Aren’t funerals supposed to be occasions where the dead are
mourned and the bereaved are comforted? My experience was just the opposite in
January 2013 when my parents died four days apart.
I did not attend my father’s visitation. My husband, Mike
and I sat in the back row of the church for his funeral.
During the brief military ceremony for my father outside the
church, I was given a triangularly folded American flag in honor of the years
he served in World War II. I didn’t want to touch anything that was a part of
him, but I had no choice when a young Army soldier walked over and extended the
flag. I had to take it.
Before we started home to Indianapolis, Mike and I stopped
by the nursing home where my mother was in hospice. Although she was not
conscious, I tucked the flag under her arm. I told her the flag was for her,
the surviving spouse. I kissed her forehead, said, “I love you,” and left. These
words were given not with affection, but obligation. She died an hour later.
During the visitation for my mother, and the luncheons
following both services, my parents’ friends came to me and described
meaningful relationships with them. I heard glowing words of friendship and stories
of help during hard times. I learned about students my father mentored and how
my mother’s volunteerism at a local science museum brought joy and laughter to
employees and visitors. Friends from church and former neighbors remembered fun
times at social gatherings through the years. Everyone loved them except me.
Meanwhile, with each comment, I felt anger. . A sense of
Injustice, abandonment and rejection surfaced. I wanted to scream, “You don’t really know
them. Our home was a nightmare!” I knew no one would believe me so I kept
silent like I had for most of my life.
By the time Mike and I were on the way home, I was numb.
My grief at their passing was complicated because growing up
with two narcistic parents was complicated. Confusion companioned me most of my
life, especially when I observed parents of my friends who were indeed loving
and caring toward their children.
When I started working with Sharon, both of us were
disturbed by the way memories of my parents lingered years after their passing
and continued to disrupt my functioning. Feelings of abandonment, rejection,
exclusion, injustice and loss, transferred to others, marring relationships and
causing more confusion and stress.
One day, Sharon suggested, “Have you tried to look at your
family with empathy?”
Leaving her office, I was astonished at the mere mention of
my parents and the word empathy in the same breath. How could I look upon these two people with
understanding and compassion?
I remember offering empathy when I listened to others
through the years, those who experienced deaths or serious illness or
violations of marriage vows, loss of a job, infertility, or any other of the
many complexities of life. But empathy to my parents? – the two just didn’t go
together, or so I thought.
Offering empathy toward my mother and father required God’s
strength and love. I recalled their early lives, coming through Ellis Island in
early 1920 moving to a foreign country. Immigrant families had rough times
adapting to the United States. I heard stories of children at my parents’
schools making fun of their inability to speak fluent English. Struggles in
academics were amplified with poor comprehension. In 1929 like all too many
people, my mother’s mother died of diphtheria, leaving behind four children age
13 and under. Extreme poverty, illness, and loss of a parent were unfortunate obstacles
trying to get established and make a stable life in a new country.
My maternal grandfather worked in construction most of his
life because he did not have to speak to do that kind of work. He did understand
his wages were below others who worked beside him, but he had no voice to protest.
Feeding and clothing four young children in a motherless home was a continuous
Looking closely at my parents’ family history, helped me see
them as broken people.
If funerals are to comfort the bereaved, my parents’
funerals had not done the job for me. I had left those funerals feeling
bothered and further isolated in my experience. There had been no real comfort.
But spending time with God, and praying for empathy toward
my parents, I found my heart softening. I made a plan to bury them again, this
time with a feeling of peace in my heart.
One day, I pulled out
two sheets of paper, one for each parent and wrote five positive or neutral
observations. For my father, I wrote that he was a talented musician on
clarinet and saxophone, proud of his Greek heritage, liked to eat Greek food,
cooked us scrambled eggs with milk stirred in and was popular with the social work
students he taught at the university. For my mother, I remembered she liked to bake
Christmas cookies, enjoyed working in the yard
planting flowers and one or two tomato plants, dressed fashionably wearing, wearing
jewelry to match every outfit, and choosing the perfect handbag from her
overabundance of purses.
Listing these characteristics helped me separate them from their
toxicity and to see a more complete picture of who they were.
I gathered the few pictures I had of them, along with the
small sheets of paper. I grabbed a small hand shovel from the garage shelf and
went to a wooded area near a pond where I live.
I dug a hole, put the
pictures into the earth and placed the dirt on top. I inserted the sheets of
paper into the mound of dirt like two tombstones. I spent a few moments with
God as part of this ceremony. I had reburied my parents on my own terms, with
both authenticity and empathy.
My attitude of empathy did not excuse what they did or
explain their cruelty, but after seven years, I was finally able to put them to
Walking away from the
woods, carrying the shovel, I felt like a burden was lifted. My heart was
lighter. They haven’t haunted me since.
Although looking with empathy toward those who have wronged
us in any way may seem impossible, I can attest to the power of this experience.
I am so grateful for Sharon’s suggestion which initially seemed absurd, but ended
up being was the key to a cleansed and peaceful heart.