Mourning a parent who's still alive

When you have a parent who dies a lot of things happen. There is a funeral, a final goodbye, time with family and friends, remembering the good times you had with that person and a transition into a life without them. But what happens when you're forced to go about this process backwards?

It's a story that is familiar to me. In my time of talking with people from all the walks of life I seem to stumble upon this story over and over. It appears that many people are walking around in life with only one decent relationship with their parent (while many have no relationships at all). It has caused me to wonder why we, as people, don't talk about this more? This isn't exactly a conversation you can have with friends over coffee. This isn't a type of loss that many bloggers or reporters cover. There are very few articles about parental elimination. In my time of internet trolling I have come across only a handful of articles about this topic. They refer to as "ghosting".

Ghosting a parent is when one willingly chooses to discontinue a relationship with their parent. There are many reasons why someone chooses to do this, but it all comes down to one point: the relationship is toxic and unhealthy.

I feel that this subject is taboo for two big reasons: 1) people who have lost someone will accuse you of being selfish because "at least you have a parent who's still alive!" and 2) people with strong biblical values and upbringing will tell you "honor thy mother and father!". The important thing you must understand behind these accusations is that they are not about you, it is about them. Your willingness to let go of your parent has brought up a difficult emotion inside of the other person that causes them to lash out at you. Someone who has lost a parent could be grieving and envious of anyone who still has a parent who is alive. Someone who was raised with the biblical teaching may be offended or envious by your freedom to do such a thing. Regardless of the reason, this is about you, not them.

A common thread in all of us who struggle with the relationships with our parents is this: the guilt is powerful and it keeps us from doing the things we need to do. What do you need to do then? You should put yourself first. After all, when your parent is deceased, who will be left to care for you except...you? You need to make sure that you are happy. If a call or text from your parent gives you anxiety or anger, you need to think about the impact that has on your overall day. Your overall life. And beyond that, how is it impacting those around you? Does your stress, anger or sadness affect who you are when you are with your friends? your family? your spouse? your children? If so, which relationships in that list take priority? Whatever the answer is, those are the relationships that need your time and attention.

So why can't you just see your parent on holidays or random special occasions and then not have contact with them in between? This is possible. Maybe. But in my conversations with people, this has not worked. One of the biggest problems in the parent/adult child relationship is that the parent continuously violates the adult child's personal boundaries. It can be something as simple as the person saying "please don't contact me" and the parent sending a text. Though it may seem harmless to many, the underlying message the parent is sending is, "It doesn't matter what you asked for, this is what I want". Or it could be something big like, "Please don't drink at my wedding" and the parent has a few beers or a glass of wine. Upon confrontation they say something like, "Oh lighten up, it's not like I'm drunk!" Again, the message is the same. What the parent wants is what they will get. No boundary goes uncrossed.

I could go into a lengthy explanation of why this is. In short, it has to do with a combination of the parent's personality and life experiences. Any mental health professional will tell you that personality issues are the hardest to work through. They are so ingrained in a person's psyche  and sense of who they are and why they do what they do that they are difficult to pull apart. Which brings me to my next point: a parent who tells you they will change but makes no effort to do so is not going to change. I have known many parents with one or more of the following issues: codependency, drug addiction, hoarding disorder, physically/emotionally abusive, narcissistic personality, bipolar disorder...and the list goes on. Not one of these issues can be solved by the person alone. Even if they could and your parent woke up one day and decided to be different...would you still want them around, all the while knowing they could have made this decision long ago?

If you have ever watched an episode of Hoarders, Intervention, My 600lb Life, Strange Addictions, or basically anything else on TLC, you know that people with problems will not change without an ultimatum. And the ultimatums are usually all or nothing. You either get help and keep getting help and I will be around, or choose not to get help and I'm gone. There is no in between. No more promising to get help only when things have gotten so bad that you're now threatening to leave. If you really want your parent to get help, you have to stick to your guns and go. If you really want to be happy and put this all behind you, you need to go. You cannot change anyone's actions but your own.

I want to tell you that in my experience ultimatums work. I want to tell you that in my conversations with people their relationships with their parents got better. I want to tell you that. But I can't. Not in my experience or conversations, anyway. I'm sure there are stories of redemption out there. I'm sure there are happy endings. But they are few and far between. So what happens if your parent remains the same after you have left? You mourn them.

You have already transitioned into a life without them. They don't call, they don't text, they may not even know where you live. You have thought about the good times with them. In fact, the possibility of the person they could be is what had kept you trying all those years. But now, all that is left are memories. For your own sake, remember the good ones. The bad ones will only continue to ruin you. Surround yourself with family and friends. Build your support network, we all need one. You don't owe anyone an explanation as to why you don't have a relationship with your parent, but it might do you some good to share with a nonjudgmental, trusted person in your life. Take some time to say goodbye to your parent. Say goodbye to the times you had together. Say goodbye to the relationship you thought you would always have with them. Say goodbye to the future times that you will not share with them. Mourn them. Really mourn them. After all, you're losing something here.

There isn't a funeral when you ghost a parent but eventually there will be. You'll have to make peace with that fact. In these situations there is rarely "closure" to the relationship. There are often a lot of things left unsaid, a lot of pain that goes without being shared. Therapy is always a good option. Not for them but for you. A chance to process these things with someone who has no vested interest in anyone but you. Someone who will listen with an unbiased ear. Someone who has heard these stories before. Mourning is a process but you don't have to go it alone. It will help. Trust me.

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