November 19, 2019

The Difficulty of Mourning an Abusive Parent

“I sat on my childhood bed, surrounded by 52-year-old stuffed animals, with a smartphone lodged between my ear and shoulder. My father had died unexpectedly the day before, and I was jotting down notes as my rabbi back in Ohio described various mourning obligations: accepting condolence calls for a week of shiva and reciting Kaddish daily for 11 months.

I wanted to honor my father. I wanted to be like the daughters who posted Father’s Day photos on social media with words that mirrored their affectionate images. You were there for me. Everything I know came from you. You made me think I could do anything. I’m so lucky to be your daughter.

But that was not my experience. And that was not how I felt about him.

At 6-foot-1, lean and sinewy, my father cut a threatening figure. Be quiet, clean better, do more, take better phone messages, do the work I tell you, do it perfectly. Like the mismatched words in “The Far Side” cartoon showing what humans say to dogs and what dogs hear, my internal voice translated his declarations into: “You disappoint me, you’re not worthy.”

Somehow, though, my father also projected sadness. He had a resting frown face and dark brown eyes set deep into a forehead pleated with wrinkles. He regularly spent days in bed, only coming out of his room for meals, dressed in pajamas and slippers.”

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