Trigger warning: childhood sexual abuse (CSA), trauma, psychopathy, domestic violence (DV)
Today I am sharing an intensely personal story, one that may help you understand that grief CAN and does look and feel very different for some of us – and it may help you to better understand why I am such a safe space for clients who experience non-‘normal’ grief and grief responses.
N.B.: This post was part of a longer piece published on my old website at the time of the death discussed. I am repeating it here as the exploration of what grief and loss can look and feel like is still helpful and germane today.
A little background on my background
Many Gentle Readers are aware that one of the most important aspects of my grief therapy work is an acceptance that grief can manifest in as many ways as there are people, that grief which is normal to one person may not make sense to another, and that it is always important to be supportive of a person’s grief process whenever possible (barring harm and danger to self or others, of course).
The reasons for this compassionate and non-judgemental perspective comes from a very violent childhood at the hands of my biological father – I cannot, to this day, bring myself to label him simply as ‘my father’ because the damage perpetrated by him is too universal and long-lasting. I have never had a step-father, so it’s not about a blended family hierarchy in that sense either; I don’t want to be associated with him. Fun fact: I changed my last name years ago (rather pleasingly the change was recorded on April Fool’s Day) and then made a choice to change my name again when I married, so I am aware that I absolutely prefer to be at a distance from him.
My childhood was so traumatic that I began to lose memory at the age of 3, and didn’t regain full memory until my mid-teens. I, and other birth family members, were subjected to gaslighting, verbal, physical and emotional abuse, and a highly toxic set of shifting manipulation rules about how we were to behave. In addition, there was a decades-long denial of the sexual molestation I was subjected to for several years by a member of his second wife’s family. This denial continued up to the end of his life – even when the perpetrator was recently found guilty of multiple charges (I was not the only one abused by this man) and sentenced to 6 years in Long Bay Prison. My report accounted for almost half of this total sentence, by the way.
As both my biological father and his second wife taught at the high school I went to there were plenty of opportunities for his abuses, even when I was legally recognised by the court system (14, at that time) and able to escape the shared custody arrangement. In fairness, he was good looking, charming, and a great story-teller – you would have probably liked him if you had met him socially, and you would also have probably found him plausible. Thus the power of the truly successful narcissist and psychopath. There are connections that were forever damaged by him, and educational opportunities I missed because of his manipulations and lies.
While I am not necessarily an advocate for cutting people off from our lives on a whim in terms of good mental health practices, I do advocate for – and support, because I understand – cutting off psychopaths and narcissists. And I don’t think anyone needs to explain or justify doing so because nothing will change a narcissist’s or psychopath’s behaviour or attitude. Some of us take pleasure in causing pain or harm, others consider it their right to do so, and they are never ‘the problem’. I always support anyone’s choice to excise toxic and determinedly abusive persons and behaviour from their lives. I did this years ago with my birth father and his second wife – and if you are wondering, no I have not lost a moment of sleep or had a moment of regret about this choice*.
*A while back I briefly attempted to bring them back into my life because I was subjected to a barrage of “cutting people out is wrong” pressures during a post-graduate degree I was undertaking. This sent me back to therapy, negatively impacted my physical health, sleep and personal relationships, and I ended up removing them again shortly thereafter, much to my personal relief and wellbeing. I am very comfortable with my own position on cut-offs of toxic persons. Please don’t @ me, I won’t respond.
What is the link to grief here?
This post and story is about grief, but my response would not necessarily make sense without the context of my birth family backstory.
I was informed by a younger sibling yesterday that my biological father had died on the 13th of January this year, so 10 days had passed before we were told by an older sibling who is still in contact with our biological father and his wife. This older sibling is a staggeringly fundamentalist Christian, and one who also decided that the sexual abuse did not happen. (They do not have contact with me, for which I am profoundly grateful as they delight in arrogance and pointed nastiness – and who has time for that?!)
I spent some time on the phone caretaking my younger sibling – who was rather more affected than I by the news of the death, as well as the manner of the phone call at 3:30am. (Which may seem weird, considering a week and a half had elapsed since the death, but the game-playing for points scored and maximum negative interactions is also very strong in our older ‘Christian’ game player…) Then, after I got off the phone I sat for a while and unpacked my surprising lack of responses to the news.
While my initial response was a fist pump (I am not a cool person, I accept this), I had genuinely expected to feel more celebratory – but instead I felt and continue to feel calm and rather disconnected to the news. I am OK with this as a standpoint.
I did not cry, I have not cried, nor is there any feeling/indication that I need to do so.
I did experience a brief wave of moderate anger – the kind that wants to pick up a baseball bat and smash ugly porcelain figurines – but as I possess neither bat nor figurines of any description I allowed that emotion to pass through me without comment or judgement.
Let’s explore the ‘celebration’ response
For anyone who is not a trauma survivor, allow me to explain my ‘celebratory’ response: the other shoe has dropped. There is no chance that the man who just died can ever try and contact me, hurt me, approach me to try and get me to state that I am in the ‘wrong’ and he can triumph in his own ‘rightness’, or that he can do any further harm to my reputation with his lies.
There is an indescribable relief in knowing that he is – finally and truly – gone from my life, and I have been looking forward to this moment as a threshold of tension relief for the past several years (advanced age and a Parkinson’s diagnosis meant this news was not a surprise or unexpected). Sometimes, without malice or an active wish for someone to hurry up and die, there are people in our lives whose death is not one where we feel sorrow, pain, loss or overwhelm. This does not mean there is no sense of loss, merely that the loss is not in the place you might expect to find it.
For me, I do not grieve or mourn his death.
However I am experiencing a kind of grief, one that relates to my wave of anger I discussed earlier: I will never have a nurturing, healthy, ‘normal’ father/daughter relationship. I do mourn that.
Sometimes relief and a quiet relaxing of tenseness is the natural response, and we are better off not lecturing anyone or telling them they are doing grief ‘wrong’ if this is they way they feel. If you are not a trauma survivor, especially a CSA and DV survivor, I don’t expect you to understand (in fact I am happy for you that this is outside of your experience), but I do invite you to be generous in your compassion with people who are. My/their grief will manifest and express itself differently. This grief is not bad, not wrong – simply a different kind of grief.
Acknowledging grief for that which will never be
I know rationally that a nice father/daughter relationship was never going to happen.
I will never have a happy Fathers Day.
I will never understand people who talk happily and with joyous love about the things their fathers taught them or helped them with.
My biological father was a destroyer, a master manipulator, and a humiliator. The delight he took in ‘winning’ by causing pain, loss, hurt and confusion cannot be overstated – and to this day I don’t really understand it because I am wired in a completely different way. Sometimes it was months or years before I discovered which lie he had told which teacher at my high school, which version of his truth he’d seeded to people in the town I grew up in, which stories he’d used to play himself in a caring, benevolently paternal light. I will never understand him or what motivated him; as someone with both a very high IQ and EQ this has been both stressful and painful for me to come to terms with.
And despite all of this, while my biological father was alive there was a small, very human, part of me that sometimes floated past on the river of my life experiences, stirring a desire to be like everyone else. To have even a moment of genuine and comforting connection with the man I share DNA with.
Ultimately, there are excellent reasons I do not really feel much at his death except relief, and very good reasons for me to feel a genuine loss of what could never have been, but which I longed to experience. I will never have happy childhood memories as most of us do. I will never gain back all the years it took me to heal and process that not all men are like him; I will never regain the relationships that my early trauma-informed responses damaged beyond repair. On the other hand, I am now emotionally healthy, in a long-term marriage and have wonderful professional and personal friendships and relationships.
I am also capable of spotting narcissistic behaviour and people, and removing myself from the sphere of that person’s interest without taking on the blame myself, or insisting that the other person will improve. This last I consider to be a skill of maturity and a reflection of my own healthy boundaries – but these I gave to myself and owe nothing to my birth father or his behaviours.