When Grief Gets Complicated

My grandfather died three days ago. The news crushed me. Questions like, “I’m sorry for your loss.” and, “Do you need anything?” came from a handful of precious friends but, mostly, there was silence. An echo of the loneliness I often feel in response to all things family. At first, I’d wished I had more support. Then came the question that made me want to transition back into the realm of near-invisible: “Were you and your grandfather close?”

Yes…and…no. It’s complicated.

It wasn’t so much the question itself that bothered me; I was thankful someone was thoughtful enough to take interest. It was knowing that my answer would stop the conversation in its tracks that made my chest ache. It would result in awkward silence, and I just didn’t have the emotional energy for that.

My biological family is dysfunctional. Extremely dysfunctional. Generation after generation of verbally abusive motherhood stopped with me, but the women in my family remained hostile and manipulative behind closed doors. The men made the choice to either pretend that everything was fine, or to drink their problems away. To the outside world, we were so…normal. A seemingly vanilla family that says and does all the right things on the outside, while slowly burning alive on the inside.

When my own firstborn came along, I drew boundaries. Painful, yet completely necessary, boundaries. I refused to carry on their legacy of abuse. I demanded respect or separation. My family chose to pretend that the issues that tore us apart didn’t exist. They chose to keep up the manipulation and the verbal abuse. So…I walked away.

One harsh truth about drawing boundaries, about escaping an abusive family, is that often the decision also means walking away from some good relationships along with the bad; walking away from sweet memories and stolen dreams. My relationship with my grandfather went from cherished to non-existant in the blink of an eye. In doing what I had to do to protect my own children from abuse, I lost one of the most important relationships in my life. One of the only people who were safe. Grandpa was, in many ways, more like a Dad; in many ways, my rock. He was steady and strong, while gentle and kind.  He was predictable and sweet; comforting in his consistency. He had loving nicknames for me and proudly hung up my childhood drawings on his refrigerator…

He was what family was meant to be…and now he’s gone.

I didn’t get to say goodbye. In fact, because I had chosen to protect my children from the abusive members of my family and all of my relatives came as a package deal, I didn’t get to say anything to him for the past eight years. Eight years went by without a single interaction and then, one day, I got the call. It was done. There were no take-backs, no do-overs. All I had left were distant childhood memories, photographs…and regrets. Do I regret drawing healthy boundaries for the sake of my own children? No. Do I regret not making sure that my grandfather knew, really knew why it was that I’d left the family? Yes. I should have told him face-to-face instead of sending a letter (which very well could’ve been opened by grandma and thrown away). I should have called to tell him that none of it was his fault and that I loved him, just one more time. I should have…but I didn’t. I was too scared of being sucked back into the nightmare that was my experience with family. I was afraid that if I spent even one more second around their chaos, I’d become more like them. That toxic environment threatened to take from me all that I’d worked so hard to create. My own sense of self. My calmer, more peaceful demeanor. My strength. My victory over generational sin. I was afraid of all that I’d lose when, in reality, I was going to lose either way. I lost one of the only sane, healthy relationships I’d ever had. I lost one of the only good things I had to hold onto from my biological family. I lost part of myself.

If I could do it all over again, I would still make the same decision. I’ll always carry regrets about certain things not said or done. It’ll never get easier to answer questions about family. The awkward silences will never disappear. It’ll always sting to see others enjoying loving relationships with their parents, aunts, uncles, cousins…grandparents…but I wouldn’t change my decision, because my decision saved my life. It saved my children’s lives. From the devastation and decay of abuse. From the pain of separation. From the eternal, toxic poison of mistrust and manipulation.

Relationships, no matter how pretty the package, are messy. Maybe not as messy as mine, maybe more. Family isn’t always joyful and filled with sweet, loving memories. Family isn’t even always remotely functional. Sometimes it’s a complete disaster with a terribly unhappy ending. Questions about family can’t always be answered with a simple yes or no. Sometimes it’s painful, confusing, and sad. Sometimes it’s complicated…and that’s okay. That’s human. We just need to find a way to be human together. To fill the awkward silence with compassion, even when we don’t understand. To offer the comfort, the freedom, to just be.



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