So, what if your NP is long dead and you are only just now realizing the fact that the problem was not you, after all, it was that now-dead parent? What are the implications of such a realization and how do you deal with it, cope with it, heal from it? The situation, while sharing many elements with those whose parents still live and torture them, is quite different when the parent is dead, particularly long dead.
There are two distinct advantages to embarking on this journey after the NParent has passed on: 1) because they are gone, they are not regularly adding to your burden of pain, and 2) you can no longer cling to the hidden hope that if you could come up with the right word or deed, the door to your NP’s stony heart will open to you. These are issues for many ACoNs whose narcissist parent still lives: they continue to add to the adult child’s pain and the adult child often continues to hope—often subconsciously—that there is a chance the parent will “wake up” and see the pain their child is in and step in to assuage it. When your NParent is dead and gone, neither of these issues are on the table.
On the other hand, the adult child of a dead NP has to deal with guilt, both self-imposed and often from well-meaning (or not-so-well-meaning) outsiders for “speaking ill of the dead,” for telling unpleasant truths about someone who is no longer about to “defend him/herself.” And while those of us whose parents were living as we wrestled with our demons, did have them to go to, to ask “why?”, to call to account, the truth is, very few of us ever actually do that. Not only do we recognize the futility, we also recognize that it is in just such a scenario that the NP flourishes the weapons of fear, obligation and guilt—the dreaded F.O.G.—to obfuscate truth and send us fleeing, confused by gaslighting and rolling in guilt for not “honouring” our parents.
So how do you approach this if your parent was already long dead when you figured out that you were the adult child of a narcissist? You start by recognizing that none of the abuse was your fault no matter what your parent told you and no matter how you have reframed it to make it your fault. It was never your fault. Ever. It was the responsibility of your parent to correct and discipline you, yes—but it was your parent’s choice as to how to do that, and the choice to use abusive methods rests solely on that parent.
You cannot excuse your parent making those choices because “she had it tough” or “he didn’t know better.” Unless that parent was isolated from the rest of the planet—no books, magazines, newspapers, television, radio, internet, movies or personal visitors—your parent had the opportunity to learn new ways to discipline. Even if s/he was raise in an authoritarian cult with no connections to the larger world, if your parent was sufficiently emotionally engaged with you, s/he would feel empathy for the pain and fear s/he inflicted on you. That s/he did not feel that empathy, that s/he did not wish to protect you from the pain and fear, is more germane than the fact that s/he may have suffered the same kind of treatment as a child. The very fact that you were her child and she was not motivated by her love for you to find methods other than the hurtful methods used on her is critical because she did not hurt with you. An empathetic parent will suffer pain for inflicting pain on his child; that pain will motivate the parent to find another way to shape and mould and discipline the child without abuse.
Understand that hurting you in the name of correction and discipline was a choice your parent made: there were other choices to be had and an abundance of resources, even “back in the day” before the internet. I had my first child in 1965 and there were magazines and books available even then. My mother was a brutal authoritarian who raised me with slapping, beating with a belt or strap or stick or shoe or whatever came to hand; she browbeat and humiliated me, shamed me, and set up situations in which it was impossible for me to succeed and then punished me for my failures—that is the kind of behaviour that passed for discipline in my mother’s house and I could have very easily just adopted it. But I went to the library and read voraciously during my first pregnancy, everything I could lay my hands on for ways to raise a child without hitting and screaming and humiliation and shame—and I was only 17 years old. If a 17-year-old girl who was raised with brutal physical discipline and crushing emotional abuse could grasp that there were other ways to raise a child, ways that did not damage the child emotionally, and pro-actively seek out information about those alternatives, then what excuse does your parent have? The truth is, your abusive parent had every opportunity I had (and likely more), but s/he simply had no interest because s/he was not sufficiently emotionally engaged with you to want to guide you without hurting you.
Once you realize and accept that it was not your fault that your parents abused you the next step is to assign responsibility where it belongs: on the deceased parent and his/her choices.
Cue the guilt goblins: this is where you become overwhelmed with guilt for thinking so badly of this person who did the best she could with what she had and now you are thinking bad things about her and she’s not here to defend herself…guilt! guilt! guilt! Icky, terrible, awful-feeling guilt! Are you going to shed those guilt feelings by excusing your parent for choosing abuse over compassionate discipline? Or are you going to shed the toxic guilt that has been programmed into you to keep you away from the truth by embracing that truth?
Ask yourself: how do you know she did the best with what she had? Could others have done better with the same? Or with even less? (Remember—1965—I had no TV, no radio, no newspaper subscription—and there was no internet—I haunted the library and got answers that way.) And how do you defend the indefensible? This person emotionally abused and manipulated a little kid—someone who was incapable of self-defence—for her own advantage.
Author Anne Lamott once said “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write [speak] warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Notice she doesn’t make an exception for “people who can’t defend themselves because they are dead.” It is my thought that if someone is okay with going to their grave without acknowledging or apologizing for their transgressions against you—which means those transgressions have not been resolved—then it is not only acceptable but healthy and normal for you to seek resolution on your own, after they have died. Their life is over—even if their reputation is stained by your telling the truth, their life is over—and yours is not. And the life and reputation of a living person is far more important than the reputation of someone who can no longer feel the sting of humiliation or the pain of rejection or the emptiness of feeling unloved.
It is wrong to shame and guilt a person for telling the truth. And that holds true whether that truth telling is simply admitting to yourself that your NParent abused you and s/he was wrong to do so, or if it is telling your entire family what s/he did to you. It is wrong to guilt yourself and it is doubly wrong for others to lay guilt and shame on you for telling a truth they would prefer not to hear. It is doubly wrong because 1) shaming someone for telling the truth is, in effect, demanding that the person lie and 2) expecting someone to lie about their lives in order to protect you from unpleasantness is reprehensible—it expecting someone to sacrifice their integrity so that you can be live comfortably in denial, so that you don’t have to face something you don’t wish to acknowledge.
Some of us will feel angry at that departed parent, others will find themselves going through the stages of grief again. Yet others will try to cling to our denial, to keep the parent alive in our hearts and minds by emulating or at least defending the deceased. Some of us were devoted to our parent, we loved them—he was your Dad, she was your Mom. But part of waking up to the reality of having an N parent is realizing that the parent we believed we had was not necessarily the person s/he really was.
Denial is a powerful thing. We use it to make the unbearable tolerable. Some of us forget the stuff that hurts, others remember things differently from the ways they actually occurred. Still others will simply remember a saint where, in fact, the late parent was an egregious sinner. How we live with the spectre of the deceased parent is as individual as we are, but too many of us sanitize our memories lest we feel guilty about speaking ill of the dead and betray the commandment about honouring our parents. But healing is about truth and at some point you are going have to face up to it and make a decision: move on or stay stuck? Do you want to heal or do you want to keep your illusions intact? Because they are mutually exclusive.
Truth about someone means acknowledging the bad as well as the good. It means letting go of that protective layer of illusion that has allowed you to believe that your parent loved you as much as you loved him. It is recognizing that actions tell the truth and when words and actions conflict, believing the words is the path to denial, believing the actions is the path to truth…and the truth, when you are dealing with a narcissistic parent, is seldom pretty. It is painful—really gut-wrenchingly painful—to come to the conclusion that your parent didn’t love you, that his convenience, his football game or his bottle of whiskey or his cronies were all more important that you were. I divorced a man who used to call and set up a visit with his two little kids and then just simply not show up. Two little pre-schoolers dressed up and waiting for Daddy, excited to see their father, and he just doesn’t show up. When asked later why he didn’t come, his excuses would range from “car trouble” (then why didn’t you call?) to he overslept and then it was too late (then why didn’t you call??) to he didn’t want to miss the playoffs (then why not call rather than leave the kids just hanging?). His words said “I love my kids,” but his actions clearly showed that they were the last item on his list of priorities. Where did you fit on the list of your deceased parent’s priorities?
My mother would rather have bought herself gaudy cocktail dresses and heaps of flashy costume jewellery than take me to the optometrist; she got her teeth cleaned every six months—I did not see a dentist for the first time until I was 14 and had massive cavities. On the one hand, one could argue that we didn’t have much money and kids in that kind of household often have such things as glasses and dental work put low on the household priorities. But on the other hand, in a household headed by a fully functional, loving parent, such things as cigarettes, liquor, and revealing evening wear do not take precedence over the health and welfare of the children.
One of the advantages of coming to this juncture after your NParent has died is that you can stop collecting evidence. Oh, you may have to do some brain work to recover suppressed memories, but there is no new—and potentially confusing—evidence being manufactured daily, which is very much the case for people whose NPs are still living. Dealing with a static situation is much less confusing than dealing with one in which the dynamics can change at the drop of a hat.
But, there are disadvantages to dealing with this when the NP is dead—you can’t test the situation to see if your discoveries are, in fact, correct. You can’t ask questions to see if your NP has a plausible reason for their behaviour and, of course, there are always those who make it their business to criticize and find fault with your search for inner peace because they think the dead should be enshrined as saints and you are busy exposing their idol’s feet of clay.
I don’t really have any answers here—my NM was very much alive and in fine fettle when I went into therapy. She had another dozen or so years to inflict herself and her maliciousness on me and the rest of my family. It was clear that there was no love lost between us, that there never had been. She was a predator and I was her favourite prey—that began before I can remember (and I can remember a few things back to age 2) and it continued until after she died, her Will a document of both generosity (to some) and character assassination ( of others). But I continued processing my experiences of being her daughter for many years after she died and I found it was somewhat easier, since I wasn’t constantly fending off new assaults or trying to integrate her latest inconsistent behaviour into my picture of her.
What was not easier, however, is the lack of reinforcement after she died. In her last years we had contact once or twice a year and each time I came away from a visit or put down a letter from her, my tank was topped up: I was reminded, sometimes forcefully, of why we were estranged and why we would always be so. Once she died, I found myself in the amazing space of second-guessing myself, my convictions, my own memories. I became less emotionally engaged (probably due to lack of reinforcing provocation) and the distance that brought caused me to start thinking of excuses for her. It was hard, sometimes, to remember just how awful she was to me. Time may not heal all wounds but it does dull the pain and therein lies the trap: as the pain dulls, so does your conviction of the need to protect yourself and that can lead to new pain.
My best advice in this is to journal. Especially is s/he has died. Write an account of your experiences with your NP—the experiences that hurt you, why it hurt, how it hurt, what s/he should have done under those same circumstances. Funny thing, when I did that, I realized just how much choice she had, how many options she had at her command, and it made me seriously question why she invariably chose brutality, both physical and emotional. She did not learn this from her parents—her brothers confirmed that as well as my experiences of living with them for multiple summers. Writing things down kept them accessible to me as I puzzled out seemingly conflicting things: her ability to scream at me and, in half a second, be speaking sweetly and calmly to a friend on the phone. Write things down so that you collect the body of evidence that your subconscious will quietly sort for you, kicking up little “aha!” moments and the occasional big epiphany.
Remember that none of their behaviour was your fault, it was their choice, and you have never had any power over their choices. In the long run, it is easier to sort out the dynamics of the parent who died, leaving a fixed legacy for you to work with, than the living parent who continues to add insults and injuries, but neither is stress-free.