What do you do when your neglectful or abusive parent becomes ill and seeks your sympathy to get to the end of his or her life?
For a lot of people, the duty of honoring parents can be a perplexing dilemma. Such is especially so, when their parents have given them no or few reasons to honor them. Parents who were toxic and distant when their children were young tend to incur resentment rather than kindness.
Several months ago, I experienced this common dilemma. My 80+ year old father became finally sick and called for me after many decades of absence, neglect, and physical abuse during my youth. I never had a real conversation with him, a time spent eating out or walking in the mall, or directly receiving money from him. It’s fine that he asked for me now that he’s sick. But where was he when I needed him then?
Abraham Lincoln, one of America’s best-loved presidents, had an abusive, brutish father. His father, Thomas, hated his books and controlled his life by sending him out to work as a kind of slave to others. Even as an adult, Lincoln did provide finances to his father to bail him out of trouble despite disconnection and abuse in their relationship.
Eventually, Lincoln confessed that he was unable to stand his father any more. During his father’s terminal illness, Lincoln ignored messages from him. He wrote a note not to his father but his stepbrother to explain his absence: “Say to him that if we could meet now, it is doubtful whether it would not be more painful than pleasant.” Lincoln didn’t attend his father’s funeral.
Warren Buffet, the world’s no. 2 richest man in the world, once shared his life with his mother. He remained distantly dutiful to his mother, who had subjected her children to endless verbal attacks. Buffet was 66 when his mother died at 92. His tears at her death were not because he was sad or because he missed her. He said in his biography: “It was because of the waste.”
In my years of psychotherapy practice, the issue of “parent wounds” is an extremely recurring shadow evident in my sessions. Unbeknownst to these adult children, much of their psychological sufferings and dysfunctional behaviors are traceable to their lingering unprocessed pain from this kind of wounding. So, even to the end of their parents’ lives, they simply can’t imagine how else to be with or see them.
We are all children of our parents. Still, the ability to see our parents as children too can easily elude us. In my own life as well as in others, I’ve witnessed and experienced firsthand the shortcomings in parents which became damaging to us as a child and when we’d become parents ourselves. Like nothing else, such glimpses across generations can aid us to comprehend those who parented us.
Ultimately, with this cross-generational insight, we can view more clearly how we’ve been hurt and shaped. And finally, the hope of closure and healing from our “parent wounds” becomes a reality. Such facilitates making the prospect of our own personal change and fully seeing our parents’ humanness less frightening.