How I should feel about my dad having a tumor?
September 27, 2011 8:08 PM   Subscribe

My dad was an angry person throughout my life. He would throw temper tantrums to everyone else in the household. My mom would lose friends due to his behaviour. He has accused my mom of cheating, he makes decisions without listening to her and then throws temper tantrums when my mom tries to resist, and he has accused my mom of being lazy during times when she was the only one working. Neither my brother or I have much respect for him anymore, but we still love our mom. Mom phoned yesterday telling my dad has testicular cancer and is getting surgery for it. I'm coming in to visit at my mom's request. But she's going to try to make me go through the motions of pretending we're a healthy family. Am I wrong to not have strong mourning feelings towards my dad's cancer?
posted by DetriusXii to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Your feelings are your feelings, and it sounds like you have some real-life issues with your Dad. There's no reason to start loving someone who has been abusive just because they're ill.

That said, your Mom seems to obviously be calling upon you to support her, and if it were me, I'd "go through the motions" that she requests, because that's what will help her during this time. There's a time to hash out your feelings of anger about how he's treated your Mom, but I don't think that time is while he's undergoing cancer treatment and she's taking care of her critically-ill husband.
posted by xingcat at 8:16 PM on September 27, 2011 [7 favorites]

You are not wrong. But you do whatever your mom needs you to do. You can focus on her, and on whatever helps her get through this, which may mean helping your dad out directly from time to time, but you and your brother can keep yourselves mom-focused and get through this in a way that doesn't make you feel like you're doing more for your dad than he deserves.
posted by padraigin at 8:17 PM on September 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Depending on what sort of level of unhealthy family you have, this may or may not be something that's totally appalling to deal with, or not as hard as that. Some people shine in a crisis and put aside the bullshit, some people reveal their true feelings. When my mom got her cancer diagnosis, there was definitely a little maneuvering to use the strong emotions of the situation to get us, the kids, to do thing that we might not otherwise do for someone who had been difficult and not all that terrific to be around. That said, it was also easier to be around because there was Stuff to Do which meant not a lot of time for petty griping and snarking. So, I'd basically say you're going to be supportive to your mom, try to set up decent boundaries as far as what you'll tolerate from your dad and consider it a favor. Your own feelings are your business and you can think whatever you want about this situation and it's totally okay, whatever your feelings are.
posted by jessamyn at 8:24 PM on September 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Sounds like my dad. No, you take care of your mom; what happens to dad just happens. You keep in mind it's your mom you are taking care of and you acknowledge, but pay no undue attention to the fact that your dad is getting some of the halo or splashback effect of that. I'm sorry this is happening within your family. You have no obligation to pretend for your dad's benefit.
posted by jet_silver at 8:25 PM on September 27, 2011

You are not wrong.

However, consider that this type of life-threatening situation might throw a shit-ton of perspective at your old man. Be open to the possibility that people can and do change.

My pop used to be a real dick. After he retired he turned into a relatively sweet and friendly guy. Turns out, his job just drove him crazy. Now he gardens and takes long walks and I enjoy visiting him once a year.
posted by bardic at 8:32 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Am I wrong not to have strong mourning feelings towards my dad's cancer?

Nope, not one bit. That you are even worried about it shows you are sympathetic to him as the man who fathered you. Just feel what you feel and go help your Mom. If you don't feel like showing any grief, don't. Just be supportive of your mother and respectful of her feelings.

Now to you. As the supporter of your mother you are going to need some support yourself. If you are spending time with this situation and it starts to get you down, find an outlet for yourself - a regular massage, a dance class, a counsellor or great friend with a good ear... This whole situation is likely to get harder before it gets easier so make sure you take care of yourself.
posted by the fish at 8:35 PM on September 27, 2011

Data point: This illness, as it's serious, it may bring up ALL KINDS of unresolved issues you've had with your father, really in your family overall. All sorts of stuff -- sadness that he wasn't there when you'd have wanted him there in the role of father, sadness that they lived in the marriage that they did, stayed through all that garbage, maybe even sadness that this person has had to live inside there; that can't have been easy, he knows on some level he's pulled all these stunts.

Who knows, it's possible that this situation in his life might be a hard enough slap to get him to look around, take stock, question his behaviors. Even if that does happen, you've no responsibility to be his big buddy now, and shove down whatever has happened all these long years. An awkward thing, that.

Anyways, just writing here to say don't be surprised if you find yourself in a swirl of feelings that you'd not anticipated. I don't know of any way to be prepared for it, really, if it does show up, other than just ride it out, stay close to the things that bring you peace.
posted by dancestoblue at 9:18 PM on September 27, 2011

Am I wrong to not have strong mourning feelings towards my dad's cancer?

No. The accident of birth does mean you have to like someone.

Just because someone you don't like get sick, doesn't mean you have to like them.

But she's going to try to make me go through the motions of pretending we're a healthy family.

Perhaps that's what she needs, to get through this. If so, do it for your mother. You don't have to believe it.

Good luck.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:38 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your feelings aren't wrong. I think it's asking a lot to expect people to not only endure the misery of being around someone like that, but also feel bad when something like this comes along too. He's already made you feel bad enough, and the one upside of not feeling particularly close to a person is that you don't automatically feel terrible when bad things happen to them. Don't try to force yourself to feel bad when you could just, you know, not feel bad.

I'm speaking as someone who went through something similar, except my dad was ill my entire teenage years and didn't die until I was in my mid-20s. My dad beat my mom when I was younger, held her at gunpoint, was verbally abusive and contemptuous, had a drug problem, etc. He actually did stop physically abusing her once I was in elementary school or so, and he wasn't a horrible guy 100% of the time, but he'd still be a cruel asshole a lot. Further complicating things was the fact that he was always pretty great to me, and could really be a good guy; I'm pretty sure he had poorly diagnosed mental issues. At one time he had a full on manic episode, but by that time it was difficult to know what was innate to him biologically and what was purely reactions to medications.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time worrying about my dad's health and simultaneously wishing he would just die already; I knew the stress wouldn't be over, and nor would the emotional abuse, until he did die. And then that just made me feel worse, because by that point in his life he wasn't a dick as often as he acted decently, and he was always very accepting and supportive of me no matter what. By the time he died, I was long past being drained by all the conflicting emotions, and I didn't feel entirely bad about it. I felt a lot of relief at the stress being over, and also for my dad's pain being over because stuff really sucked for him at the end. The last time I saw him I had a feeling I wouldn't see him again and it had been a nice visit for me, and that gave me a sense of peace. I felt bad for my mom, who was taking it pretty badly, but even she would have moments when she was hysterically crying where she'd start laughing in disbelief and say, "I don't know why I'm so sad, he was such a dick to me!" and then start crying again about how she shouldn't say that but it's true but and... yeah, it's a messy situation when a deeply flawed person gets a fatal illness, what can I say. If you're not inclined to feel bad, don't force it. If you're happy, or relieved, or whatever, that's all fine. If they wanted everyone to mourn their death or ill health, they should have made it easier on them beforehand.

And don't feel horrible if the idea that he could die soon gives you the strength to get through the family visits and support your mom and be civil to him. Use it.

There's a non-fiction book by Anneli Rufus called The Farewell Chronicles that talks about the varied emotions people feel toward death and the dying. It's extremely common not to feel mourning at all. It might make you feel more at peace to read it and know that you aren't awful for feeling whatever it is you feel. Even people with good relationships with their parents admitted to feeling a sense of freedom after both their parents died, for example; even when an event is mostly bad doesn't mean it's wrong to acknowledge that it changes things in some positive ways. I'm not a big proponent of making extra suffering for ourselves when we don't have to, especially when there's already a good amount of suffering inherent to something like dealing with a death.
posted by Nattie at 10:45 PM on September 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Also, I want to add, I don't think that forcing ourselves to feel bad actually makes anyone feel better in the end. It's difficult to feel at peace with anything when you're really trying to shoehorn it into some mold of "good" or "bad" and lay down some final judgment, because part of you is always aware things don't fit perfectly and you can't settle on anything. That creates a lot of inner conflict and dwelling on the negative stuff, and unresolved feelings are only bad when you feel they demand a resolution.

For example, I look back on my parents' relationship and I see my mom being cruel to my dad a lot too, especially later in life when she was just kind of dismissive of his health concerns or honestly mean about them sometimes, when it was clear my dad was deeply depressed and in a lot of pain. She would also tell him it was all in his head and the reason he wasn't getting better was mental blocks, because she believes in a bunch of woo-woo stuff like that, so she essentially blamed him for being sick every day. But she also took complete care of him, and it's not like he was blameless given how he treated her earlier in the relationship and how he continued to treat her later. There are any number of ways I could cast things or try to place blame or whatever to get a "resolution," but none of that would make me feel any better. Instead, I just see a fucked up dynamic that both of them fed in different ways, and I don't really know where it started, and it is what it is. It wouldn't do me any good to pretend either of them were perfect or villains, it would just make me confused and conflicted -- and blind, really, which isn't helpful. Being able to acknowledge the good in the bad is an important survival skill, and being able to acknowledge the bad in the good is important for perspective. Both are important for real empathy, and I wouldn't trade that to appease any social pressure to feel aggrieved when someone dies. Good people can do bad things and bad people can do good things and you can feel fine when someone dies and it's all what it is and nothing more. If I caved into the pressure that it's super important to feel bad, and only bad, about my dad dying, you know what would happen? I'd need years of therapy that would essentially amount to reassuring me it was fine not to feel bad about my dad dying. So let's just skip all that, yeah?

So if you feel like it's stupid or it doesn't make sense to mourn someone who's acted the way your father has, you're not crazy. There are so many types of deaths and types of people and types of relationships that it's laughable there would be only one reaction society finds acceptable. If anyone judges you for it, they're not very rational or empathetic and you can discount their criticism without feeling too conflicted about it.
posted by Nattie at 11:02 PM on September 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

We used to have an expression, back in the AIDS advocacy and healthcare movement days: "an asshole with AIDS is still an asshole." Diseases like cancer or HIV don't need to automatically change our perception of or relations to people. In fact, that's reducing them to their disease, in a sense.

You don't have to treat your dad any different. He sounds like he was kind of a dick! Now he's a dick with cancer. It happens. You certainly don't have to feel any different about him--you particularly don't have to try to engineer feelings about this, since you don't have them organically at this time! You don't have to deal with him at all, really.

Your mom could probably use your support, as much as you're willing to give. But she doesn't need you to toe a family line. I think the appropriate tactic in these cases is the "quiet dodge." No need to make a spectacle; just opt out of the b.s.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 6:36 AM on September 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

Been there -- done that.

My father was a monster, capable of doing or saying anything to get his way. He was also highly intelligent, had many friends and was financially (though not emotionally) generous.

I gritted my teeth and got away and stayed away as soon as I could. Only as he lay dying, blind, incontinent and unable to stay alive without constant medical attention, I made a sort of reconciliation by rubbing moisturizer into one arm and talking about our mutual love of music.

It was a small gesture, and meaningful, but hardly enough to make up for a lifetime of distance and cruelty. And I waited until it was clear that he was helpless.

He's gone, and I can hardly pretend that I'm sorry. I'm living my life with a few good memories of him and constantly thankful that I don't have to endure his emotional haymakers any more.

You live your life as well as you can. For your mother's sake, let him be sick, and let him eventually die, without disparaging him. He richly earned your lack of sympathy toward him. Nothing you can do about it now. Just keep going forward.
posted by KRS at 7:20 AM on September 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to throw in some sympathy here. It's hard when you have a complicated/negative relationship with the person who is ill. My Mom died; I had a pretty good relationship with her by that point but a troubled one with my father. I still feel bad about not spending enough time with my mother during that period, because I just couldn't deal with my father. As bad as I feel, though, I don't really think I could have done much different. I think you just have to try to find a balance between helping your other family members and getting traumatized over again to the point where you are no help to anyone. And try to cut your other family members some slack for how they handle it; it's a hard time for everyone.
posted by BibiRose at 9:12 AM on September 28, 2011

You can't force your feelings and you shouldn't take on the job of trying to fake them. You can, however, put them in the background while you are there and decide to behave in a way that is most helpful to your mother. How you are going to behave is in your control. You don't have to talk to her or anyone about your feelings for your father right now, during this process if you don't want to.

I strongly encourage you, though, to find a therapist one day, maybe a little sooner than you might have planned, to help you see what peace you can find with your feelings and grievances about your father. Forgiving him is in no the same thing as saying it was ok the way he treated your mother or he was not wrong. Just the opposite. The forgiving is so that you can have peace and not be so full of old pain and anger about his behavior that you find one day things you say or do are beginning to sound like some of those words and look like some of those behaviors. The forgiving is for you to give that up. It is to say, it stops here. I believe he was a boy once and he became a man without ever learning this thing you have a chance to learn now.

This is going to be hard and the feelings you will have to work on in time to come. But for now, you can decide to love your mother.
posted by Anitanola at 10:10 PM on September 28, 2011

Am I wrong to not have strong mourning feelings towards my dad's cancer?

Nope. I was in a pretty similar situation with similar behavior from my father. We weren't very close and had a rather antagonistic relationship. I didn't get much support or encouragement, mainly lots of criticism, lashing out, and avoidance. I was in high school and still living with my family when my father was diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer. He lived another year and a half. We had a family grief counselor that ended up doing some personal consultation with me as well which seriously helped me in a number of ways. I actually asked him almost this same question: I wasn't very sad about it, in some ways it was a relief to know I wouldn't have to deal with his behavior/issues anymore. He told me that it was perfectly normal to feel that way and it certainly didn't negate any other feelings I had or mean that I was a sociopath or anything.

As time progressed and he faced his death, he faced up to a lot of issues in his life and seemed to gain some peace with himself. Seeing him as this frail person at the end of his life also changed my views of him. We're all people, we're all fallible, and we're all going to die; what really matters? I ended up reconnecting with him in some ways before he passed, at least in that he was my father, I was his son, and there was love there despite the issues we'd had. It was easier for me to forgive him and move on once he was gone, but I didn't truly cry until I encountered the grief of his friends and family during the wake and funeral. Even if that doesn't happen for you, though, just consider it one of many feelings you have and accept it for how it is. Everybody grieves (or doesn't) in their own ways.
posted by nTeleKy at 1:36 PM on September 30, 2011

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