For most of my life I didn’t know what a flying monkey was but the minute I heard the description I knew I had one: my brother, Pete. Reflecting over time I came to realize he was not the only one, but he was by far the most blatant.
Pete didn’t bother with gaslighting, he told lies—big, bold, outright lies—and because he was the GC, my mother gobbled them up like candy. They didn’t even have to make logical sense…if Pete said it, then that was the truth. If it contradicted what I was saying, I was a liar. Period.
Needless to say, Pete and I were never close and when we became adults we led lives so disparate that our paths never even accidentally crossed. It should have been a red flag to me, then, when out of the blue my brother showed up at my front door one sunny afternoon. Last I heard, he was in the military and stationed overseas. But, never having had a real relationship with most of my family, I was cheered that he made the time to come and see me and meet the niece and nephew who were strangers to him.
When my mother started dropping in unannounced bearing gifts for the children (junk that fell apart almost before she went home), it should have been another red flag but it wasn’t. Naïvely I thought that she was trying to create a relationship with me—finally! at last!—but the truth turned out to something far more sinister. Within the year my mother would have a guardianship of my children, gained under false pretences and with perjured testimony and the assistance of my brother, and then she would disappear with them.
One of the things we tend to forget when dealing with flying monkeys is that they really aren’t the auntie or cousin or dear friend we remember from childhood—not any more. Whether you have recognized it or not, there is a war going on in your family and they have been recruited by—or volunteered themselves to—the other side, the side headed up by your N(s), the side that is out to sabotage and undermine you and herd you back into the role created for you by your N so that she can play out her drama. These are not people who you can “talk sense into,” nor are they people who will take to heart your side of the issue, even if they will sit and listen to your own tale of woe: all they will do with that is take it back to your N where it will be downloaded and analysed in order to fine-tune the N's campaign against you.
So what happens when your N dies? You would think that without their unifying leader, the gang would fall apart and they would all go their separate ways, wouldn’t you? Unfortunately, that is all too infrequent. Sadly, not only do the flying monkeys stick around and even continue their evil undertakings, they often take over right where your N left off.
It would not be unusual for the death notices, obituaries and funeral arrangements to be handled by one of the flying monkeys. Even the in-family announcements can be manipulated to put you “in your place.” I learned of my mother’s death, for example, from my daughter. My brother, executor of her will and listed as next of kin in her papers (despite me being the eldest), couldn’t be bothered to call and tell me…he told my daughter and she told me. This is how scapegoats get left out of the obituaries: my NM’s obit listed all three of my children (including the youngest one who my NM had refused to meet or acknowledge for all of his 26 years) and it listed my grandchildren—but my name was left out.
The flying monkeys may be in charge of the estate and even be named trustees on monies to which you are entitled, and they will attempt to control you on behalf of your deceased narcissist. From outright redirecting your legacy elsewhere to suggesting you give some of it to them or their family to flat-out stealing that which should be yours, the flying monkeys who have their fingers in the N's estate will do their best to get as much—and leave you as little—as they possibly can.
But even after the last clod of earth is heaped on the grave, the last silver spoon distributed, the last farthing sent on its way, your N still has reach beyond the grave through the flying monkeys she left behind. These people will not change the way they treat you, they will not listen to your side of things any more now than they would while your N was alive and if they appear to, it is with a bias that allows them to turn what you are saying into an attack on the dead. They may even tell you how unfair you are being, saying bad things about a person who is no longer there to defend themselves.
You may be called upon to give a eulogy for your N, a double-edged sword that will force you to either decline (and be gossiped about as being spiteful) or to get up in front of people and lie about the person who was your chief tormentor. You could always oblige and get up and tell the truth, but that would strike horror into the hearts of everyone present and end up with you being ostracised and possibly even called a narcissist yourself for turning a funeral into an event all about you.
Flying monkeys will make it as difficult for you as possible, less out of intent than just pure insensitivity. Cultural rituals like throwing dirt or flowers into the grave or who keeps/scatters the ashes, where these rituals will be held—for any of these you may find yourself assigned tasks—or you may be treated like you simply do not exist and the whole thing goes on around you, with you present but not a participant.
If you are anything like me, you will react to news of your Ns death with a combination of elation over being finally set free and a painful sinking feeling as you recognize that there is no longer any time or hope of your N becoming a real human being who acknowledges and apologizes for all of the pain s/he inflicted on you over the years. That brought me to tears, even while I smiled at that other shoe having finally dropped. Your feelings about your deceased N will be assumed by others, nobody will ask how you feel because nobody really cares. Your N has trained them to view you in the same way s/he did, and that will not melt away with the narcissist’s death.
It will not be, I am sorry to say, a time of rejoicing your freedom and subsequent re-entry into the bosom of the FOO because your N has poisoned that well and left the flying monkeys to guard it.
In the Western culture we grow up with the idea that the death rituals of our particular segment of the culture are important and provide a meaningful emotional service to survivors: closure. That may well be true for many, but for us, for those who were not beloved family members but scapegoats and victims, it doesn’t really work that way. Seeing a tormentor safely buried six feet under doesn’t change how s/he behaved in life, doesn’t change the legacy of hurt and abuse and now-unresolved issues that you carry with you. My brother got $300,000 and the confirmation that he was our mother’s favourite; I got nothing but more lies about me read aloud at the reading of our mother’s Will. That is the legacy I was left: her everlasting enmity.
But I learned some important things as a result of my malignant narcissistic mother’s death: I learned that funerals and death rituals do not bring closure, closure, such as it is, comes from within each of us regardless of rituals or ceremonies or the lack thereof. I learned that, despite her last-ditch efforts to hurt me for the rest of my days with her snide little remarks in her Will, I can analyse what was said and done—and even the reactions of others—and come away with a more complete picture not only of my mother, but myself as well.
Did it hurt when she rejected me for all eternity and did her level best to humiliate me in front of the assembled family weeks after she had been cremated? Yes and no. On the one hand, I fully expected it. On the other hand, that little glimmer of hope that continued to flicker in my breast, that hope that in the very end she would relent and include me in the family of her heart, flickered out. I would no longer be tormented with the desire for, no longer surreptitiously seek a “sign” hidden in her words, that her heart had changed. No amount of reviewing old conversations or interactions would ever glean the hoped-for sign, the granting of the deeply buried wish for a real mother, could ever surpass the brazen truth of her feelings as revealed in her will. The cat was dead and the mouse now could choose: stick around for more torment from all of the well-trained kittens? Or GTF out of there?
I got out.
I didn’t go to the memorial service or attend the scattering of her ashes. I pondered them and realized that the rituals were hollow and without redeeming merit, at least for me. When I briefly considered going, I knew that I had become so devoted to the truth of who and what she was (even though at that time I knew nothing of narcissism) that I would likely find it impossible to sit quietly through a litany of lies about how wonderful she was. I knew that if I found my way to the podium to speak, my truth would be alien to the assembled who had not been her victim and who, if they had ever witnessed her abuse of me, were sure I had earned it. I would be a pariah, whether I spoke or not. Those people on my mother’s side of my family who actually loved me were already dead and those who remained were either ignorant of who she really was or they knew and were okay with it. And I realized that I did not need to be there, not even for “closure.” I already had my closure when my brother read to me, over the phone, the parts of my mother’s Will that referenced me. It was all I needed: she slammed the door in my face—but I am the one who put the lock on it.
When your N dies, you will be conflicted and you may very likely be in unexpected pain. Even if you have been NC for ten years, some part of your subconscious may be holding that little flicker of hope that, before she dies, your N will finally come around and try to make amends. But your N doesn’t know when she will die, so if she ever had such an intent, it is very unlikely to ever occur simply because that last minute she was waiting for came and went without warning and she was gone before she could say anything. Even in this, even if she wanted to fix it, she wanted that dramatic exit—to say her piece and then leave dramatically with a final exhalation and no opportunity for you to ask questions.
When your N dies, the flying monkeys you know about will mass and ones you don’t know about will come out of the woodwork. You won’t even be spared this if you and your parents were all only children—there will be somebody put him- or herself in your path as an FM, someone who remembers how wonderful your N was, someone who will not respect either your feelings or your truth.
When your N dies, if you aren’t in charge of the final arrangements, one of them will be and your feelings will not be considered in the making of those arrangements. When my late husband died, I had never met his daughter despite a 12-year relationship with her father: she had simply indefinitely postponed any meetings he tried to set up—he had grandchildren he had never met and she only lived 200 miles away. And yet, I contacted her to find when a funeral would be convenient for her, knowing she worked, had young kids, and had a 200 mile trip to make. Don’t expect that kind of consideration from those who make the arrangements, and don’t be surprised to learn of the arrangements from the published obituary that omits your name.
But know this: when your N dies, you do not need rituals and ceremonies and formalities for closure because those are not where your sense of closure comes from. Closure, in fact, is a modern myth, a fairy-tale substitute for the old-fashioned work of learning to cope with loss through the grieving process and acceptance of painful reality. Only when you have experienced the grief and processed the experience and come to the acceptance of the new reality can you hope to find that feeling that can be identified as “closure.” And trust me, if you still have your N’s flying monkeys in your life, your path to that peace and acceptance is going to be longer and harder than it needs to be and they may even prevent you from getting there at all.
Why? Because they don’t care about you and your feelings. They are sycophants of the N you have buried and they will keep her memory—and her perspectives—alive. Just when you are beginning to feel you have a handle on your N’s rejection, just as you think you are finding acceptable explanations for things and can put them to rest, a flying monkey can appear and shoot you down. This isn’t a train wreck if you are expecting it and are prepared for it, but if you aren’t aware and prepared, being blindsided in this way can be devastating, cause you to doubt yourself, and knock you off the path to healing and acceptance that you were doing so well on. Flying monkeys believe all of the shit your N has said about you, they trust her perspective as being correct, they see you through her eyes. And if you think that this will dim as time goes on, I am sorry to say that, in truth, because of confirmation bias, it will only get worse: they will be seeing you through her eyes and they will habituate that and, despite the fact that your N is dead and buried, she can live on in the minds and hearts of her flying monkeys.
So what to do about it? Well, first of all, recognize this is a real thing and if you escape it, you are lucky. Be prepared for it. How? By simply knowing this may happen, recognizing it when it does, and dismissing it as the ravings of a puppet, a parrot, a person who would rather accept someone else’s opinions than do the work of thinking for themselves.
Don’t do things you don’t want to do because of pressure or concern for what others might think. They are flying monkeys—they are going to think ill of you no matter what you choose to do, so do what works for you. Don’t want to go to the funeral or ceremonies? Don’t. Will they talk bad about your absence? Yes. But they will talk bad about your presence, too, so do what makes you feel best. I didn’t go to my NM’s memorial service or the reading of her Will and it stirred up gossip; but if I had gone, that would have stirred up gossip as well so I did what was best for me: I stayed home. But if attending is what works for you, if you need to make sure she really is dead by looking at her corpse in the coffin, by all means go. Don’t let the prospect of other people talking behind their hands about you get in your way.
With your N dead, you now have unprecedented opportunities to start making choices entirely for yourself. Yes, the FMs will keep her legacy of ill-will alive but they won’t be expending the kind of energy your NM expended in slighting and hurting you. They don’t have the motivation and while their incursions into your life will be disconcerting, they won’t have the same impact. They are also more likely to give up and leave you alone with only the occasional missile sent in your direction: with your N dead, their primary impetus for dropping bombs into your life is gone. Given enough time, they will likely find more rewarding ways to waste their time. If you can just refrain from giving them the satisfaction of knowing that their barbs have hit home, without your N there to encourage them, the appearance of FMs will likely diminish over time until they become little more than an unpleasant memory.
But do expect them when the drama of your N’s death is fresh, and don’t let them herd you in any direction you don’t already want to go: do what works for you, ignore them to the greatest extent possible, and look forward to a much more peaceful life when the rituals are over and you have processed that little flicker of hope that, until now, has refused to die.