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My Narcissistic Mother is Dead: What Now?
By: Beth McHugh 2015
Many of my clients with a narcissistic parent are trying to recover from the ongoing effects of having to deal with a narcissistic mother or father in their lives. They may live with their NPD parent, reside in the same town or city, or live thousands of miles away. No matter, the tentacles of the narcissist stretch like elastic and keep the adult child bound until the condition is understood and firm boundaries are set. Sometimes, after much thought, the adult child may decide to go “no contact”. The latter is a huge lifestyle change and requires careful thought to be fully successful.
But what happens when your narcissistic parent suddenly dies? This largely depends on what level the client has reached in therapy or in their individual processing about the relationship. Being in therapy makes this passage (and, in fact, dealing with a narcissist) much easier, as negative belief systems sown in early childhood need to be unravelled and changed. Clients who are able to set and maintain boundaries and understand the condition fare the best. However if you have never had therapy as the adult child of a narcissist, and your parent dies, there are still successful techniques that can be undertaken to take back your power and express the pain suffered.
To the outsider with no knowledge of narcissism, it would seem that the person who caused you so much pain throughout your life is now dead and so everything is going to be easier for you. After all, they are gone, so what is your problem?
This is a common belief among many people which could just as easily refer to having an alcoholic parent, a sadistic parent or a highly critical parent. Shouldn’t you be happy, relieved and now not have a problem in the world? Unfortunately, unless a person is well acquainted with the insidious nature of narcissism, they can have little understanding of the difficulties and pain involved in growing up with a narcissist nor the fact that death does little to ease the damage done. Just because a parent has died, does not mean that his or her influence over your life mysteriously evaporates just because they are no longer around.
Narcissists sow the seeds of low self esteem, fear, “the disease to please”, walking on eggshells, false self-beliefs – just to name a few problems – in the early years of a child’s life, when there is no external model to compare your parent to. Even when the adult child of a narcissist is older and they can see quite clearly that there is something very wrong with their parent, it is not easy to switch off the tapes that go round in your mind about what a “bad” or “useless” or “uncaring” person you are. It is this area that therapy targets.
But when an NPD parent dies before therapy is complete, or even started, there are issues yet to be resolved. This means that learning about boundaries may not have been completed which leaves the adult child open to being treated in a disrespectful way by other significant people in their lives.
The one benefit of the death of a NPD parent however, is that although nothing can be fully resolved while the parent was still alive, there is no ongoing abuse coming into the life of the adult child. This at least gives some breathing room within which to work on past issues, as it is the latter which are causing the intense pain in the lives of children of narcissistic parents.
Let’s look at the case of Anne, who in her early 40s came for counselling because she “just couldn’t seem to please her mother” and felt angry, belittled and finally, sad. After diagnostic tests by proxy, it was discovered that Anne’s mother suffered from narcissistic personality disorder. Once Anne began to look at her mother’s lifelong behaviour through the lens of narcissism, instead of through the eyes of reality, Anne was able to see that there wasn’t anything in particular wrong with her, it was her mother’s personality disorder that was causing Anne so much pain.
As Anne practised techniques to deal one-on-one with her mother, together with listing the false beliefs about herself that she had held for a lifetime and which were imposed on her by her mother, Anne was making great progress.
Suddenly her mother died unexpectedly of a stroke. After about three months, Anne was back in therapy because she felt guilty about not a better daughter and not caring enough for her mother. We revisited the concept of False Guilt, a topic we had worked on prior to Anne’s mother’s death, and looked at just how valid Anne’s self beliefs were concerning her failure as a daughter. Because Anne already had experience in examining and deconstructing False Beliefs, she was able to see that she was responding to old patterns sown long ago that she was “never good enough”. Once Anne recognised this, she was able to see reality again. That she had been a good daughter, that she had tried her best, and that, for a child of a narcissist, the “best” can never be achieved.
With no more insults, manipulation and passive-aggressive behaviour coming into her life from her mother, Anne was able to concentrate on various issues of her life where her mother had convinced her she was a failure – including her choice of jobs, the decision to have no children and the location in which she lived – all which had brought enormous pain and self doubt to Anne.
Currently Anne has formally finished therapy. She has learned how to deal with unpleasant feelings of worthlessness when they arise, observe where they came from, challenge them and then rationalise that many if not most of her “bad” feelings” were reflections of past beliefs inserted into her brain by her mother and reinforced by her father’s inability to defend her as a child and teen.
So, in Anne’s case, she was able to slowly deal with the fact that she had been hoodwinked by her mother into believing she was not a good daughter, let go of her guilt that she had not “been there” at the end for her mother and manage any additional feelings that came up in the first year after the death of her mother. Anne has now become her own therapist.
Anne is but one example of a scenario which can occur after the death of a narcissistic parent. When Neil’s mother died, he felt nothing. He went through the funeral procedures like a robot, cooked incessantly, handled relatives, flowers, hymns, out of town guests plus was father and husband to his family of four. When offered sympathy on the death of his mother, Neil simply smiled and said “Thank you”. He went back to work and also took up bridge.
However, it was during one of his bridge games that he became incensed with his partner, started screaming at her and was subsequently asked to leave the room. His bridge partner was in tears.
Driving home the anger increased and Neil almost had an accident. This was the wake-up call. Neil had never been in therapy but we were able to quickly determine that Neil’s outburst was the result of years of pent up anger towards his narcissistic father. A diagnosis by proxy confirmed traits of narcissism and Neil began the journey of documenting his life under the regime of a narcissistic father and a mother who was unable to protect him from the violent rages and put-downs he underwent from infancy onwards. Interestingly, this anger only surfaced when his mother died. His father had died three years previously and he had also reacted to this death by “going numb”. However, in the case of his mother, the numbness was there, but the real anger surfaced after the death of his mother, as previously noted.
Neil couldn’t understand why he was so angry with his mother, and had experienced no relief when his father, who had caused enormous emotional pain at his life, had died. Neil had internalised the pain and it wasn’t until the death of his mother that he actually felt “safe” enough to release it, even though it was in unhealthy ways. Despite the fact that both parents were now deceased, it was possible in therapy to work through memories of his childhood, humiliation by his father, his anger at his mother’s inability to step in, his desperation in trying to be “someone” in his father’s eyes, and how the rejection by his father resulted in him choosing an unsuitable marriage partner who treated him disrespectfully.
Once Neil slowly saw the pattern of his life, he first went through a grieving process, which was psychologically beneficial and allowed him to look more objectively at the characteristics of narcissistic personality disorder and how it had torn his birth family apart. As with all adult children of narcissists, Neil had a bagful of False Beliefs about himself and so we looked at them, one by one, deciding which ones were valid and which ones actually belonged to his father.
Today, Neil is currently in therapy but is making sense of his life for the first time, taking control of his relationships, has stopped being a doormat to significant others in his life and is the happiest he has ever been. Soon he will be able to self-counsel and journal his way out of the narcissistic hell that used to be his life.
Finally, we look at the case of Shelly. Shelly was almost at the end of her therapy road in healing the hurts inflicted on her by her narcissistic mother, when her mother became ill and died within a period of about three months. Shelly still had a few unresolved issues with her mother, but had largely come to grips with what her mother was, why her mother was the way she was and the role Shelly played in keeping the narcissistic dance between them going. She had set up firm boundaries with her mother, and had endured her wrath in doing so. However, life was decidedly better for Shelly and she no longer dreaded seeing her mother or speaking her mind, as she had worked hard to take her own power back and set limits on what she would and would not do.
Then, suddenly, her mother died. Shelly was frustrated that she had not “finished” all she had set out to achieve, but it didn’t matter. She went through feelings of anger at her mother, and then sadness at all she had missed out on as the child of a narcissist. Of course, she had already done a lot of this sort of grieving during part of standard counselling so, in a way, Shelly had already said goodbye to her mother. The actual death was, on one level, a formality. Still, it brought home the reality of the situation and Shelly had to deal with the fallout of what I call a “difficult” or “dirty” death. These terms will be described in a later blog, but having parent-child difficulties make for a more complicated grieving process.
Over time, Shelly moved on in therapy and accepted that the relationship she had with her mother was something she had to accept to get any real peace. Shelly finished formal counselling feeling happy about the way she thought about her mother and was now able to concentrate on her future.
About two years later, Shelly recontacted to tell me she felt she had overcome another milestone with her mother. She was now “talking” to her mother about her life, her problems, her job and her children. She felt that she was in a position to do this because her mother could not answer her back. But the main reason is that she felt that her mother was in a different place, a place where illnesses do not exist and hence her mother was the way she was meant to be and not a narcissist. Shelly was not religious but she said this came to her one day and from that day forward, she felt differently towards her mother. She told her mother she understood that she had an illness and that was the reason why she acted the way she did. In short, Shelly had forgiven her mother comprehensively for having NPD and ironically had a beneficial relationship with her dead mother and felt better after talking to her. Shelly had turned the situation around completely and had successfully cut herself completely free from the pain and anguish of having a narcissistic parent.
So, the death of a narcissistic parent does not equate to the end of
your troubles. What it does mean is taking a slightly different approach
to dealing with the absent NPD parent, but still obtaining the same
results in the end. It takes a little longer due to the absence of the
protagonist parent, but the end result is that you are free to be the
person you were meant to be. Not the puppet your NPD parent expected,
or the angry/depressed/sad rebel who tries to fight narcissism with
the wrong tools.
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