Grief is ubiquitous. It can be a unifying experience. At some point everyone who lives long enough will experience it. Grief is raw like a walking in a sleet storm in February without a hat or gloves. Grief is heavy. It is a rucksack that is filled to capacity with memories, that may include love, joy, sorrow, pain, anger, regret, and trauma. When it is time to pick up the rucksack of grief, one’s legs buckle with the strain of the weight that feels far to heavy to carry, and then comes the realization that not only must it be carried, but it must be carried up an impossibly steep incline. When I was in boot camp in the Marines, we had to do a forced march with full battle gear up one such incline called “The Grim Reaper” because it was so arduous a climb to get to the top. Grief is like that forced march, you have to go through it to get to the other side because deaths are inevitable. Everyone who reads this will know the grief that comes with the death of someone they love or esteem. Everyone who reads this will die, as will I, and there will be those who mourn.
My mother died this week. We knew it was coming because she had been suffering with cancer for a while and had started to fade quickly. Knowing that something is inevitable and rapidly approaching never adequately prepares a person for the actuality of that event. Thus it was with my mother’s death in large part because death is so final, and because of the childhood trauma I experienced as a result of my mother’s behavior and choices. Grief, the ordinary gut wrenching kind, is complicated by trauma because it gives rise to so many conflicting, powerful emotions. In my case, one of the most powerful has unfortunately been anger before and after she died.
Many people on social media sent words of encouragement and support when they learned that my mother had died. One of the more common things that I was told was to cherish the memories I have of my mother. These kindly folks were well intended, though they had no idea about the context of my life and our mother-son relationship. The memories that I have of my mother, are not the kind that anyone would cherish. During my therapy session this week, which was the day before mom’s death, I mentioned to my therapist that I couldn’t remember a single thing from my childhood relationship with my mother that was a truly happy memory. Anything like that has been completely subsumed by traumatic memories of physical and emotional abuse, neglect, narcissism, instability, drug and alcohol abuse, and being generally made to feel like a scapegoat for a mother whose love appeared to be highly conditional. That is not to say that every moment of my childhood was terrible or that every interaction I had with my mother was awful, but her parenting choices left me with complex PTSD, so positive recollections are hard to come by.
Childhood memories have been coming back for quite some time now as I have been working in therapy for a number of years. One of my earliest memories is of being left alone and hungry as a toddler. There was no food in the fridge so I poured ketchup on a paper plate and ate that by itself. When I was in first or second grade, my mom dragged us to parties quite frequently that were very loud, and attended by adults who were drinking and doing drugs. One night during a party, she got into an argument with someone and after finally finding me and my younger sister, put us in the car to drive home. She was intoxicated. I remember trying to comfort my sister in the back seat of the AMC Gremlin mom drove at the time, and that she drove over the concrete curb out in front of our duplex when she pulled into the parking spot. She then tried to leave us with the neighbors so she could drive back to the party to continue her argument, but thankfully the neighbors were able to wrestle the keys away from her as she railed volubly against whomever it was had aggrieved her earlier in the evening. It is a miracle we survived without incident and that the police were not called. From my elementary school years I remember far too many beatings, harsh reprimands, microaggressions, and being made to feel as if I were an unwanted, exasperating, encumbrance. When I was in the fifth grade, during a conversation in which I had clearly said the wrong thing, whatever it may have been, mom sighed with over dramatic annoyance and stated, “I could just kill him,” with the him in question being her 10 year old son. She then became even more annoyed when I understandably began to cry at the thought of being murdered by my own mother. These moments leave lasting marks…that conversation was in the early 1980s.
By the time my high school years rolled around our household had experienced an illusion of stability for the preceding few years, but that ended with the dissolution of mom’s third marriage. Her pain and anguish over that divorce collided with my teenager’s angst, hormones, and the pent up anger from previously experienced traumas. My sophomore and junior years of high school were rough to say the least. The physical abuse that had waned for a while was reinvigorated with vehemence. I remember finally deciding that I would no longer show any pain or anger when she was hitting me. The first time I employed this tactic, she was enraged as I stood there stock still, face expressionless as she hit me over and over again. The first time I ran away during that period happened after she and I had gotten into a verbal argument while I was trying to talk to my girlfriend on the phone one Sunday night. Mom yanked the phone cord and snapped it off at the phone jack thus abruptly ending my phone call. I yelled at her and then went into my bedroom and punched a hole in my closet door. More yelling ensued until she came running towards me and kicked me from behind. She was wearing boots and her boot caught me squarely on the tailbone. She tried to hit me when I spun around after the kick, but I grabbed her wrists and then forcefully let them go and left the house. After I left, she called the county sheriff’s office and they told her that they couldn’t do anything because I was already seventeen. The next morning I had to crawl through the window into my room to get something to wear to school. I ran away like that several times in that year and a half period.
This is a mere snapshot of my childhood and teen years with my mother. These are the kinds of memories that have come up more and more often in the months and days leading up to her death. In 2009, while going through a tough period in my second marriage, I was formally diagnosed with Complex PTSD from my childhood, as well as Simple PTSD related to a horrific accident while on active duty in the Marines. The clinical psychologist looked thoughtfully at me and said that he was amazed that I was not face down in a ditch with a rusty needle in my arm because people who have similar stories to mine often end up like that. It was the first time I had ever realized that what I had experienced growing up was not considered normal, but was a series of traumas. He commended me on my ability to survive. In a later session, he told me that I would never be able to have the kind of relationship with my mother that I needed. To have any relationship at all with her, I would have to let go of what I needed, and simply accept whatever she was able to give.
The superficial and sporadic nature of my relationship with mom after that point was distinctly unsatisfactory. We would have the occasional good conversation, but mostly it felt like protracted small talk that I was obliged to make with someone who also felt an obligation to do so. The curtain had also been pulled back on the trauma I had experienced in my youth making it impossible for me to ignore it and her lack of repentance for her role in it. At one point, I wrote her a letter about how my formative years in her care had adversely affected me well into adulthood in many ways that made life much more difficult. Rather than reflecting and taking ownership of her abusive behaviors, she wrote back asking me not to send her any more nasty letters. Our attempts at communication became more and more of a chore to me after that until one day in therapy as I sat there “shoulding myself to death” about not being a good son, my therapist quickly asked me what I wanted to do about it, and I declared with some heat, “I don’t want to fucking talk to her,” to which she replied, “Then don’t.” She told me that in her professional opinion, I didn’t owe my mother anything, and should focus on my own healing and well-being.
Not long after, I was engaged in a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) course where my therapist asked me to focus on a particular traumatic memory. The one I chose was from when I was six or seven years old and had been at grandma and grandpa’s house. My maternal grandmother heard me cussing out in the yard while I played with my uncle Steven. He was six months my junior, and so more like a brother or cousin than an uncle. When mom came to pick me up that day, grandma told her about my salty language, which I had of course learned from the adults in my life, and it was like she had flipped a switch. Mom started flailing at me, hitting me all over my head, shoulders, back, and rear end as she violently dragged me to the car. As she drove down the road she continued to beat me with her forearm and hand relentlessly until she got on the highway all the while tearing me down verbally as well. I cowered as far into the space between the seat and the door as I could to escape further blows. All of the CBT sessions would focus on this one incident.
CBT is quite triggering, and it happened that during this course of PTSD treatment that lasted three or four months, my mother’s husband died. I was processing this trauma from the past, while also adjusting to graduate school at Lancaster Theological Seminary, and I didn’t know what to do. After speaking to my therapist about the situation, I simply wrote as kind an email as I could muster to mom letting her know I was doing hard work in therapy related to my childhood, and that though I was sorry for her loss, I simply could not talk to her at that time, and was not sure if I ever would be able to in the future. She mentioned to my sister after reading it that she had thought that “we were okay” thus confirming my suspicions that she never fully understood or took ownership of her actions. That was in 2016. The last time I had spoken to her was right after I started seminary earlier that year, and I never spoke to her again. Now she is gone, but I do not regret my decision or the boundaries I had to set in order to continue to heal. I do hate that I had to set those boundaries in order to heal though. It would have been far better to have experienced a reconciliation based upon her truly acknowledging the damage and repenting. Alas, that did not happen, which complicates the grief process.
Her death hit me quite hard, much harder than I had been expecting. It has engendered a morass of anger, pain, and regret. The entire situation totally sucks in every conceivable way. There is regret for things that never were truly existent, and regret that I could not be of more support to my dear sister as she had to deal with mom’s care, and whom I love deeply. She was able to repair her relationship with mom during those last years of her life. I am grateful for that because despite all of the trauma, pain, and anger, there is always a part of me that will be a little boy who wants his mommy to love him unconditionally. Those feelings, if I ever ever actually experienced them at all, were not strong enough to withstand the years of trauma and pain. Grief comes in waves. It is a non-linear process that I am sure I will be dealing with for the foreseeable future. Trauma can be like that too. I’ve had more PTSD related emotional triggers in the past several weeks, than I have ever had. They are acute, but non-specific, and are quite draining physically and emotionally. Like the complicated grief from my mother’s life and death, I have to go through these moments of release to keep healing, and to hopefully uncover a few pleasant memories as I do.
Stories like mine are all too familiar. I pray that everyone who has a traumatic childhood is able to get the therapy needed to recover. There is much grace to be found in therapy despite the protestations of fundamentalists and evangelicals who view trauma induced behaviors as sinful and stemming from a lack of faith. That’s a much longer discussion, so I’ll close with a reminder to myself and others that grief is hard, but it does eventually dissipate and the pain becomes bearable. Healing from trauma takes work, but it is possible.
Rest in peace mom.
Further reading: Go Golden