November 25, 2017

I Grieved the Loss of a Parent who is still Living.

Three of my Facebook friends lost parents this past week.

Their status updates were met with condolences, prayers, and support. They were offered a safe space to grieve. Friends will bring them meals, funerals will be planned, and it will be widely understood these monumental losses will take time to heal. Their lives are forever changed and regardless if the relationship was healthy or strained, there is a finality to their parent’s earthly journey. Their grief is recognized, and rightfully so.

I too am grieving the loss of a parent. The difference is this person is still alive—actively creating in the same world they helped bring me into. And just like a physical death, my grief is real, and it comes in waves. The difference is I chose to sever ties with this parent. This wasn’t a calculated decision made overnight, rather a lifetime of events, choices, and circumstances that finally reached a breaking point.

This type of loss often goes unrecognized. It can be brought upon by many factors: mental illness, alcohol or drug abuse, brain injury, and dementia being among the most common. Regardless of the factors involved, it is both confusing and debilitating to come to grips with the fact someone you love deeply is not psychologically who you thought them to be.

If this were a breakup with a boyfriend, or a divorce, we would be given ample time to recover. We’d be met with pints of Ben & Jerry’s or nights out with friends. It would be understood that time heals all wounds.  Heartbreak is part of life and we’d be following in the footsteps of many before us. We would be told we’re better off, and we’ll find someone new in time. Our friends would remind us that he/she wasn’t “the one.”

This is not like that.

This loss is a painfully real mix between a breakup and a death, coupled with an undeniable biological connection. There is no rite of passage for those of us who choose our own mental health over a relationship that caused more harm than good. There is no funeral to signify the end. Instead, we’re left knowing this pain is ours alone to heal—a task that is not only daunting, but empowering if we choose to see it that way.

The more I reach out, the more I realize we’re not alone. And while some may judge our decisions, I believe we’re brave and our difficult choice is not made from selfishness, but rather a place of radical self-love.

If you’re reading this, my heart goes out to you. I’m sure you’ll agree life is not easier without this parent, but it’s better, lighter, and clearer.

For those of you knee-deep in the process, here are eight tips that have helped me tremendously while navigating this rocky terrain:

1) Grieve with grace.

It hurts. And it’s okay that it hurts. It should hurt. When one of the first people given the responsibility to love us falls short, we’re left to grieve what should have been. It’s important to give ourselves grace, knowing we did everything we could.

Cry, scream, fall apart, and then pull yourself back together. Life needs you. Remember the only way through it is to go through it. This is arguably one of the most difficult experiences you’ll encounter, and every emotion, from anger to fear, is normal.

2) Find a healthy outlet.

While there are days I feel like downing a plastic, gallon-sized bottle of vodka, I know this is not the answer. Being mindful and cautious around numbing mechanisms is a good idea while we’re going through this loss. The goal is to nurture and care for ourselves in a way that was not given to us previously. Make choices that empower you.

Yoga, cooking, painting, music, writing, running—it doesn’t matter which healthy outlet you choose as long as it reminds you of your own strength and goodness. By choosing to nurture ourselves during difficult times we can become more present, aware, compassionate, and loving—even when we’re hurting ourselves.

3) Create mantras that empower you.

Mantras can be a powerful combination of words used to shift the limiting beliefs we hold and stop our negative thoughts midstream. By recognizing these thoughts and using mantras, we can bring ourselves back to the present moment and recreate our reality. Jot them down. Put them on Post-it notes. Set alarms on your phone. Tattoo them on your forehead. Actually, don’t do that. Or do. Who am I to judge?

A few that work well for me:

I make choices based on what is needed for me to be a good mother and healthy woman.
The most loving thing I could do for myself and them was to walk away.
They were the parent. I was the child. It is not my job to save them.

4) Read, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chödrön

This book has been my bible—an empowerment manifesto, if you will. It’s a beautiful reminder that life can be messy, unpredictable, and painful. The key is to not run from suffering, but embrace it as a path for deeper awareness and growth. By sitting with our pain, we can become compassionately curious about our current situations and move closer to our truth.

When we stay with our broken heart instead of numbing it, we can move through the journey of grief, not looking for security, but firmer ground beneath us. Our circumstances don’t change, we do. Embracing discomfort is the catalyst for healing.

5) Be honest about what you need, and ask for support.

One of the most challenging aspects of this loss has been not having anyone who can fully understand the complexity around this type of grief. In my particular situation, my friends had seen the highs and lows of my relationship with this parent for years. Severing ties was the expected outcome, and there wasn’t much shock value surrounding my decision. I feel like it wasn’t treated like a death, but more like a, “Thank God she finally left.”

It’s up to us to be vulnerable and honest about what we need for support. Some days, we’re great, strong, at peace. Some days we might cry and forget to cook dinner. Ask for help.

These moments of falling apart are normal, and we’re better off letting these feelings manifest than we are pushing them away. When we allow this, the moments of sadness become fewer and further between. We bounce back faster and trust ourselves to keep moving forward. Strength and sadness can coexist.

6) Seek guidance from a third party outside the situation.

Friends are great, but they’re almost always going to side with us. While their support and validation is relevant, finding a therapist or unbiased person outside the situation can provide extra insight and clarity.

Our goal is to work through the difficult patterns and emotions surrounding the relationship without obstructing our own process, and this is difficult to do alone. Working through the issues and limiting beliefs caused by our parent’s words or actions may be the most important work we do for our own healing process. Not to mention powerful insight will be provided on why we choose the lovers and relationships we do. Codependency, anyone?

7) Grab a pen and paper.

This is specifically for those of us who chose to sever ties with a parent. And it’s undoubtedly been one of the most helpful tips for me.

I wrote down all the things this person had done, and the damage they’ve caused. I realized I would not tolerate these behaviors from a friend, and I would never allow my daughters to be treated this way. These tidbits of truth are now at my fingertips during weak moments.

Then I wrote down all the things I wanted for my life. Seeing these two lists side-by-side helped me understand that I cannot fulfill my goals, be the mother I need to be, or give love to those who love me back while enmeshed in a toxic relationship with this parent.

We may not have always had control of our relationship with this parent, but as adults it’s up to us to create the life we crave and deserve.

8) Don’t expect closure to look a certain way.

Most humans are not fans of loose ends and unfinished business. In many cases, this parent could not meet us emotionally or mentally in the space needed for mutual healing. Their limitations are not ours to carry, and until we internalize this and let go of the attachment to who we want them to be, we will continue to suffer.

It’s up to us to determine what closure looks like. Sometimes it’s a deeper understanding that resolution is not possible. Maybe it’s realizing everything has unfolded perfectly and awakened us to self-empowerment. Regardless of what your closure with this parent resembles, it’s important to find a resolution within you that feels empowering, true, and grounded.

There is peace in creating your own closure. And it can be done.




Author: Rachel Dehler
Image: “The Shining”
Editor: Travis May
Copy Editor: Callie Rushton
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis

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