General Question

iLove's avatar

How would you handle the death of an abusive parent?

Asked by iLove (2339points) June 3rd, 2011
29 responses
“Great Question” (15points)

It is strange for me to write those words, since it has taken most of my adult life to come to terms with the fact that my father allowed verbal and sexual abuse to happen to me until I left home at age 16.

My father is critically ill, is a “devout christian” who is now remarried after losing my mother to MS and mental illness. He chose to support her in her madness and abuse of me which led to my leaving NC and moving to Florida. This behavior included ignoring situations of sexual abuse I encountered from a family member and strangers.

Over the years, we have been somewhat close via phone and visits. It wasn’t until recently that I have discovered through self-healing and therapy that it wasn’t ok for him to allow my mother to reject me from our home, and it wasn’t ok to ignore the abuse I received, sexually and mentally.

Now at age 74, he is dying from multiple organ failures and is in extreme pain.

As an abused child, I always thought he “did the best he could” and I continued to love him unconditionally.

His current state is difficult to deal with and most recently he supported my stepmother in calling me out on “abandonment of my mother”, (ha!) leaving home, not taking care of him in his sick state, my divorce, and simply trying to enjoy life.

I am beyond angry that this situation has repeated itself, almost 20 years later but he stands strong behind his belief that I need to support my stepmother despite her angry (and obviously misdirected) words to me and obvious distaste for me – apparently driven by his own stories about me.

He calls me everyday, twice a day, to tell me how much pain he is in. He refuses to take any pain medication because he is afraid of what he saw the pills do to my mom.

I am at a loss because in realization of this abuse, I am not sure if I can continue to be supportive of him at this time. It plagues me since I have continued to be a loving, peaceful person despite my past.

All I want to do is dissociate myself from the situation but I come from a large family rooted in the Southern Baptist region of the deep south, and for some reason I am “bad” for not sacrificing my freedom for his pain.

Sorry for the long question, but I am curious if anyone else has dealt with this type of situation in death and what you decided to do.

Did you “suck it up” and unconditionally provide support, or decide to finally stand up for yourself once and for all and refuse to take any further abuse? What happened when you made your choice? Did you regret it?

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keobooks's avatar

I will answer this when I get back from a funeral today (NOT an abusive family member) but I wanted you to know that I’ve been there in the past and I’ll be thinking of you.

BarnacleBill's avatar

Tell him you will pray for him. That’s “support”, right?

iLove's avatar

@keobooks – thank you.. I am looking forward to your input.

bkcunningham's avatar

It is a typical pattern of abuse, denial and enabling that you have experienced and are still witnessing. My heart goes out to you. Your father stuck by and supported your Mom. He is sticking by and supporting your stepmother and wants you to pick up the torch and stick by and support your stepmother.

It isn’t selfish or uncaring to take care of yourself. It is very difficult emotionally to detach from someone you love. Especially when they are terminally ill. Do what you have to do so you don’t have any regrets that will plague you even further.

Even as adults we see our parents in certain roles; especially that of protector. When their actions don’t meet our expectations, we blame ourselves and try to fix “it.” Obviously, you’d been through that and come out into the light. Just don’t allow yourself to get stuck back into the darkness again.

By that I mean take it a day at a time and be good to yourself. Don’t beat yourself up for loving him and mourning him or by distancing yourself from him and being angry with him. Whatever you feel is natural and good. Don’t have regrets. Just take it easy on yourself and love yourself through this my friend.

Thammuz's avatar

My first temptation was to just write “With a fucking block party” and log off for lunch, but i think this deserves more seriousness after reading the details.

Parents don’t deserve love and respect by default. They need to earn them just like anyone else and he clearly did not do his part.

You also write as if you realize yourself that he hasn’t done anything to earn your forgiveness and love.

I’ve always said bad parents get what they deserve when they become the ones incapable of looking after themselves. Now it’s his turn.

I personally would just answer the phone the next time he calls and just tell him: “Dad, you know how you ignored my suffering when i was a child and mom mistreated me? Well, I learned from the best. I’m blacklisting your number. Goodbye.”

I know it sounds harsh, because it is, but it’s justice in its most primordial form, and it’s what he deserves. Whatever else you would do prior to him asking, nay, begging, for your forgiveness is well above what he deserves and you doing it only validates his sense of having done nothing wrong.

You don’t owe such a parent anything. Act accordingly.

@BarnacleBill If he actually is a christian i think he wouldn’t get the joke.

Hibernate's avatar

I’d mourn them.

filmfann's avatar

My brothers first wife was molested as a child by her step-father, yet she still considered him a father figure, and was deeply saddened on the day he died.
She didn’t understand why he did the bad things he did, but she still loved him.

snowberry's avatar

My father had his own brand of abuse. He was extremely critical of me, and because of his own misunderstanding of love, seemed to think it meant money. So when I married a guy he and Mom didn’t like, he started keeping track of every dime he ever spent on me. Periodically he’d pull out his ledger and bring me up to date. He spent the last 10 years of his life living with us, so his accounting behavior made for “interesting” conversations through those years.

I learned to separate the fact that he did love me and my family from the fact that he was a truly damaged person, and that I might from time to time, have to protect my children from his biting words. I also found it very important to have a strong sense of appropriate boundaries for myself and instill them in my kids.

I suggest you re-enforce your boundaries with him. Let him know that you love him and your stepmother, but that his and her treatment of you hurts. Explain that your support of him and her depends on his present and future behavior. So a conversation might look like this:

“Dad, I’m willing to talk to you about this; but only as long as there is NO blame going on.” The next time it happens, warn him once by reminding him that you are there to support him, not to receive complaints or blame (don’t say “abuse” because he won’t hear it). If it continues, say, “Dad, I’m sorry you’re not ready to talk to me right now. Let me know when I can support you in a positive manner. I love you.” Then hang up or leave.

It’s pretty late to be trying to teach people how to treat you when they are on their death bed, but this is the only way I can think of for you to keep your sanity, and support them as far as boundaries allow. You can re-work this conversation to fit all the rest of the family.

I have traveled the route of looking good rather than being good, so I can speak with authority on this one. I say this as a Christian:

Regarding him and the rest of the family being strongly devout Christians, I would say it’s a good idea to remember that many devout people have not reconciled their sinful behavior with worshiping God. As a result, many will hide their sin and go into denial about it because it’s more important to look good (looking good is the easy part) rather than to actually BE good. Dealing with any heinous sin in the broad light of day is not allowed because to do so would require revealing your ugliness for all the world to see, and it would really trash that all important reputation.

bkcunningham's avatar

@snowberry, wow. What truths you just feed into my soul. Thank you.

iLove's avatar

@bkcunningham – thank you, a lot of what you said helped me. There is guilt in wanting to take care of myself, since I have been taught that is not what is “right”. I hate seeing him suffering, but the fact that he refuses to take pain meds to help him through this is confusing. It almost seems as though he wants others to see that he is suffering -especially me. As if to say, “look, I am punishing myself for what I’ve done”.

@Thammuz – your response made me laugh. It filled the gap where I am feeling somewhat celebratory… You also write as if you realize yourself that he hasn’t done anything to earn your forgiveness and love. YES. Yes. I had put him up on a pedestal for so long, that I didn’t even realize for 18 years that this type of behavior was not loving. With a fucking block party CLASSIC.

@snowberry – boundaries. yes. I actually received a phone call from his this morning after reading your response and I applied your suggestion. “Dad, I am not harboring any anger against stepmom. Give me time to work through my pain from her words and to process the things she said. I love you, and I want you to be assured that I am supporting you through this difficult time”

In regards to this part of your statement – nothing truer could have been said:
Regarding him and the rest of the family being strongly devout Christians, I would say it’s a good idea to remember that many devout people have not reconciled their sinful behavior with worshiping God. As a result, many will hide their sin and go into denial about it because it’s more important to look good (looking good is the easy part) rather than to actually BE good. Dealing with any heinous sin in the broad light of day is not allowed because to do so would require revealing your ugliness for all the world to see, and it would really trash that all important reputation.

So true my friend. SO TRUE.

thank you all for your support and words. It is really helpful to not feel like a total ass for having these feelings.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I always ask, “What is the most loving and kindest thing I can do here?”

I hope you have forgiven your father for his failure to be your defender ( as the Bible orders him to be ). If not, it is for YOUR benefit to do so. If I were you, I would visit him before he dies. On the advice of my aunt, I waited until my father died before going to see him. BIG mistake and one I have regretted for many years.

I trust you have learned over the years that not all who call themselves “christians” truly are.

Thammuz's avatar

@iLove Finally! Someone who appreciates my humour! Thanks!

iLove's avatar

@CaptainHarley – I just paid him a surprise visit, two weeks ago… which is where all this abusive behavior from my stepmom formed. She waited until 1 hour before we were leaving, and yelled all these things at me in front of my 4 year old daughter. Then, she refused to say goodbye or hug her… which really hurt me and her. As of now, I don’t feel like I want to visit there again.

CaptainHarley's avatar


As long as you have forgiven both of them in your heart, there is nothing that says you must visit them again. But the forgiveness must be there for your own benefit. Unforgiveness can lead to bitterness and bitterness can literally kill.

iLove's avatar

@CaptainHarley – I do forgive him, I forgave him very recently. It just pains me to feel so helpless, and then be attacked for not doing something. Kind of a “damned if you do” thing?

The sad part is their seems to be signs of mental illness in his behavior also, which makes it even more complex. When he is not near my stepmom, he tells me how terrible her family is, and that she is jealous of me. When I ask him why, his responses are muddled. “Oh, because you have done so much in your life, she wants what you have”

I am so far from unforgiveness… and definitely not bitter. Just very confused and trying to maintain the balance between self-preservation, compassion, and martyrdom.

CaptainHarley's avatar

If you have truly forgiven them, then your only obligation is to continue to be as kind as circumstances permit, yet without becoming a doormat. Sounds to me as if you’re on the right track, hon. : ))

SpatzieLover's avatar

How do you want to be treated when you are dying? That is what I asked myself when my dad was dying. And, that is how I treated him, as best I could under the circumstances.

InTheZone's avatar

There is a book I found that gave me exactly what I needed in a situation quite similar to yours. “Doing the Right Thing Taking Care of Your Elderly Parents Even If They Didn’t Take Care of You” written by Roberta Satow, PhD.

I found this book at a very crucial time in my life, right before I experienced my life’s greatest trauma, which revolved around the last great injury done to me by my abusing parents. The title is a little bit misleading, in my opinion, because the message was more about how to take care of yourself. But it was perhaps the most important thing I ever read, in that it helped me to understand the dynamics of my situation, and how others in the family fit into those dynamics. I learned to begin to heal without needing the help, or the repentance, of those who had harmed me.

In a quote from the jacket of the book: ”...(the author) found people who have developed constructive ways of dealing with their complicated feelings about caring for their elderly parents. The stage of caregiving afforded them an opportunity to resolve conflicts in a way they had been unable to do at earlier stages of life.”

While not everyone is able to resolve conflicts with offenders, I think that any person in such a situation can resolve their own issues of pain and abandonment that such parents inflicted upon those they were obligated to protect. This book really was the catalyst for my understanding of how to parent myself. It enabled me to let go of some of the pain, and to understand how to forgive, for my own sake.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I am so very thankful that I won’t have to burden my children with taking care of me as I become less able to care for myself.

iLove's avatar

@InTheZone – thank you so much! I will look for this book right away, as it looks to be quite helpful.

@CaptainHarley – I agree. Thank goodness there are more options now for making sure we can prepare ourselves (LTC) like some of our parents weren’t able to.

wundayatta's avatar

@iLove This is hard for me to answer because I don’t think I could forgive my father in the same situation. I think the answers that others have given you are very helpful. I never would have thought of them. So why, you may wonder, am I writing?

The impact that my parents had on me came from some very subtle actions that could not really be called abuse and yet, I don’t want anything to do with them. We see them once a year for a week when they fund a summer vacation and then for a few days at Christmas and Thanksgiving.

The way they brought me up pretty much destroyed my self esteem. I don’t blame them. They did the best they could. I’m sure they didn’t mean it. But it is painful for me to be around them any more.

I don’t know if they ever knew who I was, but they certainly have no idea now. They are not emotionally available people. We used to send our kids to see them for a week or two each year, but then they started doing to my son what they did to me, and we could no longer allow that. So the kids don’t get to be with their grandparents unless we are around. They don’t mind. They don’t like the way their grandparents treat them either.

My family never talked about anything personal. Personal stuff is none of anyone else’s business. You don’t pry. So they have no clue why we don’t see them so much. They have no clue as to why I’ve changed. And of course, their lack of interest seems like a lack of care. The same lack of care I always felt growing up. I was never sure when they would suddenly decide I wasn’t good enough and kick me out. They decided to do that during the deepest recession prior to the current one.

@CaptainHarley recommends forgiveness. I understand why they did what they did. It worked. But it was cruel. Cruelty for my own good. I don’t think I have forgiven them. Or maybe I have, but I have not forgotten. Maybe that is the worst. Never forgetting. Living it over and over in your head. Maybe that’s one bad thing about fluther, because I tell these stories over and over and I seek to work out something in doing this. What that something is, I don’t know.

Your father didn’t protect you. Mine let me know I would forever be inadequate. On some level, I still believe that. I know it’s up to me to change that. It’s too late to blame where I am now on anyone else. But it still hurts. Especially when I think about it.

I don’t see my parents any more than the minimum required. I never talk to my brother. The only one I talk to is my little sister. She lives halfway around the world. All of us seem to have run from my parents. My siblings were there that night I got kicked out and the lesson they learned was not to go home again. Once you were out of the house, you were gone. Parental duty done. Begone.

So will I try to help when they get frail? As much as I can without having to go up there much. They don’t spend much time trying to inform me about their health.

I want to be able to be generous with my father. I don’t want to hold a grudge, but I do. So I keep myself walled off from him. We never talk about anything that means anything. I think I would go sit at his bedside if he were dying. But that’s all I’d do. I wouldn’t want to talk about anything. I wouldn’t want to make nice. He was never knowable and never understandable and I don’t think I want that any more. I’m too angry. I’m furious in a very quiet way.

I think that what you do is not something that can be logically figured out. Your gut will be the only guide you have. You have guilt and you have anger and pain. You have relatives you don’t want to isolate and relatives you don’t care about. There are financial considerations. It’s a pain in the butt.

I don’t think you should stand for any abuse. If you do visit them, then let them know up front that the moment they start abusing you, you will take your daughter and leave. I bet you won’t stay in that house for ten minutes. I think you have to be prepared to do that if you go up there again. Be prepared to leave after ten minutes. A long ride, I know.

If it were me, I wouldn’t go back. I’d stop taking your father’s calls. I don’t care how ungrateful he thought I was. There is only so much I can stand, and there is a real possibility that this kind of thing would throw me over the line. I don’t think you have to deal with that, but still, there is a point at which it is too much, and you might want to figure out where that point is.

If you can get support—maybe get your boyfriend or whatever to go with you—that could serve as a bit of a barrier between them and you. They might make nice. You want them to realize they can’t abuse you any more.

There is almost nothing there for you. Your father isn’t going to give you any words of wisdom. Your stepmother is completely out of control. There may be a couple of people, at best, you’ll want to maintain contact with.

You want to be there from guilt. From worrying about how others see you. From feeling like you owe your father for your birth at least at some level.

What would you do if you had no guilt? What would you do if you didn’t care? What is the best thing to do to protect your daughter?

That’s how I’d go about thinking about it. I’m sorry I can’t answer this question.

Meego's avatar

I say, you went, that’s good enough. It’s irrelevant that this is the person who brought you into the world, I mean why drive yourself crazy about it.

My mother in law was a mental patient with my husband his whole life before he passed. And she basically stuck it to him big time one last time by swindling me into believing all of her lies, then tricked me into signing all my rights to the estate to her. (it’s a long story). Anyway I should of known the entire relationship she was always in the middle. So after all that I tried to remain sane with her but it is hard. I went a few times to her house and was appalled to realize that she didn’t give a crap about her son, it was only the money, nor did she care about me or her grandchild.

Parents that are selfish are always selfish, it doesn’t matter how you treat them, actually I find that if I treat her like I forgive her I really still have to put up with her droning attitude anyway a put on my game face & then I’m not happy. Honestly, I don’t care how she treats me now, I have forgiven what she did, but it doesn’t make it go away and to be quite honest when I see her I can not visualize her with an attitude change.

Without me around, I hope she is in her own personal hell of what she has done.

I also make sure to drive it to her by never forgetting her bday, (even though she forgets mine) mothers day and so on by sending her the sappiest cards and gifts, honestly I physically stay out of her life, mentally I will always be there, she doesn’t deserve to be able to do away with me that easy.

dannyc's avatar

With relief in a perverse way. I would not tell anybody I was relieved, though, for fear of repeating the same cycle of abuse to them that I had received. Some things, once dead, are better left buried.

snowberry's avatar

@iLove said, “There is guilt in wanting to take care of myself, since I have been taught that is not what is “right”. I hate seeing him suffering, but the fact that he refuses to take pain meds to help him through this is confusing. It almost seems as though he wants others to see that he is suffering -especially me. As if to say, ‘look, I am punishing myself for what I’ve done.’”

Yes, and now he’s very possibly in some twisted way blaming you for his pain!

snowberry's avatar

Please @iLove, keep us posted on how things go.

Thammuz's avatar

I second what @snowberry said: Keep us posted.

keobooks's avatar

I’m back. I was at the funeral of my maternal grandfather, who in my opinion was an incredible guy who was very easy to mourn. People like him make the world a better place and whenever someone like him is gone, I think the world suffers just a little bit with the loss of someone who is so kind and generous to everyone he encounters in life.

However, about a decade ago, I attended the funeral of my paternal grandfather, who one can say many things about him, but mainly that he was a jerk. He was verbally abusive to his wife and children, extremely selfish and mean spirited. He was so abusive and nasty that he is still the only person I know who was kicked out of a hospice because he was so sarcastic and awful to the staff that they refused to work with him. Considering how nasty people with Alzheimer’s and dementia can get, he must have REALLY done something awful there, but no one will tell me what.

He also had a nasty terminal illness (emphysema) and had over 15 years to make things right with his family, but instead chose to avoid thinking about his mortality and the legacy he’d leave behind. He never learned to accept death and avoided talking about it, and would scream and cry until he literally couldn’t breathe enough to do it. A few days before he died, he broke down and told me that he was a terrible man and he was so mean to his wife and children and that nobody was going to miss him when he died. This was about 48 hours before he went into a coma and eventually died. It t was hard to listen to him, because he was right. But he didn’t seem to care until it was past too late for him to make amends. It made things harder for me because up until that moment with him, he seemed completely unrepentant about his life. And right before he died, he finally showed that he actually recognized that he was a big jerk.

I had a hard time mourning this guy. Even though the grandpa/grandkid bond is very strong, I started disliking him at a very young age because I thought he was mean to people. I could tell at about 8 years old that he would go out of his way to hurt people when he didn’t have to. I still felt like a heel for not being able to conjure up any feelings for this man. I thought it would hurt my grandmother if she saw her only grandchild acting like she didn’t give a crap about her husband.

So I looked down really deep and found something that I could mourn. And I found it. I mourned that when my grandfather died, he lost his last chance to turn his life around and be the kind of person he seemed to wish that he could be. I mourned that he was mentally sick long before he became physically sick and that he was just too sick to be anything other than who he was.

Everyone has a chance to make amends and get right with the world until right before they die. And when get close to the end, that chance is gone. I don’t think there is anything wrong with mourning the loss of all the potential for things to be different. And think about how awful that must be to be the kind of person that is abusive enough that his own son has trouble mourning his passing. Trust me. On some level he knows this. And some part of him feels terrible about it.

And even if he doesn’t know it because he’s too mentally sick, it’s still a really sad life for him. It’s sad when anyone makes so many bad choices that instead of being surrounded by people who genuinely love you at your time of passing, you’re surrounded by ambivalence. If he’s too sick to mourn the death of his potential to be a decent guy and make amends, you can mourn that for him.

CaptainHarley's avatar


My wife’s step-father is that way, and yet it mystifies him why people avoid him. My own thoughts on this is that it’s some sort of minimal brain dysfunction that makes people do things that drive others away. Sad, but not currently much we can do about it. You have my sympathies.

iLove's avatar

@keobooks – wow. what an amazing story. Do you feel relief following that?

Thank you all for who answered. This post has been quite cathartic for me and has opened my eyes in ways I had never imagined.

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