My Father Died; My Grandmother Blames Me

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Reader’s Question

Since my dad passed away of alcoholic cardiomyopathy and subsequent heart failure a year and a half ago, my grandmother has chosen to blame everyone in our family except herself. She says that we all “stressed him out” referring to the constant turmoil in our family caused by his alcoholism. I have tried to tell her repeatedly that alcoholism is to blame.

The thing is, I am aware of why she is doing this. She was the primary enabler, as the rest of us at one time or another had tried desperately to get him to stop drinking so much. I assume she must feel guilt for this on some level, and it has sent her on a crusade for self-preservation that has left me devastated, as she goes around tearing down my character, telling stories about how terrible I am, and blaming me, my sister, and my mom for his death.

I’ve tried every angle to help her stop doing this, I’ve tried telling her that no one is responsible for his choices, but she flat out refuses to recognize there was any problem with his drinking, and uses that denial to point to us as the cause. I’ve corrected all of her assumptions about me, but she refuses to believe me. It hurts terribly, my grandmother and I had an extremely close relationship when I was growing up and I feel such a profound loss.

Is there any hope, or will her self-preservation prevent us from ever being able to be a family again? Is there something else I can try, or do I simply need to walk away at this point?

Psychologist’s Reply

I must first congratulate you on having such great insight into your grandmother’s behavior, and compassion for her feelings. I’m certain that being blamed for your father’s death is incredibly difficult, yet you still show the ability to feel for her loss as well. That is indeed quite an accomplishment.

I imagine that you are correct about the motivations for her anger towards everyone but herself. The loss of a child is a profound one and the grief of this is complicated for her by his alcoholism. Addiction is a horrible disease for everyone involved, not least because of the sense of helplessness it engenders in the people who love the addicted person. You are forced to watch someone you love spiral downward and there is nothing you can do to stop it. While addiction does have systemic elements to it, ultimately the only person responsible for their behavior is the addict.

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As I’m sure you already know, “enabling” is not at all helpful, but many people use it in an attempt to cope because they don’t know what else to do, or cannot bear to do anything else. Although you didn’t mention being angry at your grandmother for her enabling of your father, it’s possible that you are, and that she senses your anger and responds defensively. In a situation like yours, there must be a lot of emotions swirling around, which makes them difficult to sort out. Thus, it might be helpful for everyone to try and figure out what their own feelings are, and then deal with them appropriately before dealing with each other. A grief counselor might be of assistance in this process.

The grieving process is tough and it sounds like your grandmother is having a great deal of difficulty with it right now. She may be searching for someone to blame so that she can make sense of what happened and have some closure. Or, as dysfunctional as it sounds, it could be that by blaming you for her son’s death, she still gets to talk with you about him. Clearly, she is not approaching her grief in the most healing way possible, but there is nothing you can say that will change what she is doing — just as you couldn’t say anything before to change her enabling behavior. It could be that your grandmother may be able to come to terms with her role in what happened, but she may not be able to do deal with it now while the pain is still too fresh or, possibly ever at all. Regardless, you may find it best to steer clear of the topic of your father and his death, at least when she is in your presence.

For a difficult grieving process, a year and a half is not a long time. Thus, I wouldn’t advise “walking away” from her, but perhaps just giving her more time. Maybe you can try to set some boundaries around the time you spend with her. Whenever she brings up your father, you can comment on how much everyone misses him and then change the topic to something less controversial. If she continues to blame you, then it is time to leave the conversation and try again another time. I’m sure your grandmother also misses the close relationship you once shared, so if she discovers that you are no longer willing to engage with her about your father, maybe she will realize that there are other things the two of you can share.

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