On the death of an abusive parent

Photo by Brady, from a sidewalk in Long Beach. 2017.

“I don’t really know what I feel. What should I feel? I don’t think I’m sad, but maybe I am.”

The death of a parent is, at the most neutral developmental perspective, significant, for it simultaneously makes one more of a child and more of an adult. In less neutral terms, with that particular death comes the acute awareness that, though still a child in some regards, there is no longer a parent to turn to for comfort or guidance, as a child naturally does. However, when a parent is abusive or harmful, and that child never exactly felt safe going to their parent for comfort or guidance, a different kind of grieving is felt when that parent dies.

For context, I’ve sat with many people over the years as they have struggled to grasp hold of their words and feelings around the death of a parent, or parents, that abused, mistreated, abandoned, neglected, demeaned, belittled, and in many other countless ways didn’t love or didn’t attempt to love their children. With that, I don’t know of a single time I haven’t cried tears that weren’t fully my own. It is a deeply painful, but also deeply healing experience to grieve an abusive parent, and it is also healing to acknowledge that there wasn’t love where there should have been love.

To be bold, yes, I do draw that line in the sand: abusive parents didn’t love or attempt to love their child. Some may disagree, for instance if one child in that household felt loved, when another didn’t. However, even in the case of a parent having multiple children; one child being loved and cared for doesn’t take away from another child being abused or unloved. Regardless of how a particular sibling’s parental relationship operated, there are many ways that a child’s experience of their parental relationship may be discredited. All too often the expression, “they did the best they could,” is used to excuse, to minimize, and to enable that lack of parental love; the disharmony of that platitude is painfully sharp, and I can’t hear it otherwise. As an aside, the desire for others to offer that platitude, I have found, comes from the comforter’s own sense of denial, and their own desire to not see abusive parenting when it occurs. Too often, that denial presents as a hollow protectiveness of idealized parenting, because a “real parent” wouldn’t do that, and yet, a real parent did. In this way, many people don’t want to admit abuse, or to question if a parent is unloving, because doing so might mean re-evaluating their own perspective and feelings about their parents.

Sometimes all we can do in searching for words for our feelings, is to look for the fragments of those discarded feelings that are left behind.
Acknowledging abusive parents and unloving parents is challenging. Being surrounded by a culture and society that venerates parents, never questions a parent’s sense of “love” for their child, gives multiple holidays to parents, and shames any disrespectful or ungrateful child for questioning or for not unconditionally loving their parent, makes it all the harder to feel the ache of being parented by an abusive and unloving parent. In many ways, therapy is even mocked for calling out abusive parenting, because, “it’s all about blaming the parents,” which silences any discussion about the pain and traumas that parents can uniquely inflict upon their children. And yet, not calling out how parents can cause irreparable harm to their children is to be complicit in that harm.

So what is a child to do? Placate those around them with a fanciful narrative that their parent must have had redeeming qualities? No. If a parent wanted to be respected by their child in their legacy, they needed to respect their child over the course of their child’s entire life. Sure, a parent can be competent in child-rearing up until the child’s third birthday, thereby granting their child some emotional and psychoanalytic resources for the child’s coming adulthood, but that parent could also cause undue harm from when the child is three years old to forty-three years old, infecting and eroding what fealty they, the parent, may feel entitled to. It isn’t the job of the child to make the parent feel better about their choices, and yet, many children take on that role.

This, sadly, is the twist that those grieving abusive and unloving parents feel; though the parent may have abandoned the relationship long ago, the child may still want the parent to change, wanting that love, even if it hasn’t ever been felt, somehow proving it is there after all. Which is a certain protectiveness that children, even of abusive parents, painfully demonstrate. And yet, with the death of that parent, when they are ready, they can learn to not be as protective of a person that wasn’t as protective of them.

In some ways, healing can tangibly begin when abusive parents are dead. They can no longer hurt their children. The feelings of grief then, is that in death, that parent can no longer change and learn to do right by their children; a possible loving parental relationship is forever ended; a loving childhood has never, and will never, come to be. This definitive moment of clarity, that one’s parent is no longer alive and the experience of parental love, though long wanted and never felt, can’t come to pass, is to be mourned. Mourned, not for the parent, but for the lost childhood. And those childish tears, if they come at all, are right to be shed.

Sometimes all we can do in searching for words for our feelings, is to look for the fragments of those discarded feelings that are left behind.

And for those who have recently or long lost an abusive parent: I am so sorry. You deserved so much better.

About the Author


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I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice down in the greater Long Beach, CA, area. I've been in the mental health field, formally, since 2005, and I consider it a deep and rewarding honor to see other people grow and live the lives that they want. If I'm not sitting on a couch with a cup of tea in hand, I'm probably on my bicycle, or lost in my own thoughts on the beach; meditating, tweeting, blogging, and talking into a video camera are also known to happen.

BradyOn the death of an abusive parent