When I read Jennette McCurdy’s memoir title, I breathed a sigh of relief. Naming her book I’m Glad My Mom Died may be shocking and attention grabbing, but it’s a statement I completely understand.
But what else can I call it?
Growing up, my dad’s temper turned on a knife edge. Though he was never physically abusive and I didn’t doubt he loved me, I did seem to irritate him. He assumed I was mocking him if I breathed too loud, spoke too fast or used the wrong tone of voice. His anger sparked from the tiniest, seemingly insignificant things: If I dropped a spoon, or dared to contradict him, I’d watch his brow furrow and face darken, knowing it heralded a three day silent fury that I’d somehow caused.
My mother, when she was alive, called these his black moods. She was the mediator between us. Never able to sleep on a family argument, my mom would whisper, "Just say sorry to him, darling, then all this nastiness will go away." In the meantime, I walked on eggshells and learned to be invisible.
My mom died when I was 20, suddenly, from a recurrence of breast cancer a decade earlier. Dad and I were shell-shocked, but somehow we did grow closer. The uncertainty I’d always felt around him mellowed into something like an adult respect for each other. Crucially, we no longer lived in the same house. Instead, we went on weekend breaks together, spoke on Skype, and exchanged emails regularly when I traveled for work.
But at age 29, I moved home to care for him when a fibrosis diagnosis quickly made him bedridden. There was no other option: Dad was dying, and he needed me. But in his terminal state he also took us back to the problematic power dynamic of my childhood, and all the progress I thought we’d made in our relationship seemed to disappear.
Kathryn Mannix, a palliative care expert, says hoping for reconciliation before someone dies is extremely common. If that reconciliation happens, it might help their grief later — but it might not. “All those lost moments for kindness, all those occasions when someone let us down, keep bubbling up. Part of the grief of farewell is for the end of the possibility of having the relationship we longed for," Mannix says. "Part of the relief is that we won't be let down again by them in the future."
When my dad died, I really was relieved. Mainly because he was no longer suffering — but also because I no longer had to acquiesce to playing a relationship role I hated. Around my dad, I had to make myself smaller, watch everything I said, continuously prioritize his feelings over mine in case I made him angry. I was never honest with my feelings while he was alive because he always had control.
Part of the grief of farewell is for the end of the possibility of having the relationship we longed for. Part of the relief is that we won't be let down again by them in the future.
Kathryn Mannix, Palliative Care Expert
In comparison, the freedom I’ve felt since his death has been extraordinary. I’ve finally found the language to describe his stonewalling behavior, and learned he was emotionally immature. I’ve been able to understand how the emotional trauma has affected my relationships, too. My hyper independence and inability to ask for help makes me a classic avoidant, and I protect myself by shutting down — much like him, as it happens.
When someone dies, the relationship you have with them doesn’t just disappear. But something does still change. The relationship becomes static. The heat gets taken out of it and the volume reduced.
Now that I have some much needed distance, I can see my father in a new light, much like Jennette McCurdy does with her mother. Instead of living through a turbulent and always uncertain dynamic, we’re given the chance to flatten things out, scrutinize them, and finally acknowledge exactly what happened.
Joining the grief club generates the uncanny ability to forge immediate understanding between total strangers due to mutual grief. I already feel a kinship with McCurdy — as a writer, as a griever, as an abused kid. Through her writing, she’s found a new perspective on her mother too. "It simplified in a really relieving way," she told Good Morning America. "It now feels like I'm able to just miss her. I think that's only possible because of the healing that's happened through writing this book."
Karen Chaston, an author and mentor who specializes in helping those who have experienced loss, highlights the importance of acknowledging how their behavior affected you –– but also the necessity of practicing forgiveness. "You forgive for yourself, not for them. And when you forgive, you’re not condoning their behavior,” she says. “You forgive so that you can move on; so that you can release the dark mass of stuck emotion that’s inside you.”
If I accidentally drop the cutlery I still tense in anticipation, immediately on high alert for my father’s anger. All I see now is my little black cat looking scared in the hallway; a feline projection of what I now realize my anxiety might look like. I still wonder if my dad ever saw it on my face, in my tightened, tense muscles — that readiness to defend, to fall over myself with apologies, just in case he was about to blow up. At times, my body seems to remember more than my mind does.
Death doesn't absolve someone from the pain they inflicted in life. In fact, vocalizing that experience when there’s no longer a fear of retribution can help others recognize their own abuse — a situation that they might still be living through.
I don't hate my dad — far from it. I still grieve for him. But I'd be doing myself a disservice to ignore the ramifications his behavior had on me. Now he’s gone, I can finally live life on my own terms, instead of always prioritizing his. And in an odd way, I think he’d be proud of that.