Our dad passed shortly before the pandemic of Covid-19 struck. What a blessing that was, as it would have been hell for him and for all of us to go through. The final couple of years, and worsening over the last months, he was increasingly vacant and absent, barely “there.” It was hard to tell if he was bored and disinterested, if he was hovering on the bridge to the next world, or if his tired old brain cells (those that were left) were not firing anymore. He was almost 93 when he died. When I arrived to visit, his second wife would bellow loudly in his ear “(whatever strange nickname she called him), Ruth is here!” His hearing aids were powered on, intact, and in place, but he usually did not even look up. It was as if I was not there. Sadly, to be perfectly honest, it was not that different from much of my life with him.
I had the good fortune to make my peace with him, so I enjoyed a stretch of a surprisingly happy father-daughter relationship before he began his protracted fade-out departure. Granted, I did all the healing work on my own without his participation, but that is a story for another day. He did participate in a truly loving relationship with me for a time, and I am infinitely grateful for that.
Our dad’s final years, however, were a quiet agony. Thankfully, my sisters and I were a good team. But having my presence or absence not register, questioning whether those long, vapid visits had any meaning at all, was not only interminably empty and boring for me, but a potent reminder of the years of feeling as if I did not matter or even exist in his eyes. They were a living reminder/stimulus of long years of painful and confusing neglect. Admittedly, I lived much of those last two years in various degrees of trauma activation. Being excessively busy and perennially sleep-deprived, the routine visits took a chunk out of every weekend. But for whatever reason I kept them going diligently until the end – not without confusion and unbearable fatigue.
Why? Was I afraid I might miss something if I did not take advantage of every possible moment with him? What might I possibly miss? I could rarely ask him questions about his life anymore. I found I would collect stories and topics and come with a “playlist” of things in mind to talk about, to entertain either him or myself. I honestly don’t know which. Due to his various cancers, he had been on a feeding tube for years, so my stories about cheesemaking challenges, my baking masterpieces, or food-related conversations, which are ordinarily pleasurable and easy for me, were off the table, so to speak. Our best bet on a good day was to sing. Interestingly, although he did not remember much of anything else, he did seemingly remember all the songs and their lyrics. Sometimes we filled the time that way, especially when I had the good fortune to visit at the same time as a sister, who brought his old guitar. She played it, but it did seem to awaken and cheer him.
Secretly, however, I remembered an old Cuban song I used to listen to and love: “La vida no vale nada…” life is not worth anything. And even though the song is about how life is not worth anything if others are suffering, I had to wonder, what keeps him going? What would make it worth continuing to live and breathe that vacuous existence? And when I dared to be really honest with myself, why doesn’t he just go?
When there is a long history of trauma, neglect, hard-earned healing, and profound ambivalence about its perpetrators and purveyors, their final years can be complicated at best. Some of us are too enraged and hurt still to be dutiful; some of us too dutiful to allow ourselves to feel enraged or hurt. If we are glaringly aware of both the parents’ own tragic and unconscionable trauma and misfortune and their own tragic and unconscionable lack of healing, it is even more complicated. Add to that whatever feelings we might have about what others (those mythical others) might think about how we navigate the loss of a parent. Some of us care. And many of the feelings are outside our awareness.
I remember when our mom died in 2000. I was so embarrassed when people expressed sympathetic condolences as I felt nothing but grateful relief – or so I thought. I was driving the day after she passed, however, and my car broke down on the freeway. Much to my own surprise, I fell apart on the phone with the Triple A operator who took my call for emergency road service, crying rather hysterically to her about how my mother had just died. It was as if I and not the car had broken down.
When there has been attachment trauma, especially neglect, when little is “concrete enough” to point to, the final years and days of the parent’s life can be racked with troubling ambivalence.
In his newly released memoir, Bono, who lost his mother as a small boy, recounts a legacy of rock stars who lost their mothers at a young age. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, John Lydon, and Bob Geldof are the ones he names, but there are many more, according to him. He refers to something parallel about father loss in the hip-hop world but does not name names. Interesting. He muses about some possible relationship between attachment trauma (not his language, of course!) and creativity.
After the death of his mother Iris, Bono grew up in a world of men – a much older brother and a stern, emotionless father. He had few memories of Iris at all, probably largely because the three of them never spoke of her, the space she had occupied simply closing up. At least, that is how Bono explains it. Neglect and abundant loss, however, are very often, if not usually, accompanied by a copious blankness of autobiography. In fact, one of the gifts of recovery is reclaiming or even constructing, for the first time, a personal narrative.
Interestingly, Bono did have one perfectly intact memory of Iris. His father was in an upstairs room, doing one of his many typical construction projects, working with a chainsaw or some sort of power saw, which apparently had slipped out of his hand. Loud screams echoed from upstairs, and when Bono and Iris ran up to see what had happened, his blood-spattered father was yelling in terror that he had castrated himself. Iris’ puzzling response was to burst into uncontrollable peals of laughter. She was no Lorena Bobbitt, and his father was not abusive. Bono was simply baffled. Iris must have been an odd bird. Indeed a curious bit of memory in a desert of idealization. (We never do learn what his dad’s injury turned out to be.)
To be visited by confusing, even contradictory impulses, and lots of trauma activation during the dying and death of a traumatic parent, be it incident trauma or neglect, is a natural and expectable response.
When there has been attachment trauma, especially neglect, when little is “concrete enough” to point to, the final years and days of the parent’s life can be racked with troubling ambivalence. One might, as I was, be horrified in shame for feeling such apparent and undeniable numbness around my mother’s passing. Over subsequent years of neurofeedback and other healing work, fragments of feeling come to me that surprise me. For whatever reason, I have her old sewing scissors on my desk. I don’t use them for sewing, but I keep them near. They remind me of her hands… I recall her terrible cooking almost fondly. Little things that she said will come to mind, and I will quote her, often reprimanding someone with a smile and shouting, “Put on a sweater, I’m cold!” or remembering the German swear words I learned from her momentary fits of temper. So, I don’t feel completely void of feeling anymore, and I do regret that I was not able to make my peace before she went. She went so quickly. It is really the only regret I have.
To be visited by confusing, even contradictory impulses, and lots of trauma activation during the dying and death of a traumatic parent, be it incident trauma or neglect, is a natural and expectable response – even the silent, perhaps shameful wish that they take their leave already. I urge all to be gentle and forgiving of oneself, for one’s own swirling inconsistencies or perhaps even incomprehensible thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. If I am to offer one, my best recommendation is to do what will make you feel best about yourself in the long run, so the survivor of trauma and/or neglect can live, and in effect, “rest” in peace.
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.