Finding evidence of verbal and emotional abuse after parent passed
September 23, 2023 12:04 PM   Subscribe

My sweet father passed away last month. While going through his papers, I found contemporaneous notes that my dad was taking over a number of years describing the verbal and emotional abuse being leveled at him by my mother. What now?

These notes described the things she would say to him such as "all of our friends don't like you, I can't believe you don't know that", calling him an idiot in front of friends, "I never should have married you", "[Your medical condition(that eventually led to his early death)] ruined my retirement" or describing her demeanor as "mean" "cruel" "verbally abusive." Or him driving down the road and her putting her middle finger in his face from the passenger seat, just really disrespectful stuff. I don't know for sure why he wrote them down, some were on receipts, or post-its, or scraps of paper. But I don't doubt these accounts at all, they were certainly part of a pattern of behavior. I can't say I'm shocked, I've been on the receiving end of similar behavior, but the degree of cruelty described is shocking. Throughout the notes is the insinuation that my dad ruined my mom's life (for no reason in particular, just for being him). My dad was a tremendously sweet, calm, gentle, go-with-the-flow person. He was a great dad.

I don't know what to do with this knowledge, not like I want to hatch a plan for revenge, but just for my healing. I'm heartbroken already. My dad's decline and death was horrible and painful and sad, he passed well before his time. But to know that he was being treated so cruelly, especially after a debilitating medical event a few years ago further breaks my heart. And frankly, it makes me rethink my childhood to know my mom was that deeply unhappy that she treated my father in such a way. She could have just left, her happiness was on her to work out.

How do I move forward grieving and grieving the abuse he suffered? I have a limited relationship with my mom already, maintaining access to my dad required some semblance of a relationship with her. but now really thinking through how I want that relationship to work. We had daily contact to coordinate his care over the last year, but in my head I treated her like a coworker working towards a shared goal of his care. She made a vile joke about the way she found him in what would be his final moments at home earlier in the year and I lost it (she perfunctorily said "sorry" to end the conversation but never truly apologized). I ended up staying with my sister throughout the course of my dad's care. Do I tell my sister? Do I confront my mom? Do I just sit with this and try and try to move on? I've been in therapy for a few years unpacking mom stuff anyways. But I just want to give my dad a hug and tell him that he did not deserve any of that. And I'm feeling guilty for not knowing and not doing more even though I understand that isn't my role as the child in this situation. But still. This has made my early, deep grief much more complicated and any thoughts or perspective on moving forward would be helpful, thank you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm sorry for your loss and for your history of an abusive parent. I would not confront your mom, unless you think it would be cathartic regardless of how she responded. I would share this info with your therapist, and perhaps brainstorm with them symbolic activities that could be like giving your dad a metaphorical hug. I would also cut your mom off, permanently. Block all communication from her. As for whether you tell your sister, I would if it would be helpful for you to unload this information and/or if you think this information would help your sister cut off your mom (who I imagine is abusive to her as well?). Again, so sorry you have to deal with so much right now - if you were my friend I'd prioritize doing nice things for you, which is to say, feel free to lean hard on your close friends.
posted by coffeecat at 12:15 PM on September 23 [4 favorites]

Obviously there is a lot more for you to work through this but I would start with the part that is between you and your dad, honoring the love and caring that binds your hearts.

I think right now you just need to tell your dad how all of this is making you feel - sorry you are that he went through that, how sad you are that that was his reality, how you wish could have somehow, magically made it better for him. If you are cemetery person, maybe you can go the gravesite and have a long talk with him. If maybe write a letter and, if it feels right, burn the letter to send it up to heaven to him. Or ask your therapist to help you process what you wish you could say to your father, even though he can't be there to hear it.

And then, after you have shared your thoughts and feelings with your dad, imagine what he might say back. Remember, this is not new to him - this was his life and he made his own choices about he dealt with it.

I would give yourself permission to process your own feelings and work through how this impacts your relationship with your dad before you decide how to deal with your mother and your sister. It may be easier to figure out how you want to handle it with them when you feel a little more settled within yourself.
posted by metahawk at 1:40 PM on September 23 [8 favorites]

If it gives you any solace, it seems to me your dad wrote these things down because he knew your mother's behavior was problematic. This means to me that he knew she was wrong.

Abusive behavior is terrible no matter what, but maybe the idea that your father saw it for what it was might help. Knowing his thought was likely "Wow, her behavior is terrible," rather than "Wow, I am terrible person" might reframe this for you a bit.

Plus all the things the posters before me said. Therapy, No contact or low contact with you mother, etc.
posted by CleverClover at 1:56 PM on September 23 [19 favorites]

If I discovered such notes, I would unquestionably, without anger, make my mother aware of them and then never speak to her again.

The world can be a terrible place. As a grown person, I have no patience, time, love, or excuses for people who spend their days making others' lives miserable.

Sorry for the loss of your dad and the discovery about your mother.
posted by dobbs at 2:42 PM on September 23 [7 favorites]

I'm so sorry. I think your sweet dad did not tell you these details long ago because he, too, recognized there's no good role for offspring to play in those marital dynamics. You were already maintaining good boundaries with her, and seeing a therapist; please, keep taking good care of yourself.

You don't need to do anything about his notes right now. But I think your discovery should inform one matter in particular, as you're thinking through how you'd like to interact with your mother going forward. You stayed with your sister during the course of your father's care, so I would think she lives near your mom? If you don't have a "Team Siblings" plan in place for your mother (management in an emergency, or care in the event of age-related decline), please talk that over with your therapist and then with your sister.
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:27 PM on September 23 [2 favorites]

Oh, wow. This is really tough. Sending you lots of compassion here.

Perhaps it was helpful for your dad to write all this down, because it was a way of witnessing and acknowledging to himself if no one else that what was happening was not okay. Perhaps he knew someone might find them someday?

Also, I want to comment on this:
And frankly, it makes me rethink my childhood to know my mom was that deeply unhappy that she treated my father in such a way. She could have just left, her happiness was on her to work out.

I don't know a ton about the patterns of abuse in families and relationships, but I think it's likely the case that both of your families parents were stuck in this terrible dynamic. I don't think it's quite right that your mom was this way towards your dad because she was unhappy. More that they both were likely playing out patterns they had experienced in earlier relationships because they didn't know another way.

They each could have left, and they were each stuck. And if your mom had left, she likely would have repeated that relationship pattern elsewhere. My guess is that her parents or other caregivers had a similar dynamic. Your mom likely needs someone to blame, but I wouldn't put much stock in this notion of her just being in a relationship with the wrong person.

This is definitely worth exploring with your therapist. You asked if you should tell your sister. Do you all have open and trusting communication? Do you discuss their relationship? If so, it's worth considering, through I'd talk to your therapist first. I'd also say not to tell her if you see any of those traits of your mom in your sister.

Also, I'd also say this is the kind of situation where, if you can afford it, it's worth it to call your therapist for an extra session.
posted by bluedaisy at 4:27 PM on September 23 [2 favorites]

I'd strongly advise you not to confront your mother (yet). Sit with this by yourself, work through your feelings now with a therapist and also process your recollections from your childhood with them, use therapy to interrogate and understand your relationship (lack thereof) with your mother, and really come to terms with the story of your life, your home, your parents, and your childhood by yourself.

When you feel calm and settled inside, you may be able to share this journal with your mother in an attitude of curiosity rather than categorical judgment, accusation, and raw grief/anger. Because what you want - what you REALLY want - is to understand their story more completely, to hear her retelling of their life together to round out his, to ask her questions about this or that finer point not to pin her down but to fill out a wider picture of their relationship from other angles. You want to know exactly why she treated your father in those abominable ways: what was she experiencing, what was going through her mind, what led her to choose this reaction instead of a better one when faced with a challenging moment, how your dad reacted, what meaning they both made of it afterwards when they talked (or didn't talk) about what had happened, what she feels now seeing what your dad wrote in his journal, etc etc etc. All of this is what you really want, and you will not get it via confrontation. You will only get it if you can reach a place of curiosity, of treating even an abuser as if she is a human being whose story is worth listening to.

Then you can take these stories and go away and sit with them on your own again, and talk them through with a therapist and piece it all together with your own story of your childhood too, and ultimately make meaning of it for yourself.

The bottomline will always be that YOU need to feel calm and steady inside yourself. Don't get confused and think that this is about justice or giving your mother her comeuppance or taking a stand or making a statement to show you will never tolerate abuse. Those things matter sometimes, but not really here.

You may think you need an apology, but I submit to you that there is no apology that would satisfy you. You may think you need to see her remorseful, but I submit to you that there is no movie style third-act moral victory you can achieve over your mother as the moving background score moves to crescendo. The things you are imagining will feel good to you are not even properly defined, because mostly the outcomes you want are always going to be hidden inside someone else's head and you can never know you have what you want even if you do. Stop reaching for easy resolutions, there are none to be had.

I'm so sorry for your loss, and so sorry that you are finding painful details about your father's life with your mother. It may be a long journey for you to find your peace with all this, but I promise it will be worth it.
posted by MiraK at 9:18 PM on September 23 [3 favorites]

Mod note: One deleted. Please remember the purpose of Ask Metafilter is to help the OP with their question, not to discuss, chat, or argue with other commenters about the topic. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:47 PM on September 23

It took me years to reconcile the similar information I got after a beloved relative died. It was found by me in a similar fashion, so I really feel you here. I had to wrestle really hard with the urge to Do Something and coming up dry for what that something might be. For me, it really helped to dive into essays and books and other information about ableism, because that’s what this is. It helped me to understand the extent to which this is not a unique experience and that the thing I can Do is talk about ableism and the ways it leads to real suffering for disabled people. It is not harmless for people to hold these views privately because it emboldens people like your mom to act them out.

I don’t know whether that will be helpful for you. I often work out my feelings by finding something to Do about them so that other people aren’t harmed in the same way, since the past is fixed and unchanging.

I also found that it gave a whole new dimension to my grief, and that engaging with the “grief community” helped me make sense of it. It’s an unbearable sadness for me sometimes still, and I still sometimes wonder if I ought to Do something. But the past already happened, I can witness and honor it by trying to help other people not be in that situation. Your dad deserved better, and I am so sorry. It is heavy to hold.
posted by Bottlecap at 12:09 AM on September 24

My heart goes out to you. I am so sorry this discovery has compounded your grief about your dad and about not having the mother you might have wanted. I agree with 99% of what other posters have said so I'll just add one thing.

If one of the things you need is zero contact with your mother, I encourage you to use this as your catalyzing opportunity to cut her off completely. If you wanted to let her know why--that you found all these notes--you don't have to have a face to face confrontation. You can just send a letter, drop the mic forever, and be done with it. I have an abusive narcissistic mother, also incredibly cruel like yours. When I sent her a letter to cut her off (one of three times before the recent, final time) I wanted her to know why I was doing it, but I didn't want an argument. I also wanted her to sit with the black and white truth of it on paper, rather than be able to misconstrue/misremember words spoken verbally. I found this to be most effective for my own healing, because my anger and grief was all focused on the precipitating causes, not the one-time confrontation. I wanted to get right to the feelings about her shitty behavior, without having to be subjected to additional shitty behavior.

A confrontation won't change anything, won't convince her of anything, and won't result in an apology or acceptable explanation.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 4:23 AM on September 24 [2 favorites]

I would not confront your mother with this - at least not yet. Based on my experiences with people who engage in this kind of abuse, this kind of conversation never leads anywhere good. If you do one day confront her, make sure that you are prepared for her to lie, to get angry, to make you into the bad guy, to make your father into the bad guy. I would not do it now when the loss is so raw. Read up about DARVO - you should be prepared for that kind of response if you do ever bring it up to her.

Definitely work it out with a therapist. If/when you feel comfortable, talk it out with friends. As for your sister, how close are you with her? Do you and she share a similar outlook as far as your mother (before you found out that information - since it sounds like this is in line with a view you already had of your mother, just more extreme)? I think it's reasonable to share with her if you two are close and had similar views of your parents - you shouldn't have to feel like you're hiding this. But if she has a more charitable view of your mother, if she makes excuses for her, then that conversation may be more difficult.
posted by litera scripta manet at 1:23 PM on September 24 [1 favorite]

Similar to Bottlecap's recognition of the "Do Something" urge - process that urge as an emotion rather than a call to action, for now. When we are confronting something startling and unfixable, Do Something and Fix It Now are emotions you are going to feel, and it's normal to feel them, and you should make a point to get further down the road before you even make any decisions about actions to take, much less take them.

It is okay to let this simmer a while. There's not much to be done, nothing pressing anyway. This doesn't tell you anything you didn't already pretty much know about your mother. If your therapist hasn't recommended Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, you might run that suggestion past them - they may want to go in a different direction, but it might be something that can help you collect your thoughts.

Be careful about the narrative you build for yourself here. Your father shouldn't have been treated that way, nobody should, but he was an adult making adult choices that you maybe don't need to grieve on his behalf. Grieve YOUR loss, and recognize you may also be grieving the safe and protective parental relationship you deserved as a child too and are having to process as maybe even more complicated than you'd told yourself it was. But also be careful creating lore that frames your mother as simply "unhappy". She was an adult making choices too.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:29 AM on September 25 [2 favorites]

I'm sorry your dad experienced this, and I'm sorry you came into this information. It seems to me to be the kind of thing that will be processed over the course of years, woven in with your processing of what your own relationship with your mom has been like, and it might be useful for your own healing to frame your expectations in that way- that the time scale of what happened is long, and the time scale of integrating this new awareness is likely to be as well. It's a heavy burden of knowledge to carry.

I want to reflect and validate: You were the kid. It wasn't your job or responsibility to save him, and you couldn't have if you tried. That's grown-up stuff. And, adult though you are, you are the kid still; your dad has passed away but it is good for you to observe the same emotional boundaries and divisions of responsibility as you would with the living. It is awful, awful that your dad was abused. And any guilt belongs with your mom, not you.

I think metahawk's suggestion to talk to you dad about it directly is really valuable. I have had some real catharsis come from getting myself into the woods by a rushing stream, in a place I knew I was alone, and talking and crying out loud. I really think there's something to using your voice to communicate your sorrow.

As to whether or not to tell your sister, it depends a lot on your relationship and her relationship to your parents. If you think she is likely to deny or minimize the abuse, side with your mom, or just not be emotionally sensitive to how much you're hurting having learned about it all, I would wait until the wound is not so fresh. If she is a good friend in addition to being your sister and you can support one another through this, then maybe- in this case, for her sake, making sure to ask if she is okay with hearing about some heavy information before sharing.

Sending care to you, for this, for the loss of you dad, and for how it's been to be the child of your mom.
posted by wormtales at 7:29 AM on September 25

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