My brother died four days ago. My father is coping by being abusive.
March 7, 2014 11:41 AM   Subscribe

My brother passed away on Monday. My father is coping by lashing out. What do I do?

My brother passed away on Monday after an 18 year battle with mental illness. The circumstances of his death were horrible if not entirely unexpected.

My husband, toddler son and I went down on Tuesday for the funeral Thursday morning. On Wednesday I spent the better part of the day with my parents seeing to the funeral arrangements and making telephone calls to shore up loose ends. I went through my brother's belongings. I ran errands with them, and went with them to the cemetery to choose a plot. After leaving the cemetery, my father attacked me for not answering a question. That's it. He asked me a question, I was talking to my mother and was finishing a thought when he raised his voice at me, demanding that I answer his question. I told hiim I was finishing a thought and had intended to answer him. (This, by the way, is bog standard behavior on my father's part. His feelings are a mystery to him and, thus, he creates conflict in order to have somewhere outside of himself to put his emotions. Psychotic, raging narcissist.) He then started screaming in my face, making threats, mocking me, and hurling very personal, insulting invective at me for the better part of an hour. I somehow managed to hold my tongue and deflect most of it, pointing out to him that my brother's passing was the point, that I was there to be supportive and loving, and that there was, in my view, no basis for the conflict. I repeatedly said I was sorry for my father's grief and that I loved him and my mother (a stretch but I wanted to put the outburst to bed quickly.) Well, this only threw gas on the flames and, toward the end, he started pushing some pretty big buttons and calling me names. I'm sorry to say I rose to the bait. All of this happened in a moving vehicle, by the way, and by the time we'd gotten to where we were going I was very close to getting physically violent with him. I got out of the car, called him a motherfucker, and walked it off. Obviously, this was not my proudest moment.

My father's and my issues are myriad and deep. I despise him, really, and the only reason I have anything to do with him is that he and my mother are still together. She is very important to me and I am determined to maintain our relationship. I consider my relationship with my dad irretrievably broken. I am polite to him out of respect for my mother but I think were my mother to pass before him I would write him off. I feel tremendous guilt saying this because he is my father. At the same time, it is a matter of self-preservation. My duty is to myself, my husband and my son.

Anyway, in the wake of my brother's death, at 42, my parents are understandably bereft. They are alone now, facing the emptiness of a life without my brother and his illness to tend to, without the good parts of my brother that they were able to catch glimpses of in his more lucid, stable periods. They are also left with the horror of how he died, which was gruesome and sad, and which my mother was present for. I am not there. I chose to come home rather than stay for a few days because I cannot allow myself to be abused by my father, particularly as it would mean either keeping my 19-month old son with me in a crazy house (he is in the process of weaning off breastfeeding) or sending him home with my husband and being away from him for the first time. I feel a lot of guilt about not being present for my mother. I can cope with this guilt but I need to find a way to support my mother and handle my father, who insists on being on the phone for every telephone call I have with my mother, and who has already been verbally abusive with me this morning over the phone.

I have a call in to my therapist but I would appreciate hearing some coping strategies from some of you. How would you cut your abusive parent off at the pass? How would you allow your parents their grief without becoming the target for your abusive parents' rage and guilt? Bear in mind that my father has zero insight into his own inner-workings, projects wildly in every scenario, and has absolutely no compunction about name-calling and bullying, and who is incapable of allowing for differences of opinion and coping style. He's also very parochial and rigid in his thinking.
posted by TryTheTilapia to Human Relations (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You did the right thing. If your mom wants your comfort, she can come to you.

You are not this man's punching bag, and it's okay to yell back and to fight back, so don't feel bad about it.

If and when you speak to your mother, you can tell her, "I love you and I want to be there for you, but I'm not EVER to be spoken to like that again. I don't care how fucked up he is emotionally, I matter too, and if he won't stop being abusive to me, and you won't stop him from being abusive to me, then I am not putting myself or any member of my family in that situation.

That's that.

Your mother has chosen her horse. She can get off and choose again, if she likes, but until then, she's with your father.

It sucks, but there it is.

Don't feel guilty, you did NOTHING wrong.

I'm so sorry for your loss. It sounds like issues with mental health run in your family, and that your dad has some serious unresolved issues as well.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:48 AM on March 7, 2014 [49 favorites]

Oh, sweetie, I'm so, so sorry. This is a situation with multiple LEVELS of awfulness, and my heart goes out to you.

The first thing that came to mind regarding your dad was a little odd, but apt, I think. It was what Dan Savage tells gay kids who are having issues with their parents: "The only leverage you have is your presence in their lives." If he's an ass, you leave, immediately (whether by walking away, or hanging up, or what have you). This will make is somewhat trickier to maintain a relationship with your mom, who I understand is important to you.

I'd try to get your mom alone as soon as possible, just to let her know that you love her, and you're there for her 100%, but that you can only communicate with her if your dad is either, 1. Behaving appropriately, or, 2. Not present. Let her know that if she needs some time away from him, you'll always be there - his behavior certainly can't be easy for her, either. I would try to frame it as positively as possible, e.g. "you and I are both caregivers, and we're both wounded, and we have to protect ourselves and each other as best we can at this time."
posted by julthumbscrew at 11:50 AM on March 7, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'd encourage you to repost this on

It's a small and extremely supportive/tight-knit community that I have frequented, where your stories are--sadly--common. And people have really great supportive attitudes and views towards how to deal/cope.

Best of luck.
posted by jjmoney at 11:57 AM on March 7, 2014 [19 favorites]

I am estranged from my own dad and it's a really hard thing to do at first, but it does get easier. I had a lot of guilt during the first year or so, and a lot of pain, and now--it's pretty much down to a slight wistfulness when people ask me how he's doing and I tell them that we're not in touch. But way, way less pain than when I was having to deal with him all the time. There is no way to make it immediately easy, but it does get easier pretty fast. If your mom wants contact, she can make contact. They're adults; they have to be responsible for their own lives, you aren't responsible for them.
posted by Sequence at 12:03 PM on March 7, 2014

Dad, if you continue talking to me like that, I'll have to hang up." And then hang up. Consistency is key here.

You could also try calling your mom via Skype and have her use headphones so your dad can't hear the conversation. Or get her a Bluetooth headset for her cell phone. This won't help you cope with your dad boy it'll make it easier to support your mom at least.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 12:09 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wow, jjmoney. Thank you for posting the link to that forum, it looks amazing.

To the OP:

How would you cut your abusive parent off at the pass?

I find that there is no cutting these people off at the pass. And I think telling yourself there must be something that you could do or say to prevent or stop it or slow it down, can sometimes be a really counterproductive way of thinking about it. Because in a way it's still blaming yourself for the abuse, putting the responsibility on your own shoulders. If only you had said something different, done something different, been different, you could have stopped the abuse. That's the classic big lie, right?

My abuser hit me a lot, but strangely she always seemed to need a "justification" for it first -- no matter how much of a crazy stretch it was. If she wanted to hit me, but I was perfect and there was nothing she could possibly find, then she would start to taunt me. It was relentless. If I did my best to stay in control (and I actually feel like I had an far above average amount of self control as a kid), she would just keep dialing it up, and up. Eventually of course I would break, and then she would start hitting me.

There was nothing I could have done. The only thing that worked was getting big enough that I couldn't be hit, and then growing up and moving out and cutting contact so I couldn't be baited and taunted.

So, I don't think you need to blame yourself for how your father acts, even if you are only blaming yourself to the extent of "there must be something I can do to stop him from treating me this way."

However, there is one thing that I have found to help me with abusive, crazy people in life. Film them. When they start going off, don't say anything don't react, just lift up your phone and silently film.

This does not lower the temperature of the other person's behavior at all. This can really make people go more nuts than you have ever seen. But, doing it, I feel like all the power is back with me. It makes me feel very calm and sometimes even amused.

About the car thing, if you are trapped with him in a car and he starts acting like a psycho, just say to whoever is driving, "Please pull the car over. Either he is getting out of the car or I am."
posted by cairdeas at 12:17 PM on March 7, 2014 [17 favorites]

You can correspond with your mom by email or regular mail. I'm sure your dad will read those emails/letters, too, but at least he can't be abusive to you while you're writing. With phone or in person, you have to end the interaction with him when he starts abusing, which means you don't get to have the interaction you want with your mom. At least with email/letters, you can get everything you want to say to her out onto the page without having to suddenly hang up or leave due to his behavior.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 12:18 PM on March 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

If you have a hard time doing this for yourself (as sadly a lot of us do) do it for your son. You can't be that far away from him that long; being in the middle of a scene like that is traumatizing and possibly dangerous. A traumatized and hurting mom is also not the best thing for him. He is growing every day, and the more moves you take for your own mental health now, the better it will be for him as well as for you. Focus on making your current family strong and loving; you can't do that if you're constantly being pulled back into the wreckage of your previous family.

All you really have to do, at this point is not engage and not go back. That's all. You don't have to feel good about it, or refuse to grieve, although you do have to not let your misplaced guilt over your mother's chosen misery make you do something foolish, like engage with your father again (or let her draw you into that engagement). You don't have to understand why things are the way they are, or try to parse out something you could have done, or anything at all. You just have to stay put and not engage.

So start there, and then work with your therapist on the rest.

I wanted to call this out:

I'm sorry to say I rose to the bait. All of this happened in a moving vehicle, by the way, and by the time we'd gotten to where we were going I was very close to getting physically violent with him. I got out of the car, called him a motherfucker, and walked it off. Obviously, this was not my proudest moment.

You seem to think you are supposed to have some sort of supernatural calm and strength in the face of vicious abuse, in the middle of a time of extreme trauma and grief. But you are not supernatural. You are a human being, and merely yelling, calling someone a motherfucker, and walking away is heroic restraint under the circumstances. It should actually be a proud moment; you walked away. You did what you had to do.
posted by emjaybee at 12:20 PM on March 7, 2014 [40 favorites]

It's more than okay to protect yourself by disengaging completely. If you wish to support your mother, communicate to her in whatever way you can that you can no longer have a relationship with your father and that you will always be there for her whenever she needs you.

Then stop. If she needs you, she can reach you, but you can't save her. You have to put your own oxygen mask on first.
posted by inturnaround at 12:25 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

You exercised admirable restraint. You should be proud that you walked away, and you should keep on walkin'. It's not your responsibility to contort yourself into whatever shape is necessary to accommodate him. Life is short. You and the non-toxic people in your life deserve the time and energy that you're spending trying to make this somehow okay, which it never will be.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 12:33 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's not that hard to write him off if you stop telling yourself that it's better and nobler to accept abuse because it comes from someone with similar genes.

The abuse is yours to accept or avoid. Your husband and son's ability to accept or avoid is limited for as long as you accept it yourself and require them to be in his presence, much as your own ability to accept or avoid, as a child, was limited by your mother's acceptance.

Stop talking to your father, and choose not to be in his presence anymore. You can meet your mother outside the home, speak with her on the phone, or have her come visit on her own. If she decides to stop choosing this life for herself, you can help her leave.

Walking away was the appropriate thing to do. Let that become the new reality.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:50 PM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

In rereading my comment, I may have come off as hectoring/lecturing the OP, but what I was actually going for is support and encouragement. It's hard to get that across in type without body language or facial expressions.

So: OP, you are coping amazingly well with a near-impossible situation, and even though it hurts, you just can't blame yourself for not being able to extricate your mother.
posted by emjaybee at 12:57 PM on March 7, 2014

I'm so sorry for your loss.

As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Your father is reaping the fruits of his life. It's not your fault. So instead of spending time beating yourself up because you feel like a failure because you can't fix him, allow him some of your head space and grieve for his loss.

Ex. thought process: "JFC, I can't believe how horrible I am. He's my father! I'm supposed to honor and respect him, and here I am hating him! But wait, why am I hating him? Because he does all these horrible things. Is it my fault? Is he reacting to my actions? No, he's choosing to act this way. Did I do something wrong? No, he decided that this was how he wanted to live his life. But isn't there anything I can do for him? No, there really isn't."

Be mad at him, in your head. Be sad for him, go through your grief processes, whatever. But always keep coming back to this thought, that it's his choice, and that it's out of your hands.
posted by disconnect at 1:21 PM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

:( awful. So sorry you are having to deal with so much and with a small baby too. There are certain parallels in my own story and use, it might or might not surprise you that cutting off a narc parent was something I never, ever regretted. I took a lot of shit for it from other people but I categorically knew I had to do it to survive and it was the biggest statement I could make. It was hurting me too much.. if you're raised in these dysfunctional homes as so many are.. you're capacity to take shit can be extreme, but you don't have to. I agree, baby will probably be the motivator as 'we' are not raised to care for our own needs in this madness. We are told that's selfish/unreasonable.. that we are the problem. I never cried for the estrangement. Oddly enough we are no longer estranged, I'll never ever be 'got' by this person who made me and neither will you. You can only hope you have a measure of them and to break the cycle of dysfunction.

Very difficult with the dynamic with mum. (I get it!!!). Brace yourself for her passive aggressive/manipluative attempts to guilt trip you.. re estrangement. This may well not be her way but something she has learned amidst the narcissistic pathology.

Caring for you is not bad. Everyone has their limits and you are entitled to yours.

Sorry about your brother and that you can't have what you need from where you came from :(
posted by tanktop at 1:21 PM on March 7, 2014

I'm wondering if your father isn't terribly ill himself. Unfortunately some kinds of mental illness do have a genetic component-or at least a predisposition.

Your mom loves you and I know she does not want you to endure what your father is dishing out. Presumably she knows how to get in touch with you.

I am so very sorry.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:46 PM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your son.

Bless you. I'm so sorry for your loss and for this situation.

I would be you if I had not chosen my husband and son over my family.

I want you to protect your son at all costs, keep him and yourself, away from this madness.

Ruthless Bunny is right that your mother has chosen her situation in some ways, and I noticed in your explanation you don't seem to grok she has agency. She can leave your father.

I don't know how to help your mother, a fully grown adult dealing with a terrible shock and trauma. I don't know.

Perhaps you can report your mom's situation to some sort of abuse bureau, and they can get a private word with your mom and offer her services and sanctuary - not that she'll take them up on it - but you can try. Ask your therapist for domestic violence resources. Start making calls. Maybe you could refer your mom to a social worker or grief counselor as a sneaky way if getting her the services she REALLY needs? But there is nothing directly that you can do here. Sorry.

Overall, tho, I think the only person you can help here is your son, and you do that by keeping yourself and your husband as far away from your father as possible.

Your answer is to focus on your son and keep him safe and happy, including by taking care of yourself.

I'm sorry. I could not save my mom or brother, either. But my son is a JOY.

It's the best we can do as ourselves parents to protect our children from the mistakes of the past. I hope this is some comfort. *hug*
posted by jbenben at 4:49 PM on March 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

She is very important to me and I am determined to maintain our relationship.

Listen, I'm sorry if this is off base, okay? It is what I would tell a friend, though, and it's what I'd tell myself. She's your mom. You are not her mom. She is, was, and always will be, responsible for protecting you. Not the other way around. She has chosen a relationship with a man who terrorizes you over her relationship with you. I think that fundamentally sucks and I think that is a choice she made. My suggestion to you is to walk away to preserve your mental health and perspective, which sounds top-notch. Maybe your mom can figure out the problem of how to reach out to you without your dad on the line, but that's on her, not on you.

I'm really, really sorry you're going through this. It sounds dreadful and I hope you get to talk it out as much as possible with as many people as possible until you feel sorted out, whatever it takes. I hope you minimize your contact with these people as much as possible, and pull away so you can heal from it.

I'm terribly sorry for your loss.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:51 PM on March 7, 2014 [14 favorites]

Woops - what did I miss here? tanktop warns you to brace yourself for your mother's passive aggressive/manipulative moves - ??

Is there something in the OP's post that indicates a mother who is part of the father's game? All through this thread I keep wondering if the mother is safe. There seems to be a consensus that mother is willingly putting up with this behavior from both son and husband and therefore she's just as culpable, but it's just as common for a woman to be trapped in a marriage with a lunatic - in this case, two lunatics - violent, threatening, abusive, and she's afraid to do anything except take it. The OP remains close to her mother and determined to remain in contact with her - to me, that indicates that her mother is a caring person who could very possibly be in danger herself.

I would say to the OP - you did the right thing. You, as an individual, are not ever, ever expected to take such abuse from anyone - I don't care if it is your parent. I would have no contact with your father under any circumstances if you're afraid of him. If you think your mother is in danger, that's a whole 'nuther subject, but it's still not your responsibility to take on your father. It might be necessary, if that's the case, to get the police involved - certainly if you think your mother has been hurt by your father. Every city has a domestic violence prevention group that can help dramatically if that's the situation with your mother.

You take care of you and your baby first. And your husband, obviously. Help your mother if she wants you to - or if you think she wants you to but she's afraid - via outside agencies, but do not personally interact with your father.

That's my 4 cents.
posted by aryma at 6:11 PM on March 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

Sounds like you handled it as best as possible. Reducing/eliminating future contact with him is probably your best bet. No explanations, justifications, excuses or accommodations. You have your life and family and that's much, much more important going forward.

There's a saying, Time wounds all heels.

With luck your father will come to grips with his behavior and own up to it. Mine did after my mother/his wife passed away. Sadly/fortuitously he passed a mere three weeks later. Now, it was no deathbed confession but I'm grateful to have had that brief time to have heard him try to unravel many decades of nonsense. Poor guy was a lot more troubled by it than he ever really let on. Didn't make up for the years of abuse, but it did offer some closure. It was truly sad watching all of it come crumbling down around him.

So don't rule out being a better person and keeping an eye out for when he's ready to come to grips with the mess he's made. Yeah, he might never stop being that way, but it's perhaps better to hold out hope for that possibility instead of anger.
posted by wkearney99 at 6:54 PM on March 7, 2014

I went through this for years and years including car incidents which were very scary. I tried everything but the change for me happened when I realized that I wanted to stay in this person's life but not at the expense of my own sanity/well being. How could I do this?

The person in question is not rational therefore any rational approach fails.

The only thing that has worked and continues to work is silence. I attend and remain silent. The fire burns itself out eventually with no added fuel from me.

I have come to have pity for the person who suffers in this way and detach myself from the outrageous and abusive content of their rages.

They apologize next day sometimes and sometimes not. I never mention it and life goes on. I am not hurt because I view the outbursts as the ravings of insanity and let it go.
posted by claptrap at 2:32 AM on March 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

Whatever boundary you want to set, make it as a boundary for you rather than for him. Instead of telling him not to raise his voice, for example, say that if he yells you will need to end the conversation/leave. It might sound like a false distinction, but I think it's better to make a change in your behavior than try to make him change his. That part is up to him. Of course he shouldn't be speaking or acting inappropriately around your son, but put the emphasis on your need to keep your son away from the anger, insults, and accusations.
posted by wryly at 2:31 PM on March 8, 2014

You did what you could do, and what you had the capacity to do.

Also - Look, this may seem flippant, but I find a little bit of hysteria can help in the wake of such frustration:
Notice what you called him? A Mother-F*****?
That is so accurate!
What do you have to apologise for? He is! He is your Mother's husband! Your father! He totally has done the act, and therefore is, a MotherF*****!
...And in that moment of truth, you very succinctly elucidated the relevance he has in your life.
As merely someone you put up with for the sake of your mother.
It's sad and frustrating that that is the situation, but it is also ok that you feel that, that you recognise that.

Anyway, how do you cut them off? That's a bag of trouble. Because even if you do successfully cut them off at the pass, then you're always thinking, maybe if I do something different, then everything will be ok. And often it's not under your control. Crazy is going to be crazy.
Still, there's a certain type of person who just reacts to deliberate non-aggression by trying even harder to get a rise out you, or treat you like a punching bag. Surprisingly, being a little bit snappy in return, can actually be better, less victim like or something. Of course, then you have to not escalate it. And kind of humour-snappy (see what I mean by how hard this is?). Especially something that makes you relatable (The literal line - Maybe I get that from you! I wouldn't have thought that would work, but I guess it's a bit of the narcissism).
Urgh, No. Sorry, it's impossible to explain, and it's not something you should have to try. I'm trying not to do this myself.
Don't apologise, or if you do, not more than once.

So, to the interruption thing, then - If you think I can keep track of more than one thing at a time at the moment, I can't. Gimme a moment!
Or like, it's ok, fine, you can ignore me later when I ask a question, and then we'll be square.
And y'know? That probably wouldn't work on your abusive person. They're all individual, and they're all the same, and they all work to get everyone jumping to their playbook, and it's ok that you won't.

Oh, and getting out of a car for a break is totally valid. Straight out, walking off, is sometimes the healthiest thing you can do.
posted by Elysum at 8:57 PM on March 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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