On Grieving a Narcissistic Mother
I Googled “pissed-off grief.” Apparently, “professionals” find it to be “unhealthy.” But what if it’s all you got?
My mother died last night. I like the brutality of the word “died.” To say she “passed” implies that she’s merely lost in the neighborhood, having passed by my house because of…well, her fog of narcissistic preoccupation.
There. I said it. My mother did a great job of taking care of our physical needs, but she betrayed me when I was sexually abused by her adult cousin at a very young age. She pretended it hadn’t happened, leaving me to cope on my own. She told me years later that she knew it had happened, but that she had no regrets over how she had handled it. Her tone, when she said this, was airy and light. I might as well have asked if she liked some weird flavor of ice cream. When I rebelled as a teenager, at the age of 13 getting involved with a man at my high school I’ll call PsychoTeacher, I was blamed and scapegoated by my parents. I married this abusive specimen of manhood, and it took almost ten more years to extricate myself.
This morning, I feel nasty and mean. I will try not to inflict my mood on anyone today, but I really don’t want anyone telling me they have “sympathy for my loss.” They have no fucking idea. They can keep their damn Hallmarks.
Here’s the thing. I loved my mother. There were times, in her final years of dementia, when I’d visit her — with the gun of moral duty pressed to my temple — and I felt a strong energy of nurturing love flowing out of her. I wanted to become a child-sponge, soaking it up. I sometimes ventured to put my head on her arm, but warily, as if she might bite.
She loved me. But.
I long ago gave up hoping we might have a real conversation, one in which she shared something — anything! — of her inner life with me, but the finality of death has shredded the last vestiges of a hope I didn’t know I still felt.
Today, I thought of Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She writes about how rarely she and her brother saw their own mother when they were children. How they handled this makes perfect sense to me. They didn’t talk about her. They didn’t talk about her because to do so would have meant giving away the little of her that they possessed.
I don’t want sympathy. If you offer me sympathy, frankly, it’s more about you than me, because it assumes you know how I feel. To me, it will be as if you took her away from me. I’ll take empathy, which is the ability to share another being’s feelings. But I warn you, potential empathizers: I am angry. My grief is a very sharp icicle.
Today, I will do all the right things. I’m going to call the funeral home. Last night, my mother was carried away from her bed in Skilled Nursing at her retirement home in a hospital gown, and I have already picked out a nice dress for her to be buried in. I will include underwear, because it feels weird that she’d go into the ground less dressed than she was in life. I’ll find a string of beads in her stuff, maybe a scarf. I’ll make sure her shoes are polished. And I’ll take these things to the funeral home, gritting my teeth against what I imagine will be a very practiced expression of sympathy.
Once upon a time, my mother was a baby. She was a little girl, raised by parents for whom affection was a long-lost skill. She was a teenager who burned all her diaries at the age of 17, thereby protecting herself from the prying eyes of her future daughter. “I thought they were silly,” she told me when I asked her why she’d burned them. She was a saver, by the way. I have her grandfather’s diaries, I have a ton of letters written by various family members, I have photographs, I have more goddamn sterling silver and teacups than anyone could possibly want. But I don’t have her.
In the way that most mattered, I never did.
I do have her adult diaries. She kept meticulous records of life events, doctor’s visits. She received numerous shots of B vitamins when I was young; I’m guessing these were an early 60’s version of antidepressants. She wrote about anything but her feelings, except for those she revealed unintentionally. In the weeks after I was sexually abused, she “rubbed her knuckles raw” scrubbing my underpants. She referenced an elementary school play she dutifully attended by sniping that it “wasn’t very well done.” In a cryptic note about my father’s rapid exit from a firm where he’d been working, she wrote that he had “‘resigned,’” the doom-quotes suggesting her belief that he’d been, in fact, fired.
I asked my mother three times over the years why she married him. Since she had criticized and demeaned him constantly, I really wanted to know. Twice she told me, “I don’t want to tell you.” Later, in her dementia, she said, “I don’t know.”
Today is Halloween. I am fully prepared to believe that the veil between life and death is more porous than the materialists claim. Since I am a Halloween Scrooge anyway, I’m not going to put out any candy or pumpkins or leave welcoming lights on in my house.
But I will sit outside. I will sit under the stars and I will wait. I will wait and wonder. And yes, I will hope for a sign. A whisper, anything. I will hope because I loved my mother and she loved me in the only way she could.
And she knows. And she has always known this — I understood her even though she didn’t want to be understood. If she’s feeling lonely out there, she knows where to find me.