My grandmother is going to die soon. I am not sad about it when I think about it. To be honest, it will be a huge relief. She is an awful narcissist and an alcoholic. But I do have moments when I feel like a terrible person for wishing she would die already. And I know that when she does die I will probably think of her more fondly than she deserves. I feel torn between guilt and the true, pure dislike of this woman. How can I reconcile this before she dies?
Dear Bad Granddaughter,
I once had a patient I’ll call Dave who had a difficult relationship with his dying father. His father was, by Dave’s account, a bully: demeaning, critical, tremendously self-congratulatory, and full of himself. Somebody who had alienated both of his sons from a young age, and had a distant and contentious relationship with them as adults. Dave was 50 years old, married with children of his own, and as his father’s health condition worsened, he struggled with what he would say at the funeral. What could he say about his father that would ring true? Then Dave came to our session and told me about something that had happened when he went to visit his father on his deathbed. His father had reached out for his son’s hand and said, out of the blue, “I wish I’d treated you better. I was an asshole.”
“I know,” Dave said. As in, I know you were an asshole. At first he was angry — did his father expect absolution now, at the 11th hour? As Dave saw it, we are who we are in life, and the time to make repairs is long before you leave this earth, not on the eve of your departure. You don’t automatically get the gift of closure, or forgiveness, from a deathbed confession.
“And I don’t forgive you,” Dave added. He hated himself for saying this, regretted it the second it came out, but he didn’t want his father to think that the damage he’d done for decades was okay. After all the pain his father had put him through, and all the work he’d done to create a good life for himself and his family, he’d be damned if he was going to have to soothe his father now with a sugary lie: “Oh, no, Dad — you were a good father.” He’d spent his childhood lying about how he felt. Still, Dave wondered, what kind of person, what kind of monster, says this to his dying father?
Dave was about to apologize but his father spoke first. With a resigned look on his face, he shrugged and said, “I suppose I wouldn’t forgive me if I were you, either.”
And then the strangest thing happened. Sitting there holding hands with his father, something shifted for Dave. He felt, for the first time in his life, genuine compassion for this man he so disliked. Not forgiveness, but compassion. Compassion for the sad dying man who must have had his own pain, too. And it was that compassion that allowed Dave to speak authentically at his father’s funeral — and to let go of his guilt for feeling, as he put it, “thrilled” after his father was finally gone.
There’s a term we sometimes use in therapy: “forced forgiveness.” Often people think that in order to move forward, they need to forgive the person who hurt them — a parent, an ex-spouse, the uncle who sexually assaulted them, the criminal who mugged them, the grandmother who acted like a drunken narcissist. They’re told by well-meaning people that until they can forgive, they’ll hold onto the anger. Often they feel pressured to forgive, and then end up believing that something’s wrong with them if they can’t quite get there — that they aren’t enlightened enough or strong enough or kind enough.
But forgiveness is a tricky thing, in the same way that apologies can be tricky. Are we apologizing because it makes us feel better, or because it will make the other person feel better? Are we sorry for what we’ve done, or are we simply trying to appease the other person who believes we should be sorry for the thing we feel justified in having done? Who is the apology for? Who is the forgiveness for? Granted, for some, forgiveness serves as release — you forgive the person who wronged you, without condoning their actions, and it allows you some peace. But that’s not true for everyone.
So what I say about forgiveness is this: You can have compassion without forgiving. There are many ways to move on without forgiving, but pretending to feel a certain way is not one of them. Forced forgiveness is false forgiveness for somebody else’s benefit. As therapists, the last thing we want to do is to talk people out of how they really feel. If your grandmother behaves in unlikable ways, why would you like her? If she makes your life difficult, why wouldn’t you feel relief when she dies?
It sounds like your guilt is about your desire to feel something that you don’t, about wanting to like and forgive without being able to drum up the concomitant emotions. Instead, maybe the way to “reconcile” these opposing forces is to forgive yourself rather than try to forgive her. Forgive yourself for having a normal reaction to a challenging relative. Forgive yourself for trying and failing to muster some fondness when there’s so little. And then, like Dave, see if rather than fondness or forgiveness, you can start to arrive at understanding. After all, narcissists and alcoholics are people in a great deal of pain. I imagine that your grandmother had a painful inner world, so painful that you and she might have something in common: She may wish herself dead, too. Perhaps her narcissistic defenses and the numbing effects of alcohol are the only things that separated her from wishing on herself during the entirety of her lifetime what you feel guilty wishing on her now.
In a way, one of our greatest existential fears isn’t to be disliked so much as to be forgotten, invisible, ignored. At least if you’re disliked, somebody has you in mind — and your grandmother has succeeded in having others keep her in mind. She’s so much in your mind, Bad Granddaughter, that you’re writing to me asking how to handle her bigness in your conscience. But the truth is this: Your grandmother will have to reckon with how to think about herself at the end of her life, and that’s not a job that anyone can do for anyone else. What you can do is tap into your commonality, and in that overlap, muster some genuine kindness. See if you can retrieve the one or two or half a dozen positive memories that have long been eclipsed by the profoundly negative ones. See if you can share those with her. See if you can imagine what it must be like to find oneself as unacceptable as she must have found herself, all the while pretending away her uncomfortable feelings. See if there’s a lesson in there for you about not pretending away yours, so that when your own reckoning comes, it will look a lot different from your grandmother’s.
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