Grief and Loyalty: Mending a Mother-Daughter Relationship

Hi Liz,

I have been wanting to ask you this for some time. My father died four years ago. I feel as though my mother resents me. She forbids me from seeing his family (I do anyway). She has not talked to me in five months. I know people grieve differently, but do you have any advice for me?

 

Dear Friend,

I am so sorry for the loss of your father, and I’m also sorry that you have temporarily lost your relationship with your mom. Unfortunately, if there is one thing about grief, it’s that it can never stay neatly compartmentalized—it spills into every corner of our life and brings up issues we didn’t even know existed.  Grief is messy—it holds a magnifying glass to a lifetime of unaddressed losses, and places front and center all of those confrontations we side stepped in order to keep the peace.  Any superficial veneer over any familial wounds gets torn away when we grieve.  From the sound of it, you are right in the middle of it, and you must be feeling pretty empty at times.  I hope I can offer some help.

First off, four years, while not a long time ago, is a good enough amount of time for the acute grief to have lifted. While I know nothing of your family history, I will presume that from your mother’s perspective, your father and/or his extended family, carry a good deal of responsibility for whatever suffering it is that she went through at some point—and the point to this is that you are not necessarily colliding with her grief, but with an old wound of hers that the grief has torn open.

Broadly speaking, loyalty and love are one and the same for many people:

If you love me, then you will not like those I dislike. If you love me, then anyone who has hurt me is someone you want nothing to do with.  If you love me, your solidarity with me will send a strong message to her/him/them—it will be your judgement of them coupled with mine. 

If you choose to see them, you are distant from me. If you like them, and they do not like me, then by default you are siding with them. 

And in parent-child relationships, it can become especially toxic:

After all I did for you…after being the one who stood by you when he/they did nothing to help. Why would you even want to stay close to people who did…(fill in the blank). 

It’s me or it’s them.

These reactions are normal. But normal does not mean optimal, healthy, or even okay.  By calling such behavior normal, I am inviting you to really try and understand your mom:  her pain, her fears, her demands.  I am inviting you to have compassion for your mom’s emotional reactions.  However, her needs cannot trump your adult need for contact with your extended family on your father’s side.

Here is a truth: Love doesn’t seek to control or manipulate.  And if we withdraw love when hurt/angry, we are most definitely seeking to control and manipulate a situation—in fact, withdrawing love is a sign that when we are in the midst of being swallowed up by our own pain, practicing genuine love is a real challenge—pain can make us self-centered, and when centered on our self, we lose sight for the one we feel love for—our child, our spouse, our friend…Your mom is “under water” right now, and her task is to be able to swim up to the surface and breathe deep, and then she will be able to see you, to hear you, to love you better than she is right now.  But the task of swimming up for air is work only she can do—she will have go deep before she can swim up—that’s “Self-love” and healing work, and it’s hard.  I’m pointing this out not to pass judgment on your mom, but rather to guide you into a place of compassion for her, so you can depersonalize her treatment of you in this moment.

To ask for the sort of loyalty your mom is asking for is essentially asking you to take care of her interior emotional life. As her child, this is not your job.

  1. You are an adult. No one, and certainly not a parent, can forbid you from seeing anyone. Her demand is indicative of the depth of her own pain. She can request, she can express herself honestly, but at some point, because she is your mom, the hope is that she can see you and love you through her own feelings.
  2. You can offer love to your mom while still maintaining the relationships you want and need to.

Here’s what I suggest: a letter.  But first, there is some work I am going to invite you to do:

  1. I want you to really explore why you want to see your extended family on dad’s side. This is not a judgment—it’s an invitation for you to explore what you need and what you get from those relationships. When you can touch what it is that they give to you, you will be in a better position to explain that to your mom, and then she, too, may be able to depersonalize your choice to continue seeing them.

    Children need to feel connected in some way to their parents—however broken or awful or absent is a non-issue—it is a primal and often sub-conscious drive to reach for them so that we can feel a sense of our own wholeness. What is it that your dad’s family provides for you, that you cannot find elsewhere?  Really take the time to reflect upon this.

  2. Set boundaries: Are your dad’s family members critical of your mom or unkind to her presently? If so, then I would invite you to set boundaries and be somewhat protective of her, as you would be of any person you cared for who was being wronged: If you need the words, try: She’s my mom—she is a wonderful person and I love her and if you are disrespectful or unkind to her I can’t see you any longer. You don’t have to like her, but you must respect her—she’s my mom.

    Can you have a “mom is off limits” rule, meaning your time with them is strictly about you and them?

  3. Finally, I want you to deeply reflect upon what the root of your mom’s pain is. While it is not your task to restore her, you will be better situated to speak with her in a deeply compassionate way if you come to understand what she may be feeling—really, truly, feeling. When someone can name our fears or sufferings, such care carries great love with it, and that sort of love gets people connecting again. You are two hurt people, and when there are two hurt people, someone must take the first bold step in the direction of compassion.

When it comes time to write your mom a letter, I suggest you begin by naming her feelings as you understand them—this takes great humility and tenderness. Then do your best to express your own needs and feelings, and work to depersonalize the situation for her—depersonalizing language might look like this: When I’m with them I feel some connection to my dad, and I need that. It’s not about disloyalty to you, it’s about finding my way to me through connecting in some way to dad.  I would certainly end with an invitation to see each other—let her know you will call, and do so after giving her some time.

I’ll leave you with this: When we reach adulthood, we are free to choose relationships, and even parents can choose not to engage with their adult children.  I have friends whose parents have essentially disavowed them because they married outside their parents’ faith or race—so what should those friends have done?  Should they have bartered for parental acceptance and approval?  I think not.  When we barter for parental love, all we gain is an inauthentic version of love, at the expense of our self-respect and personal integrity.

If remaining connected to your dad’s family is essential to your peace of mind, then you must dignify that need. If you discover that you can let go of those relationships, and you freely choose to do so, be it out of love for your mom or for any other reason, then that, too, is an act of integrity.  Either way, your task is to hear your Spirit and be true to your Spirit—it’s the only way to live the life of integrity we are all invited to lead.

Choices bring consequences, and often times any choice will bring a less than perfect consequence—the aim is not perfection, but rather compassion, love, and personal integrity. It’s clear you love your mom—write that letter, from one soul to another.  I have a feeling you are going to be the healer in your family.
Love, Liz

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