Making Peace With Our Departed Parents…John Page Burton

I clearly remember chasing her down the street, the snow stinging my eyes, tears freezing my cheeks, my heart pounding out of my chest all while listening to her desperate screams.  For many years I was haunted by the image of my mother, scantly clad in her nightgown, running from her demons though a snowstorm at 2am. I wanted nothing more than to stop her, bring her in out of the cold and somehow make her terrible nightmare end. It wasn’t a dream, I was ten years old and this was reality. I vividly remember watching a neighbor peek out her bedroom window, a blank look on her face, she was clearly disturbed by what she was seeing but was unwilling to help me. The next day when I saw this neighbor, we exchanged pleasantries but not a word about that event (or others like it) was ever spoken. Two years later my mother was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and I was admitted to a private school in the mid west. At age 12 my childhood as I knew it, had come to an abrupt end.

My parents divorced my freshman year of college. Throughout my college years and well into my thirties, I routinely attempted to re-connect with my mother but our visits were always dominated by her “hate speak” directed toward my father. I patiently listened for hours knowing full well that if I defended him or attempted to change the subject I would be asked to leave. Over time, my cravings for her companionship diminished due in large part to the profound realization that she had no real interest in my life. Eventually, she made a decision to remove me from her life entirely and we officially disconnected. Over the years, I would call her on her birthday or on Mothers Day only to hear her say, “you must have the wrong number, I don’t have a son”. I learned of her death two years after her passing, I was 49 years old. Her obituary (written by a “caretaker”) didn’t mention that she ever had a son but ironically a sentence was dedicated to the time she spent with my deceased father. “The wheels on the bus go round and round”…

For many years, I blamed my father for the disintegration of our little threesome. (I was an only child) Years later, by way of many heartfelt conversations I came to better understand my father and why he had chosen to remain in bed that snowy night and why he felt that sending me away was in the best interests of everyone involved. We were finally able to understand each other and offer forgiveness. During the final years of my fathers life, we became very good friends and I was by his side when he passed away in my home. During one of our final conversations he stated that “he wished we could have become much closer.” I smiled and thought, me to.

Today, I can appreciate my mothers journey as well as the dynamics of her mental health. I have a much greater understanding of what my mother brought from childhood into adulthood and just how confusing and painful it must have been to live inside her head. I understand the exhaustion and frustration my father felt as he watched his wife and my mother spiral into her own “hell on earth” experience. I have forgiven myself for the anger I carried with me for many years because of what I felt was my failure to protect my mom from her demons and keep her safe. As an adult it is easier for me to recognize that being only a few years removed from believing in Santa Clause, there was no way I could make sense of her illness let alone “fix” my “broken” mother. Today, I am at peace with both of my departed parents.

Many of us are still carrying around the same feelings of guilt, shame and failure that I felt. Some of us are still being controlled from the “grave” by parents we have not made our peace with. For many of us “the departed” still wield considerable power over us in the form of guilt. We lament the way things “should have been” and how we “let them down” etc. If this sounds familiar to you, it is time to make peace with the departed and move on. Here are 3 considerations that may be helpful in the peace making process.

*WE did the best we could under the circumstances. Most of us would do many things differently if given a second chance. Life is not a dress rehearsal, this is it. We don’t get a “do over” and therefore it is in our best interest to learn from our experiences and move forward. I work with a client who experienced a horrific childhood. Both of his parents betrayed him in a very cruel and unjust manner. He has carried around an anger that in the past has turned into an often destructive rage. My approach in working with him has centered around the fact that it was NOT his fault, he simply found himself in the cross hairs of extreme dysfunction. He can’t change what happened to him but he can change his relationship to it. In our work together, we focus on how he can take everything that has happened to him and make sure that it never happens to his children. He has powerful references on how NOT to treat children which will help to ensure that his children will receive everything emotionally (and more) that he failed to receive as a child. He is now beginning to turn his anger into love and in the process he is healing many of his childhood wounds. Children are dependent on adults to blaze a stable trail and sadly parental dysfunction can cause a tremendous amount of collateral damage.

*THEY did the best they could under the circumstances. Our parents did the best they could with what insight they had at the time. I am not making excuses for bad, abusive or violent behavior but the reality remains that this is how our parents functioned. If we have not made peace with our parents, chances are we are still carrying around a great deal of psychological baggage. Once we have forgiven ourselves it is time to free our parents. It was our parents job to help us not to harm us. We relied on them to “get their shit together” and they failed. When they pointed the finger at us and told us that it “was our fault” they were acting the way they were it was a lie they told us out of FEAR. Our parents often FEARED facing their own demons and so they took it out on those of us who were in the closest proximity. Abuse and dysfunction are learned behaviors that are often passed down from one generation to the next. WE can END this cycle of dysfunction by not repeating our parents behavior.. Through forgiveness we can begin making peace with our departed parents.

*Grace. Most of us are very good at beating ourselves up. We are our own biggest critics when we should be our own biggest fans! God has given each of us a plethora of life circumstances to learn and grow from. I will not pretend to understand why some people are presented with horrific life circumstances while others seemingly “skate through”. God has a plan. I will never know what my mom’s final thoughts were as her life came to an end. Like my father, did she also wish that we had been closer? Did she finally make peace with her demons and seek forgiveness? Grace allows us to experience peace in spite of not knowing or understanding the answers to these types of questions. Our parents played a very important role in shaping who we are today. The majority of our beliefs and perspectives are a direct result of their influence. Grace allows us to re-frame our beliefs and perspectives in a manner that doesn’t make our parents right or wrong. We understand that they did the best they could with what insight they had at the time and we are finally willing to let go of the anger and resentment that has kept us in emotional chains.

If you are still being controlled from “the grave” my hope is that you will find these insights helpful so that both you and the departed can truly R.I.P.

As always I look forward to your thoughts and feedback.

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