Dealing With the Death of a Narcissistic Parent, or, Good-bye Mom
This month marks the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death (the 24th, to be exact). She’s been on my mind a bit lately, so I thought I’d write something about her, and about my experience dealing with the death of a narcissistic parent. I don’t know how typical, or atypical, my experience is, or if sharing it will help anyone out there. But here it is, for whatever it may be worth.
My mom was a good mom when I was little. She baked lots of yummies and took good care of me when I was sick. She taught me silly songs and took me shopping, played games with me and tucked me in at night. If she had made an effort to protect me from my father’s drunken rages, she would actually have been a pretty decent mom. As it was, she probably had enough in trying to protect herself from them. She mostly did this by drinking along with him. I never thought of my mother as an alcoholic, not the way my father was, but rather, that she used drinking as a way to stay connected to him, as a way to appease him, and maybe as a way to not be bothered so much by his emotional cruelty. She never drank when he wasn’t around.
That isn’t exactly true. Sometimes when he was out of town (he traveled for business), she’d have neighbors over and get slamming drunk with them. When she did, she’d always try to seduce the men (yes, it was seduction, not harmless flirting; I suspect she actually had affairs with more than one of them) and alienate the women. By the time I was a young teenager, none of our neighbors wanted anything to do with my parents anymore. (Shortly after I moved out at 18, my parents moved to a house just a few miles away but very isolated. Et voila: no more neighbors to contend with.)
The older I got, the worse my parents’ drinking got–or the more aware of it I became; probably some of both. I hated my mother when she was drunk (in fact, I wrote a story with that title back when I was first starting to sort through all of this as a young adult). She got loud, obnoxious, overtly sexual, and she loved to humiliate and embarrass me, especially if there were other kids my age around, and especially if those kids were male. Maybe she was secretly ashamed of her drinking, or maybe she just didn’t know how to deal with older children, but once I outgrew the getting-tucked-in stage, she didn’t have much interest in me anymore. We had no more common ground. I spent the rest of my childhood disliking her and absolutely dreading her drinking, which came with two-or-three-days-per-week regularity.
I honestly don’t know if my mother was a full-blown narcissist. I don’t think she had the personality disorder; she wasn’t nearly as controlling and intrusive as some of the narcissistic mothers I’ve read about (mostly, I think, because she just didn’t care that much). But she was definitely less concerned about her children’s welfare than she was with her own. She was also passive-aggressive, sexually inappropriate, and sadistic, all of which fit with a narcissistic personality. I know she felt powerless in her marriage, unfulfilled and sorry for herself because of it. And in retrospect, I can have compassion for that, particularly because my father’s narcissism dwarfed hers in comparison. But it was tough to grow up with. She took a lot of her frustrations out on her kids. She loved to give me back-handed compliments, saying “supportive” things in a way that made me doubt she really believed it. She enjoyed pointing out my shortcomings, as she saw them, to other people, especially if she could do so in public. I often felt as though we were in some sort of competition, but I never knew what for (my father’s attention, perhaps). If my sisters had been close to my age, she would have pitted us against each other, as she did to them (who to this day don’t speak to each other), just as she so bitterly complained was done to her by her mother. She probably didn’t have NPD, but her center of gravity was on that end of the spectrum.
Often, after their drunken knock-down-drag-outs, when my father was passed out, she would be vulnerable and sad, sobbing and wringing her hands, and it would fall to me to comfort her. (Because no matter how much she tried to give back to him, he would always “win,” which to him meant he said whatever unspeakably cruel things he had to, and if that didn’t work he’d use violence–whatever it took to make her give up and retreat into sobbing, inconsolable misery.) I always, of course, heard every horrifying word of their fights–I was powerless to not listen; somehow it seemed like my survival depended on doing so–and I would beg her to leave him, telling her how much better things would be if she did. She would always agree that it was the right thing to do, but of course, she never left. In a few days, after a subdued, brooding silence, things would get back to “normal” and the cycle would start all over again. It was as predictable as the sun coming up, and it went on from as far back as I can remember until the day I moved out of that house.
She was never the kind of mother I’d go to for advice or support, so after I moved out, our relationship was simply superficial. We stayed connected in a typical way, me still trying to get her approval and her not giving it, although I wasn’t aware of that power struggle until years later–actually, I wasn’t aware of it until she passed, and I was going through her things. I found letters from my young adult self that embarrassed me with how naive and hopeful they were. Had I really been that acquiescent? It was painful to see how hard I’d tried. I didn’t remember trying that hard.
As I got into recovery, my relationship with her grew ever more distant. I stopped going home for the obligatory holidays (which, I discovered, weren’t obligatory at all). I stopped writing letters. I stopped trying to have a relationship with either of my parents. For the last couple of years before she died, I’d sent birthday and Christmas cards, and see her for a few hours once or twice a year at the nursing home when she and my father came to town to visit their aging mothers. And that was about it. When my mother died, I hadn’t seen or talked to her in more than 9 months.
Her death was sudden. An aneurism in her brain. My sister and I drove up north to the hospital, where my dad had been tending her alone. (He wasn’t going to call us at all because he “didn’t think we’d care,” but a nurse told him he “had” to.) She had been airlifted by helicopter to the closest “real” hospital, where she lay brain dead and on life support. In his 90-minute-long drive to it, I suspect my father had been drinking in order to deal. His frequent trips out to his car to “smoke” confirmed this.
The doctor showed us a scan of her brain, and there was nothing left. We made the decision to let them unplug her. It was a sad, grim decision, but it was made without a lot of emotion. In fact, that’s how I would characterize the entire episode of her death: not a lot of emotion. Neither of us sisters grieved terribly because she hadn’t really been a part of our lives, and I don’t know how my father was feeling because he anesthetized himself through the whole thing. It was sad, of course, because death is sad. But it was sad in a remote sort of way, as if grieving for the death of someone I didn’t really know. People were tremendously supportive, coming out of the woodwork to offer their condolences and support. I was grateful, but puzzled by this. I wanted to say to them, “But if you’d known her, you wouldn’t treat this as such a big deal. She wasn’t much of a mom, you see…” And the people who had known her were mostly reserved and remote, acting much like I felt. I don’t think anybody, except my father, was really close to her. And I don’t think anybody except him was going to feel the loss of her presence in their lives.
I’ve heard a lot of people say, in various recovery settings, that no matter what kind of relationship you have with your parents, you’re going to miss them when they’re gone. And to be honest, I worried about this a lot before the day came, because the best relationship I could have with her–one that didn’t drive both of us crazy in our respective ways–was essentially no relationship at all. I’d tried over the years, before I finally came to terms with “no contact” for good, to have a relationship with her, and it always ended badly. I realized, as we all must if we are to ever have some serenity in our lives, that you can’t make people be how you want them to be. And I suspected that, in my mother’s case, I wasn’t really going to miss her that much, no matter how much the conventional wisdom said otherwise.
Sadly (or maybe not so sadly, I don’t know), I was right. After all, how can you miss someone you hadn’t had a real relationship with since you were six? And the contact you did have was dishonest, competitive, manipulative, and full of thinly veiled rage and hostility? She didn’t give me what I wanted, I didn’t give her what she wanted, and that’s the way it was. Yes, I missed something: I missed the idea of a mother, a mother who loved me and supported me and had my back when the going got rough. But I had missed that for most of my life. And because I’d accepted that reality long before she died and had let go of it ever happening for real, her death didn’t make me miss that idea any more than I already did. When people talk about missing their parents regardless of their relationship status with them, I think this is what they often mean: missing the idea of a parent. If you haven’t come to terms with not having had a loving parent, or if you still harbor hope that they can one day be who you want them to be, then yes, the grief about their death could be staggeringly difficult. But if you’ve come to terms with those things, as I had, the death is just sad and kind of empty, a period where there was once a comma–but on a sentence you’d long since quit trying to finish.
I think just as we all fantasize, before we learn better, that we can make our family members love us, that we can change the past, and all that other wishful thinking, some of us might also fantasize that we will find some closure in their deaths, or at least figure some things out that never made sense while they were alive. This has not been the case for me. I wish I had some words of wisdom to share, or some promises of closure. But I don’t, not really. Although maybe that lack, in itself, can provide some peace to those of you who’ve hoped for something more, because I’ve found that it is enough. The Universe doesn’t always provide the answers we want, but learning to live with uncertainty and ambiguity is actually a pretty good lesson, because life is full of both. As always, I wish things had been different, and as always, there’s nowhere else to go but to accept that they weren’t. I’m sure my mother wished things had been different, too. That thought, more than any other, is what brings me to tears.
Getting Through the Holidays