Mourning an Abusive Parent

How could I honor my father’s memory without denying how I felt about him? A ‘Yizkor’ prayer helped me find a way.

By Jill Zimon|October 4, 2019 12:00 AM


I sat on my childhood bed, surrounded by 52-year-old stuffed animals, with a smartphone lodged between my ear and shoulder. My father had died unexpectedly the day before, and I was jotting down notes as my rabbi back in Ohio described various mourning obligations: accepting condolence calls for a week of shiva and reciting Kaddish daily for 11 months.

I wanted to honor my father. I wanted to be like the daughters who posted Father’s Day photos on social media with words that mirrored their affectionate images. You were there for me. Everything I know came from you. You made me think I could do anything. I’m so lucky to be your daughter.

But that was not my experience. And that was not how I felt about him.

At 6-foot-1, lean and sinewy, my father cut a threatening figure. Be quiet, clean better, do more, take better phone messages, do the work I tell you, do it perfectly. Like the mismatched words in “The Far Side” cartoon showing what humans say to dogs and what dogs hear, my internal voice translated his declarations into: “You disappoint me, you’re not worthy.”

Somehow, though, my father also projected sadness. He had a resting frown face and dark brown eyes set deep into a forehead pleated with wrinkles. He regularly spent days in bed, only coming out of his room for meals, dressed in pajamas and slippers.

This paradox lured me into a vicious cycle of trying to earn my father’s praise: Work to please my father, fail to please my father, feel crappy about failing to please my father, try to please him again. When I was little, I’d tag along to the neighbor’s driveway after dinner to be his adoring fan while he played basketball, or I’d watch sports with him on television, cheering and growling when he cheered and growled. But he’d brusquely shush me if I asked questions or shouted at the screen like he did. By my teens, I’d adopted his workaholic habits. Yet when I hustled between three jobs one summer, he called me lazy if I rested between them.

Friends and family called me loyal, but hopelessness gripped me. In my journals, I wrote about wanting to kill myself. In junior high school, I handed a friend a small gold-foil box with a a Cracker Jacks miniature plastic toy gun inside and a note that read, “If I ever get too annoying, just shoot me.” Eventually, the risky behavior began. I welcomed the way alcohol helped me stop caring all the time. I passed out at or after parties, I drove drunk to take a friend home, I got suspended from school. When I finally told my mother I couldn’t stop feeling sad, my parents ignored this plea. Instead, they interpreted it as connected to bickering with my younger brother and sent the two of us to their marriage counselor. Apart from how unethical that likely was, neither of us would go back after the first session. And I was still sad.

As I became a young adult, my independence became my father’s kryptonite. He refused to pay for my college application to a high-ranking school because it was Catholic. When I left for my freshman year at that same school, he said goodbye to me from underneath his bedcovers, with a sardonic look on his face. Yet, during a visit to my junior year workplace, an impressive Cabinet department in the federal government, his principal remark was that I wouldn’t have that job if not for his support.

One of his most aggressive efforts to thwart me came during the weeks after I finished a year of volunteer work in Israel and was living at home. I was in my bedroom with the door closed, sitting at a built-in desk where I collated sheets of heavy bond paper and stuffed them into envelopes I’d carefully addressed. These were typewritten cover letters and resumés intended for policy institutes, research centers, and think tanks. I wanted to get an entry level research job or a paid internship.

My father knocked on my door. As he opened it, his hand on the knob, he looked at me and then down at the piles, address lists, and envelopes.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I told him.

In one motion, he bent at the torso into the room and over the desk, then clasped the sheaf between his hands. Simultaneously, he tossed and pushed them up into the air and off the surface with force.

“Who do you think is going to hire you? They want Ph.D.s! No one is going to hire you! I don’t know what you think you’re doing but it’s a waste of time!” he yelled.

The pages of my accomplishments settled on the floor as he slammed the door shut. Rage and futility flooded my veins as tears erupted down my cheeks. Why was he so mean? Why did my earnest job-hunting trigger his contempt? Was he right—was I an idiot?

Maybe I was. He’d told me so many times. I felt arrogant, foolish and small. So small.

Our next 30 years were a rerun of that episode. My father would disrupt my efforts to achieve a stable marriage, a successful career trajectory, and healthy children. Only after years of therapy would I accept that his behavior was rooted in how unlovable he felt he was. He’d always felt deprived of love and approval from his own father—an immigrant from Poland who’d found success in this country, but always associated money with love. That realization made me sad for him, but that sadness couldn’t erase my pain, disappointment, and anger.

By the time my father died, I’d reluctantly established limitations on our interactions. Fewer visits, fewer phone calls, less information sharing. He chafed and retaliated. The times I rallied energy to reality-check him on the hurt I felt, he became defensive. To admit that he treated his daughter as meanly as I described would shatter his image of the good father he wished for himself; he regularly declared, apropos of nothing: “I am a good father, a good father.” The stress of this dissonance between continuing to engage with him while knowing what the cycle of engagement would look like exhausted me. I wanted to stop being so exhausted. I thought his death would allow that.

As I committed to 11 months of mourning, I wondered who was I in mourning for most?

*

The first 30 days of saying Kaddish passed while I was away from home with my mother. I was grateful not to have to see many people I knew who would want to say they were sorry for my loss when I wasn’t.

Once back in my synagogue, I tried to be eager. I accepted the time as a way to process. When other mourners or congregants offered their sympathies, I nodded my head silently and smiled thinly. I procrastinated on writing thank-you notes to dozens of thoughtful people who ultimately never got one.

Alone in a row in the lesser-used small chapel, I fixated on the irony of having spent years building boundaries between my father and me so I could be separate, and yet now in death he occupied my daily life at least as much as when he was alive. It felt like a sick joke, not participation in a revered religious or even cultural ritual. It also made me feel like a wretched daughter.

For several weeks in the spring and summer, my Kaddish routine became irregular. My husband and I and our three teenage children traveled abroad, and then I attended a conference in New York and made a visit to my mother back in Connecticut. I used these deviations as a rationale for skipping Kaddish. The longer I didn’t go, the easier it got to question why I was going in the first place, given how distraught I still felt about my father’s influences.

Yom Kippur came around. The ultimate day in autumn spent apologizing for our sins. We had new prayer books and while flipping through my copy, trying to keep from feeling the hunger from not eating or the distress of my challenges with honoring my father, I came across an unfamiliar meditation. Its title was “A Yizkor Meditation in Memory of a Parent Who Was Hurtful,” by Rabbi Robert Saks.

Dear God,
You know my heart. Indeed, You know me better than I know myself, so I turn to You before I rise for Kaddish.
My emotions swirl as I say this prayer. The parent I remember was not kind to me. His/her death left me with a legacy of unhealed wounds, of anger and of dismay that a parent could hurt a child as I was hurt.
I do not want to pretend to love, or to grief that I do not feel, but I do want to do what is right as a Jew and as a child.
Help me, O God, to subdue my bitter emotions that do me no good, and to find that place in myself where happier memories may lie hidden, and where grief for all that could have been, all that should have been, may be calmed by forgiveness, or at least soothed by the passage of time.
I pray that You, who raise up slaves to freedom, will liberate me from the oppression of my hurt and anger, and that You will lead me from this desert to Your holy place.

I’d say my stomach dropped but I was fasting. Here, in a siddur intended for the days when we ask for forgiveness and are expected to forgive those who ask us, was a passage that offered an alternative. It supported me where I was—in a place of tension, and in doing so made me feel accepted, struggle and all. Moreover, the words and the sentiments allowed me to be soothed by the passage of time if not calmed by forgiveness. As embraced by this meditation, the beautiful flexibility of Judaism recognized that things are complicated, and that is OK.

The relief was brief, and I decided to talk with my rabbi directly. I wanted to know how I could permanently bury the conflict between my anger at my father and my compulsion to feel like—and be—a good Jew, and a good daughter. He told me that Judaism does not demand forgiveness of every wrong, least of all in cases of abuse. He also suggested that if I wasn’t ready to forgive my father or feel compassion, I should consider writing a letter to “the father who you wish you had, to give voice to your disappointment.” I left his office resigned to the fact that I was the only one who had the answer to this dilemma, and that finishing out Kaddish—as important as I felt it was—was just a part of that answer.

A few weeks later, when our family marked the first anniversary of my father’s death, I read the meditation silently before reciting Kaddish. This composition allowed me to connect to both the religion I wanted to follow and the true nature of our father-daughter relationship. In a stroke of synchronicity I choose to attribute to a higher power, the yahrzeit fell on the same weekend as Winter Storm Jonas, his first name. And so he, too, got to end that year of mourning staying true to his nature.

***

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