More Family Illness, and It’s Complicated

In the past year, we’ve lost a cousin in my age range and her mother, and last week my dad’s lady friend from his Sunday School class.  Actually, two were in the last few weeks (the visitations and funeral for two of them are this coming weekend).  Now, an uncle has been diagnosed with advanced cancer, and while things are still uncertain about his treatment recommendations and prognosis, it doesn’t sound all that great.  I still hope that there is something that the docs can offer him.

The first three people I described were wonderful, kind, beloved, compassionate parts of the family- whether actual family or ‘just’ a close friend.   The latter is not seen as a kind, compassionate person.  Yet I feel horrible that he is having to face all of this.  His wife died from cancer a few years ago (she was very much loved).  My cousins and their families are also having to deal with this.  I’ve only found out what a jerk he can be in the last 8 years or so.  I didn’t have to grow up with him.  I did have his older sister as a mother, and while she wasn’t known for being nasty, she wasn’t the same as a mom as how her students described her as a teacher (she taught for many years).  She was cold and distant at home.  As a kid, that’s all I understood.  I didn’t understand why I couldn’t have the warm, caring teacher as my mom.

I had to get to a place where I could try and see some reason for why my mom was the way she was.  I knew she loved me; that was never in question.  I didn’t, however, know if she liked me.  I knew that feeling from the time I was two years old. She wasn’t always nice to me.  I felt like I was in the way.  But as I got older, I got so tired of being resentful, that  I had to try and see her from an adult perspective, not a hurt kid, and make some attempt to understand her.  And when I did, I found out how broken she was. She had had two newborns who died within the first two weeks of life (two different pregnancies) just three years before adopting me.  She was terrified of losing me.  The attachment issues were from a place of pain, not because of anything to do with me. It would have been any kid…   Figuring that out released me from so much pain and resentment.  Her brokenness hurt me, but it had nothing to do with me.  That wasn’t the only issue, but it made sense regarding how she parented.  She wasn’t intentionally cold and distant… she was scared.  And she did ‘do’ a lot of things for me… I just never felt much of an emotional connection.   It’s really hard to explain.  She wasn’t a bad person by any means… she just didn’t know how to deal with her pain, and bond with a  new baby at the same time, with no frame of reference about how it’s ‘supposed to be done’…  nobody talked about feelings back then.

My mom’s and uncle’s  mother had been orphaned by the age of six- first her mother when she was less than four years old, and a couple of years later, her father died.  She had attachment issues (that she has discussed with me several times) because of that trauma (she was packed off to a new country with only one of her three brothers).  She told me she didn’t like to get close to people, though she always came across as ‘connected’ with my cousins and me, from what I can remember- but then I wasn’t raised by her either.  She was also ‘broken’.  And doing the best she could.  She couldn’t pass along what she didn’t have.

They do the best they can with what they have to work with, and sometimes that isn’t enough.  It just isn’t enough sometimes – but it’s all they have.

If I had any contact with my uncle, I’d want to  let him know how sorry I am that he’s going through all of this.  That wouldn’t excuse him from any of the emotional pain he’s caused, or the horrible things he’s said to/about me.  But if I stay bitter, that just hurts me.  I forgave him ages ago (that’s between me and God, not the uncle), but we have no basis for a continued relationship.  He hasn’t been a part of my life since he called me “human debris”, and said he was “ashamed to be my uncle” (fine, buddy, it’s done- you’re off the hook) after fabricating a nasty story about me that didn’t happen.  He’s a horrible bully, and is known for that character defect.  But he’s also facing some really rough stuff right now, and while I don’t want him in my life, I also don’t want to ignore the emotional torment he’s in right now.  I owe him nothing, but I owe it to myself to not be unkind in return.  I won’t like myself much if I respond that way- and I might not have a lot of time to let him know that I do care that he’s going through so much.

It’s  confusing in my head .   I don’t like this family member, and yet I can’t imagine how scared he is (and he’s still family).  He’s run off a lot of people, and it’s got to feel pretty lonely- especially compared to the way I’ve seen the other three who have been lost this year be surrounded by friends, family, co-workers, and loved ones to the point where  limits were placed on visiting/calls at times.  I don’t wish facing the end of life essentially alone (or at least not liked much) on anyone.   Yeah, people make their choices about how they treat people, and there are consequences with that.  Their ‘targets’  can only take so much crap before they have to cut ties to have their own lives not be toxic.

But I have to make my choices about how I respond, especially with something so serious.  I don’t want to have regrets in five years about how I responded.  I’ve given a message to a cousin who will relay it to him, offering my sadness at what he’s going through, and genuinely praying that whatever results from this, he doesn’t suffer (not my exact words, but the message is there).  If I could box his ears, I’d beg him to make some attempt to let his kids, and anyone else he’s hurt over the years, know whatever it is that he needs to take accountability for, and whatever amends he’s capable of.  It might not be what anybody needs, but it might be all he is able to offer.  Sometimes, that has to be enough… someone who is broken can’t give more than they have.  It hurts, but it’s not personal.

The Emotionally Damaged Parent

Watching TV news, and working as an RN for years in the mental health and recovery fields, it’s so apparent why familial abuse is cyclical.  Nobody knows any better. Nobody ‘grew up’ in a normal manner and completed developmental stages. They all end up stuck, confused, and in pain.  They then traumatize any offspring they have-  sometimes very unintentionally, but leaving behind another generation of damaged adults and more confused kids.  While they do the best they can, they cause mass devastation. Others just become cruel.  I’ve seen some horrendous families.

These parents can’t see things through their child’s eyes since they never completed developmental stages themselves.  When a child enters the ‘terrible twos’, a very necessary developmental stage, the stuck parent can’t cope because they’re still functioning on an emotionally childish level themselves. So the actual toddler gets the brunt of it, and never learns how to get its own needs met, since the parent needs the kid to meet unmet needs of their own.  The child becomes the nurturer, in an incredibly dysfunctional manner.  The parent can’t identify their child’s needs since their own needs weren’t met.  And they don’t know any better.  Or that there’s even a problem  (they have no other frame of reference). And they certainly can’t fix it on their own.

The wounds continue as the children learn to live without a functional parent.  Life becomes a matter of surviving and just getting through it.  Any sources of perceived love and care (no matter how horrendous or dysfunctional) become like beacons for these kids as they grow up.  And the cycle continues, since the child ends up being used by those with an agenda, who seek them out.  The lucky ones actually have functional adults step in and help them learn what is and isn’t healthy.  Others become statistics, or abusers.  And ‘parents’.

The more dysfunction and desperation I see on the news, the more I wonder how and when people became so damaged.  I don’t think the majority of people strategically set out to screw up their kids, but they manage to do a good job of it none the less.  And I wonder who hurt them.  And so on.  I can trace some deficits (perceived or real) that  go back to the flu epidemic in 1917 or 1918.  Orphans are abandoned souls, no matter how loving their assigned parents are. They then are clueless about bonding and attachment, since being vulnerable has only meant pain and loss in their child’s view of life.  Their kids then have to learn to function with the only tools THEY have, and so on.  Nobody meant to cause pain. Nobody meant to leave  a legacy of abandonment and dysfunction…but it’s still there and very real for those who were left with the aftermath.

It’s easier for me to forgive pain caused by developmental neglect and  loss than abusive behavior with no cause, or outright cruelty.