Q: My abusive, alcoholic mother died recently. When people say they’re sorry about the death of my alcoholic parent, I just want to tell them how much better my life is now! Is that wrong?
When you live in terror and one day you are set free, are you a bad person to want to celebrate that? No, I would say you are a survivor. I’ll get to your question shortly, but first I want to acknowledge the deep emotional complexity surrounding the death of an alcoholic parent.
I once coached a young woman in a similar circumstance. Her alcoholic mother was abusive, both mentally and physically. My client had to clean up her mom’s messes and call 911 when Mom hurt herself falling down in the kitchen. This young woman packed her lunch and her younger sister’s for school every day because Mom “slept it off” until noon.
She never formed a true mother/daughter relationship. And after the death of her alcoholic parent, she celebrated. She celebrated being liberated from a crippling lifestyle, being freed from 24/7 stress, and finally having the opportunity to create a stable, positive life for herself.
At the same time, she was grieving, but not for the loss of her abusive mother. She grieved the mother she never had. She grieved the loss of her childhood, and the absence of the family life that she wanted and deserved.
I’m guessing that right now your grief is taking the form of anger. It sounds like you are celebrating not so much the death of your mother, but the end of a terrible situation. And that’s absolutely righteous. You deserve better, and you have the opportunity now to have that.
I invite you to explore your complex feelings about this, and where you want to go from here. Knowing that will help you figure out a good answer for people who offer you sympathy for the death of an alcoholic parent. Let me explain.
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First, we can assume the people who know you best won’t offer you their sympathies because they probably already know the truth about your life. Or, if they try, you can get gritty with them by saying, “Hey, don’t do that. You know the truth here.”
Then, way out there, you have the “30,000-foot audience” – people who had no idea of your family situation. Here, I would set some boundaries for what’s appropriate at this level of relationship. These people don’t need to know your deeper truth. They’re making a kind gesture, and it’s reasonable to simply respond, “That’s very kind of you,” and move on.
But in between, there’s what I call the “10,000-foot audience.” They are more aware of your situation. With them you have the opportunity to try out your new narrative. What is your story? Throw a few tests out there and see what kind of responses you get, and how that makes you feel.
For example, maybe you want to set them straight and say, “It’s actually not sad at all, she was an abusive drunk and I’m much happier now.” How do you feel after sharing that version of your truth? Do you get the reaction you want? Does it help you move in the direction you seek?
Or, maybe you try, “I’m going to be honest with you, I didn’t have a great childhood, so this is weird for me. But I really appreciate your kindness, because it is a difficult time.” Or, “Actually, I had a tough childhood. I’m relieved she’s gone and I’m moving in a better direction.”
Practice in the mirror. Say the words and see how they make you feel. Then try them out on people. This is an opportunity to redefine yourself with a new narrative after the death of an alcoholic parent—one that can have a happy ending.