Grief after the Death of a Difficult Familial Relationship
Updated: Jan 10
Do ambiguous relationships lead to ambiguous grief?
This is a letter written by a grieving daughter who would like to remain anonymous. She's asked me to post this in the hope that it will help someone else in a similar situation.
Not all relationships are straight forward and 'ideal'. Ambiguous or complicated relationships can (but don't always) lead to ambiguous or complicated grieving. This is not the same as "complicated" (Prolonged Grief Disorder) grief which is different.
If you'd like to know more about why grief is so individualistic, or what complicated grief is, or have any other questions, take a look at my new book "Grief Demystified: An Introduction":
"Dear ‘Dad’, I’m pretty confident you’ll be wondering why the inverted commas. Of the few communications I’ve ever received from you over the past 50 years, you have always referred to yourself as ‘dad’. My opinion is that the label has responsibilities and expectations that you have never demonstrated, so you are not worthy of that title.
Your daddy’s girl was left bewildered and devastated when you left without telling anyone when I was 6 years old. I thought I’d done something wrong and I was being punished. No-one told me any different. No-one talked about you, but I do remember your mother chasing you down the street with a bread knife threatening to kill you… that image pretty much sums up the memories of my childhood: violence, shouting, fear, neglect, suffering, confusion. I found out many years later, that you had left after coming home and finding my mother on the floor having taken an overdose of pills. I guess she couldn’t take your drunk or drugged up violence and the trips to the hospital any more.
I tried to get to know you when I was a teenager; I even emigrated to the country you were living in to do so. In hindsight, I was still seeking reparation for the ‘wrongdoing’ I had done that had ‘made’ you leave when I was 6. You rewarded my efforts by getting drunk every.single.night, vehemently denying everything you did that I witnessed as a child, and swinging for me with your fists. The irony of course is that to everyone else you were happy, generous and fun.
After trying and failing to build a relationship as a daughter with you, I moved countries. But you would get drunk and ring me to verbally abuse my life choices. I had sold out because I lived in America; you hated the country. I had sold out because I was the first person to go to university in the family; who did I think I was? I had sold out because I worked a lot and didn’t party like you; I was boring and ‘Americanised’. Eventually I moved and didn’t give you my phone number. After failing to build a daughter relationship with you, you wouldn’t allow me to even have an adult relationship with you.
The last time I saw you was when your beloved mother was ill, that was twenty years ago. You flew back to our home town to visit her prior to her death. I found out you were home because my mother received a phone call summoning me to a pub to see you. I went, as I always did; I never wanted a reason to feel guilty or accused of not being receptive to a relationship with you, even if it was on your dysfunctional terms.
After years of peace and quiet, you started sending me friend requests on Facebook that I kept rejecting. After a while your persistence paid off and I accepted you. But you never even say ‘happy birthday’ to me either publicly or privately.
I had to ring you 11 years ago to tell you that the grandchild you had never met was terminally ill. Your exact words are seared into my memory like branding on a farm animal, “shit, I’m having such a bad week, first an argument with my girlfriend, now this.” Your first thought was about yourself, the non-existent ‘grandfather’, you never asked about the three year old child that was dying of cancer, you never asked how your daughter was while she was watching her son die in her arms. Sadly, after 40 years of life, I didn’t expect anything else from you. That statement pretty much summed you up. I haven’t spoken to you since.
I hear that you have died. I had anticipated that at some point I would have to deal with your death and the ambiguous feelings that would arise. I was never sure how this would feel for me; would I feel nothing because we have a virtually non-existent relationship, or would I feel emotions because you gave me life? I have ambiguous feelings, which accurately reflect the ambiguous relationship we had.
They say your parents fuck you up, I would agree with that. But as an adult, you have the choice whether to maintain that status or change it. They may have given you a beaten up old car, but you sure as hell can choose to pimp that mother up. And that’s what I’ve done. So thank you for contributing to fucking me up, you provided me with an array of tools with which to understand complexities I may never have understood if I’d had two normal parents, a dog and a white picket fence.
One of those complexities is dealing with people who didn’t know you; those friends and your wife that you lied to about your past. They are sainting you online, sending condolences to the ‘family’ you never had any contact with, talking to you in ‘heaven’. Who am I to shatter their illusions?
That 6 year old girl will never understand why you didn’t love her enough to be her dad, and this 50 year old will always envy those that have a dad that loves and cares for them.
I did find a short letter you sent twenty years ago following your visit to our home town and the last time I saw you. It contained a photo of us together in that pub, and your words ‘all my love dad xxxxx’. It is the only tangible proof I have that you existed. It is the only tangible proof I have that you may have had some feelings towards me underneath that selfish persona. So, thank you for that, and for triggering some happier memories that I’ve managed to retrieve and receive comfort from.
I hope you Rest In Peace ‘Dad’, I love you now as I loved you then, because despite the pimping out, the bodywork always remains the same…"
This post was originally published at www.thegriefgeek.com.
As always, this content is copywrited and may not be used without my explicit permission.