Long ago, I was wounded. I lived
To revenge myself
Against my father, not
For what he was –
For what I was; from the beginning of time,
In childhood, I thought
That pain meant
I was not loved
It meant I loved.
by Louise Gluck
Dear Dr. Dan: I understand from previous columns that when we lose someone we love, the depth of the pain is comparable to the depth of the relationship: When we love deeply, we will hurt deeply. What I don’t understand is why I can hurt so much, why my heart aches, when I hear about someone else’s wonderful parents. You’ve also said that pain often is unresolved mourning. How can I mourn something I never knew?
My parents were harsh and abusive in many ways, and are still living. I have ceased contact with them, probably to insulate myself from painful reminders of years of abuse. But as a mother, I feel terrible guilt. I would be devastated if my children treated me the way I treat my parents. I wonder every day how it will feel to get a phone call that it’s time for a funeral. Will there be a sense of relief, that it’s finally “over,” or will the guilt be overwhelming? Should I just grow up and “make nice” now? The physical and sexual abuse ended nearly 40 years ago. Why haven’t I healed?
Dear Jan: Webster’s defines forgiveness as letting go of resentment. This does not imply you should condone what they did to you. But if you can have enough faith in yourself to let go of your resentment, you may be able to see your parents in a different light.
Forgiveness is something you actually give to your enemy. Doing so results in a critical shift in power. Many adult children – many people – who have been abused or injured continue to see the perpetrator out of the eyes of the person they were then. In your case, you were a powerless, vulnerable child. Ongoing resentment keeps one frozen in time. So in a strange way, to “give” forgiveness is a way of reclaiming your power in this relationship.
I am sure that when you initially ceased contact with your parents it gave you a sense of safety. In the long run, however, it seems this hasn’t insulated you from memories of abuse. It may even have made them more painful. At this point, these emotions have nothing to do with who your parents are – or even who they were. They are just emotions you experience in trying to protect yourself. Your fear and resentment no longer serve a purpose.
What would happen if somehow you found yourself without resentment? Initially, you would feel raw, frightened and vulnerable. And then you would feel a kind of freedom.
Of course, forgiving someone who hurt you is not easy. Once you are able to see your parents through adult eyes, you will see them in all their complexity. In addition, perhaps, to being angry, impulsive, and, at one time, dangerous, you can see them as vulnerable, confused, aging, or too ashamed or insecure to tolerate their own helplessness. Your parents probably are not good people. But they probably are not evil people, either. They are just people with their own demons. People who once did terrible harm to the child you were.
And yes, your pain could very well be unresolved mourning. What is dying is what you longed for. I imagine you long for what most humans do – a loving family that provides safety, nurturing and a sense of belonging. Perhaps you have not mourned the failure of that dream to become real. Perhaps part of you still has hope. Despite the lack of physical contact, your fear and resentment kept you connected to the dream. The death of a dream can be terribly painful because it is really the end of hope. Most of us long for something we will never have – the big job, youth, the ideal partner. The path to emotional freedom is not acquiring what we long for but learning to live with longing.
None of this implies that you should be your parents’ best friend. You don’t even need to be the dutiful daughter who visits them. But if you want more freedom from your own suffering you must find the courage to see their humanity. If you saw your parents for who they are, you would also be less frightened of your own children seeing you in distorted ways. And you would probably feel deeper grief and less guilt when your parents died. Remember: Your pain is not just because of what they did to you – it is also because they may never have allowed you to love them.