Monday, November 9, 2020

Emptiness and Empathy: Burying My Parents on My Own Terms

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 challenge.

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[J1]  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 rest.

 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.




  1. As you share how you are processing grief and loss of confusing and abusive people, you're creating a model for others to follow. This is so generous of you, to open up your life, your heart, to others.