Saying “Goodbye” to Abusive Father

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Reader’s Question

My own biological father who seemed like a hero, prince, the tallest man in the world, ended up sexually abusing me for 4 years of my young pre-teen and then early teen life (fondling and attempting further). Whenever I would threaten to tell my mom after naive me figured out it was so, so, so wrong; he would say, “What would happen to your mom? Who would take care of your sister (who had a genetic disease)? What will happen to the family?”

He was the greatest father then to my siblings and even my sick sister. She loved him so much and had his sense of humor and funny personality that everyone liked. He took equal responsibility for her care and therapy.

We moved all the time which added to my insecurities and disgruntled disposition as a teenager in the late 60’s and early 70’s.

My mom finally decided to believe me and face the truth only when, it seemed to me, it benefitted her life. She met a wonderful man to marry, so she then had a “good” reason to divorce, using the “abusing her daughter” reason. I was in my early 20’s and my husband had just left me with two young boys.

Mom and I did not continue our relationship because of too much resentment; we only did years later.

I eventually quit allowing my father in my life because I was afraid my sons would be like him and/or my granddaughters would be affected. Mom had told me there was a history of his inappropriate sexual history with girls.

Now, he’s going to die soon, and relatives on his side resent that I can’t just “forgive” him. We’re all Christians just trying to do the right thing. That’s why for years I kept pretending things were normal and attempted to keep him in my life. I eventually told my siblings (they had daughters) and eventually my own kids.

He told everyone I had been on drugs and imagined it or made it up. His wife probably hates me now anyway. I don’t think I should go and upset her further even though I hate that my brother (my only sibling still alive) has to deal with everything alone. His wife had never been married and was an only child, so I was always thankful I didn’t have to worry about him molesting any of her little relatives.

My question is should I go see him in his terminal state or to the funeral when it would be uncomfortable for his wife and for me, especially?

Psychologist’s Reply

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Thank you for sharing how much your life has been (and continues to be) affected by your biological father. I can see how much courage you have had in moving forward throughout many significant points in your life. Two things stand out most in the experience you have described:

  • How much this “tallest man in the world” has cast a very large shadow over you ever since you were an older child.
  • How much other people’s feelings and beliefs have taken precedence over your own feelings and needs.

Even with his impending death, your father continues to influence your decisions — his deceit and abuse seem to haunt your ability to choose how you say goodbye to him. You have every right to feel conflicted about how to process his death — but the choices belong to you and no one else. As with many families who are unaware (or refuse to believe) how abusive a relative has been, they have ideas about what you, as his daughter, “should” do. Allowing his relatives and his wife to influence your choices in this complex and conflicted grieving process may only create more feelings of revictimization and powerlessness for you. If you are willing to approach forgiveness (but only if it feels right for you — not others in his family), then you can also choose how to forgive him for changing your life story.

Forgiveness has many meanings to different people — especially when religious definitions and expectations of forgiveness are involved. For some, finding a way to forgive someone does not mean that those harmful actions are forgotten or accepted. Sometimes, forgiveness means shifting the anger that was directed at the individual who harmed us into something more productive — perhaps finding some victims’ advocacy work, sharing our story with others who might benefit, or creating a space to honor our own feelings about having our lives irrevocably changed. Ultimately, you get to choose if and how you forgive on your own terms.

Your question about whether or not to visit him must be very conflicting for you. I would encourage anyone in this type of situation first to think about what it would mean to say “goodbye” to him. Perhaps there are some things you would like to say to him that you haven’t been able to say. Sometimes it can be healing to be able to finally say the words to someone that have been stuck in our minds for years. You might also ask what it would be like for you if you didn’t visit and weren’t able to say your final words to him. Would there be any regrets?

Funerals are rituals for the living to begin the grieving process. You might check in with yourself not only about how it would feel for you to attend his funeral, but also about how you would feel if you decided not to attend. It sounds as if it may be uncomfortable to be near his wife and relatives, but perhaps you can think of ways to distance yourself from them — maybe finding a safe relative to sit with or having a plan to leave if it feels too overwhelming. If you decide not to attend the funeral, you might create your own ritual to mark the end of his life — whatever that means for you. Perhaps your sons could participate in the ritual with you, maybe including them to begin to rewrite a more empowering story of how you influenced your father’s presence in your life.

I can only imagine how painful it may be to want to approach yet avoid this situation. How you decide to mark the death of this person is your choice — no one else’s. It may be helpful for you to talk through your choices with a licensed mental health professional to better help you sort through so many conflicted feelings. As you approach a decision, you may also find some ideas in the Evan Imber-Black and Janine Roberts book Rituals For Our Times . You might also find ways to sort through feelings toward your family and your father’s family in Harriet Lerner’s Dance of Anger .

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