There is no roadmap for dealing with the death of an absent, estranged parent.
This is odd, seeing as how roughly 25% of children in America live in a single-parent household (www.pewresearch.org/).
The relationship I had with my father was a series of fractures, each one nearly as painful as death itself. Abandonment and estrangement are not uncommon in American society, but as far as I know, there is no protocol, no “how-to” guide for handling the emotional fallout.
The first ‘death’ is the realization that your parent cannot or will not parent, and never plans to put your needs above his or her own. You are on your own, like it or not.
The second death, for my brother and me, was when my father decided to move 2000 miles away. We were teenagers. He did not come back to visit, nor did he send a plane ticket.
The third death was the most painful, up until the real one occurred. After years of frustrating conversations with her father, we each decided that estrangement was the healthiest option.
Most children outlive their parents and are left with the responsibility of sorting affairs, funeral arrangements, and of course grieving.
Society expects a certain protocol, in which the adult children step up to the plate when a parent passes.
When it was my time to step up, I tried my best, but ultimately I just could not perform.
In a typical scenario, the adult child graciously receives sympathy calls, flowers, cards, and well wishes shed a few tears, and then begins making funeral arrangements and tidying up financial and property matters. The adult child or siblings are now in charge and will honor the late parent with their actions.
They should do so with a stiff upper lip, and treat the deceased as a hero, sweeping away their shortcomings and sending them into the great hereafter with dignity and respect.
This seems reasonable after a lifetime of loving care, financial support, and happy memories in a healthy parent-child relationship.
This paradigm gets tricky when the deceased parent does not fit this mold.
My psyche was not prepared to deal with the death of a father I hardly knew. A man who was consumed by his own demons and ultimately too self-absorbed to offer his best self to his children.
On the morning I learned of my father’s death, the New Mexico sky was slightly overcast and vast as ever, spanning the snow-capped mountains and the rocky desert in all directions.
I had three missed calls on my phone, and instantly knew the time had come.
My father had willfully abandoned my brother and me eighteen years earlier, moving halfway across the country for no one is sure what reason.
His calls were not frequent, but when my brother or I did speak with him he would passive-aggressively demand attention, love, sympathy, and sometimes even money. When we pointed out that he had given nothing in return and that he in fact was the parent, not vice versa, he would respond with narcissistic bluster and carry-on until the call mercifully ended.
The narcissistic parent has become a common figure in modern psychology, but it’s difficult to understand how infuriating and mind-boggling the interactions actually are without experiencing it firsthand.
My brother and I eventually gave up the ghost, after reality sunk in. My father was never coming back to visit and certainly not planning to acknowledge his hurtful and negligent behavior towards his children. These estrangements lasted for five and 10 years, respectively, never to be resolved.
The Tennessee Phone Calls had been an ongoing occurrence in recent years. Every so often, a “good Samaritan” neighbor would try to reach me to discuss my father’s care.
The conversations went aS follows:
Samaritan: “I’m callin’ about your daddy,” a thick, deep Southern accent would inform me. He’s sick, and I’m worried about him.”
Me: “Yes, I know. Bill’s been sick for thirty years. He smokes all day, does not exercise, eats poorly, and is also an alcoholic with mental health issues. I’ve tried to help him since I was a child, and I can’t make him change his ways. He’s stubborn, as I’m sure you know.”
Samaritan then gives a nervous chuckle.
Me: So, what can I do for you?”
Samaritan: “Well, I like your daddy a lot, and I’ve been helpin’ him with groceries (insert alternate chores here), and he seems real sick but won’t go to the hospital. Says he’s afraid of dyin’.”
My eyes roll, and I silently wonder what my dear father was up to this time. What was the angle?
I also ponder, ‘Why would someone in such physical and emotional misery be afraid of death?’ It seemed like a peaceful alternative to the life he’d been living.
Me: “Thank you, that’s nice of you. My father has always been charming. Pretty sure his doctors have told him what he needs to do to feel better. He’s lived this way for fifty years. He had a heart attack twenty-five years ago, and his diabetes is so bad that he can barely walk due to lack of circulation.
The subtext, which I did not share for fear of frightening this nice man, was that death had been imminent for quite some time.
Me: So, what can I do for you?”
Samaritan: “Oh gosh, I know, but he’s in real bad shape. Maybe you could call him? I like him a real lot, we sit and talk after I mow his lawn.”
Me: “How mind. Did he happen to mention that he never paid a penny of child support and abandoned my brother and me, moving 2,000 miles away, never to return? He has never been back for a visit, although I’ve been to see him twice.”
By this point in the conversation, I would become furious. Who was this nice, charming man that his neighbors were so desperate to help? What could he possibly have done for them to inspire such loyalty? It just did not sound like the man I knew, who happened to be my father.
It irritated me to no end that my father had given these people my phone number, and no accident that he left out the truth of the situation. I imagine his version of the story went something along the lines of, ‘his daughter is temperamental and he doesn’t know why she is upset with him.’
When I couldn’t take any more of this dual reality, I would flatly state:
“I don’t wish to be further involved in my father’s care.”
This line never seemed to register with the other party, they could not wrap their head around why an adult child would not want to come and care for her ailing father. Who happened to live 2000 miles away, for no particular reason.
Samaritan: “Well, he’s sick, and we’ve been takin’ care of him, seeing as you’re his daughter and all …. “
At this point, my body shakes with anger, and my stomach ties itself in a thousand knots. The implication that I should drop everything to care for a man who took no responsibility for his own children was mind-boggling and felt too raw emotionally to explain to a stranger over the phone.
I would begin ranting about my father’s shortcomings, think better of it and ask the Samaritan to please not call me again.
I’d been waiting for the final call for years, but was surprisingly unprepared to cope. My cousin curtly informed me that my father had passed and the funeral home was trying to reach me to discuss “arrangements.”
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“My dad just died. No, I’m not okay.” I replied, and the tears began to flow as I made my way home under the endless sky.
I was surprisingly sad. One would think after grieving three deaths for the same parent, you might be numb to the fourth one but the tears flow like a river all the same.
I remember driving with my father as a child and asking why everyone did not just pool their resources and live as a community? It seemed like that would be more comfortable.
“Well, Vivy,” he chuckled,” That exists, and it is called Communism.”
The memories go downhill from here.
Sometimes, my charming, stunningly intelligent, and witty father was on the other end of the phone. If I was lucky, I was able to squeeze in a tidbit about my own life in a desperate attempt to be “seen” by a father who was incapable of doing so.
Other days, he was drunk and calling to ramble about his ever-mounting health and financial problems. These calls were painful and never-ending, and eventually, I would hang up the phone after multiple attempts at a polite goodbye.
Five years before my father’s death, he tried to coerce me into buying the house that he had intended to leave for my brother and me as an inheritance. The house has fallen into disrepair and he was not up to the task of getting in shape for sale. So, he thought he might unload it on me instead.
I am not an estate lawyer, but I am pretty sure this is not how inheritance works.
We did not talk much after that.
The weeks following my father’s passing were surreal. I skipped stage one of grief. There was no denial that Bill was gone, for real this time.
I then went straight to bargaining and imagined him as his best self, young, clever, and handsome.
I wrote him letters of forgiveness, attempted to connect through a psychic medium, and told myself that he would be a better father in death than he was in life, watching over me from “above.” We had imaginary, loving conversations in my head and I cried happy tears that we could finally be together and get along.
This pink cloud stage was short-lived.
Good old dad had not left any instructions or funds for his burial or what remained of the “estate.” As the eldest child, I was overwhelmed by phone calls from the hospital, the funeral home, the organ donor hotline, and various relatives wanting to put in their requests.
No one asked if I wanted the responsibility, it was simply expected that I would step up to the plate for a father who had done nothing to deserve my help.
His old friends regaled me with letters and emails, sharing beautiful memories of my father. They lauded his kindness, how good he was with (their) children, his wit, and other positive qualities that had long been overshadowed in my mind.
My emotional state reached a fever pitch, and I did not sleep for a week.
Who is this person they described?
Why was he nice to their children when he had abandoned and neglected his own?
Why am I dealing with any of this? I hardly knew the guy. I obsessed with responding to each well-wisher with a litany of my father’s shortcomings.
As the memorial preparations came together, I realized there was no way I could speak positively about my father, let alone host the service.
I was constantly in tears, and it hit me why the last death was the hardest. Up until that point, there was a tiny, child-like shred of hope that someday our father might act like a father.
Then he was dead. We never had a father and never would. The tragic missed opportunity, the grief a bottomless well.
I wanted to be the good daughter, to honor my father, and graciously accept what came with this heavy responsibility.
Unfortunately, I was just too sad.
Perhaps a bit angry too, but I could not see the point in pretending.
So, I canceled my father’s memorial service. I wrote a polite email to the guests, thanking them for their time and begging off with a vague promise of rescheduling.
I paid for cremation and would pick up the ashes, end of the story.
They say that grief fades with time, and I hope this is true. In the months after my father‘s death, I have swung from peaceful to sad to angry, one day playing the good daughter and the next preaching radical acceptance of things that cannot be changed.
My conclusion is, there is no roadmap to grieve a non-parent. I sympathize with all of the other abandoned children in the world, and can only suggest processing your feelings as they come. Without judgment, and without fear. You have made it this far on your own, and you will be okay.
It’s no longer about the parent, we must prioritize our emotional health and let the dead rest. In peace, I hope.