Our fathers and mothers may die twice. First, during their actual dying. And the other is the experience of non-relationship with them.
I have sat with a couple, Charlie and Mary (not their real names in this composite story), who both needed to recount detailed memories of their parents’ last days as well as their estrangement or abuse from them. Specific scenes and conversations kept coming back to them with extraordinary vividness.
Charlie, triggered by his father’s lack of attention to him while he was alive, died while he was so young. This left him fending for himself to support his studies and his mother. Mary, on the other hand, relived the period of her childhood during which her mother physically and verbally abused her. In her death bed, Mary’s mother continued to berate her, swamping Mary with painful memories she could not handle.
In our marital therapy sessions together, Charlie and Mary both realized that their own respective parents died twice. As a result, they found themselves hurting and abusing themselves and each other without fully understanding why. Wasting the good present in their lives because their past remain present. Their marriage exposed the “unfinished business.” Charlie and Mary lived to heal and revise their memories and self perceptions in accordance with the knowledge that they were gaining in therapy.
When our circumstances become humbling or we get wounded, things can become clear from the vantage point of helplessness. We can end up learning coming to terms with our parents’ deaths. We may finally be able to forgive our parents for their mistakes or failings. We may finally learn to leave home and live our own separate identities. Recognition of this key element in self healing can supersede even a life time of heart wounds and disappointments.
As psychologist Dr. Erik Erikson suggests, full spiritual health arises when one attains an “acceptance of one’s own and only life cycle” and a “new different love of one’s parents, free of the wish that they should have been different.” Some people lived long enough to find this truth out.