Grieving a parent and healing our inner wounds
By Patty Ayers, MSW, LSW
When a parent is at end-of-life we may experience a myriad of emotions: anxiety, guilt, or relief when we think about their impending death.
Anxiety could be associated with wondering when and how they will die, and if it will be a peaceful death. We may also experience guilt if we are not the primary caregiver or feel as if we did not visit them enough in the months or years prior to their illness. And relief can also be felt if they are in pain or we perceive them to be suffering. Of course not everyone will experience these exact emotions, but most everyone will have their own thoughts and feelings regarding their own personal relationship with this parent.
As I visit patients and their families, I’m finding that many children struggle with old wounds or unresolved feelings left unaddressed for many years. Recently I had a daughter share with me her feelings of being “not good enough” or “not doing anything right” according to her mother.
This is not the first time I have heard this from an adult child of a patient. I sat on the porch of a patient’s son as he cried and explained that he wished he had more time to show his father how successful he had become.
Again, I should stress that these feelings are not uncommon in children who have unresolved issues when their parent is at end-of-life. Let’s face it: we don’t live in a perfect world where everyone can say they had a great relationship with one or both of their parents. Of course there are countless reasons why relationships can be troubled, but the question is: How do we learn to forgive our parents and ourselves so we can begin the healing process?
Helping ourselves heal
One of first ways we can help ourselves is to believe and trust that when we do acknowledge past feelings that come from our vulnerable inner child, that we will stand strong in the present and be supportive and non-judgmental to ourselves. For some, very uncomfortable issues such as abandonment, neglect, or abuse may surface. If you think these feelings might be too painful for you to acknowledge alone, you should seek the support of a counselor to help you work through them.
We also need to validate the ways in which we were hurt by our parent. Sometimes it’s so much easier to rationalize or minimize how we were treated and hurt in order to protect ourselves from further emotional pain. There may be many reasons why your parent behaved the way they did. They might have been hurt the same way by someone else, or culturally it may have been acceptable or encouraged to treat children the way you were treated. These reasons should not diminish your feelings about what happened to you.
We probably feel loss when we think of what happened to us. It’s important to recognize and grieve that loss. This may be especially difficult if you have a sibling or siblings who didn’t share the same experience as you and do not support your memory of what happened. Don’t let this lack of support stop you from grieving. You may experience anger, sadness, regret or remorse, shame and loneliness. It is perfectly normal to have these feelings as it is part of the grieving process. Remember that you could not have prevented and are not responsible for what was done to you and certainly you had no control over it.
But you do have control now. Once you have acknowledged your feelings and worked through your grief, you will see a different and much stronger healthier person emerge.