seemed to notice our pain, and why no one ever came to rescue us. I wondered why she was so hard on my stepbrothers and my sister in particular. I was angry that she left me to live in a car to finish high school. I speculated on her own adoption, her being sent to Canada at 19 with a one-way ticket, her mental state as she forged out a life in a strange land. I resented her conversion to the church and all the complexities that theism added to our lives. I reflected on our last physical fight and the specific moment I chose not to be like her.
I avoided Skyping my mom in those final days. I figured, why stress out a confused woman who doesn’t remember who she is, much less who you are? When she finally passed, I expected to be filled with sadness or regret, but when it happened there was only a vast expanse of nothing.
4. Grief can be even more complicated when the people around you are unaware of the abuse or what complicated grieving is. It’s important to have someone you can process these feelings with, someone who understands the conflicting feelings that may come up. It may be a friend or partner, or possibly a therapist. Just please don’t try to navigate these waters on your own.
It was hard to stomach, as people whom I had only glancing interactions with over the years came to offer their condolences. I was appalled, and angry. “I don’t care if she is dead”, I wanted to scream in their face. “I don’t mourn her loss.” But after about the fourth time, I started to see their tears well-up as they squeezed my shoulder. I realized they were not giving me condolences but envisioning or reliving the loss of their own parents. My mother’s death had triggered the memories of their parents who had loved them, comforted them, and supported them. These people, they were the normal ones, it was normal to be sad, and so I worked to be empathetic to their grief by reciting, “Thank you. I’m ok, I am resilient. I appreciate your thoughts.”
That’s the thing about children, they are resilient. They find happiness in the strangest places. I have many happy memories, building a treehouse in the forest, jumping into impossibly deep snowdrifts, chasing my brothers to kick the can, and hiding for hours in caterpillar-infested brambles. I remember making bow and arrows, picking chokecherries to make jam, and learning to skate on our front lawn. I remember Sunday afternoons playing with our only family friends, a trio of tumbling boys. I still remember my cheeks burning with embarrassment as my mother teased me about the debilitating crush that I developed on one of them.
I was lucky I didn’t have to navigate my mother’s death on my own; I was not just with my sisters, but also with a man who understands what life was like for me as a child. Decades later I would reconnect with that childhood crush and he would become my partner. Through this difficult time he spent hours on Skype letting me vent, rage, worry, cry, say the most inappropriate things. Finally, when I needed to drop out of the emotional game and actually focus to get things done, he let me uncomplicate my life and come home to him.
5. Be prepared to grieve the loss of things you always wanted from your abuser. Perhaps you wanted an apology. Or you wanted to confront them and have them accept responsibility for what they did. Maybe you wanted them to finally become the parent/sibling/etc. that you needed. Giving up those hopes is a loss that you may need to grieve.
A month after her death and writing “mom” is still weird for me; I had switched to calling her by her first name in my teens. I had always joked that I would sing ‘Ding-dong the witch is dead’ when she died, but I didn’t.
I don’t feel regret, or pity, or loss. I don’t feel shame. I’m not angry, at least not today. Carol made choices. Perhaps she did so because of mental illness, or just selfishness, but she made her choices. I have a whole lifetime to make mine.