How to Handle an Abusive or Toxic Parent's Death

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The death of an abusive or toxic parent can create a complicated grieving process from the very start. When an abusive parent dies, the timeline for grief can differ significantly from any other form of loss. 

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Many people who have faced the death of an abusive parent are surprised by their emotional responses. Still, the whole experience of losing an abusive parent differs from the death of a parent when the relationship was caring. Finding closure becomes more elusive when coping with the death of an estranged parent

There’s no “normal” when it comes to coping with the death of an abusive or toxic parent. Below, we’ll outline some of the ways your grief might manifest, and we’ll provide some tips for handling the complex grief you may be experiencing.

How Can You Expect to Feel After an Abusive Parent Dies?

When you’re dealing with the death of a parent during adulthood and your parent was abusive, you might experience a complex grief response. You might feel dissociated from past traumatic experiences or find yourself altering the memories you have and your entire perception of your relationship. 

Past hurts often continue into adulthood, especially when the complicated relationship between you and your abusive parent goes unresolved. Whether you were mistreated as a child, as an adult, or both, you can expect to feel some of the following grief responses.

Relief (and emptiness)

One of the first things you might feel after the death of an abusive parent is a sense of relief that they're no longer alive to hurt you. 

However, that feeling is often quickly replaced by feelings of emptiness or non-emotion. You might feel like their death didn't produce the effect you expected or release you from the pain of their abuse toward you. 

When a parent was abusive toward you as a child or throughout your life, you may hold on to that resentment for many years following their death as you try to work out your grief. Feeling relieved after the death of a parent who has hurt you or created a toxic relationship between you two may be short-lived as other complexities of your relationship start to emerge throughout your grief journey. 

It's easy to imagine being glad that your abusive parent has died. However, you can still expect to feel grief as a result of your loss. 

Anger

It’s common to experience anger following the death of an abusive parent. Anger can arise as you continue to seek the lost connection with your toxic parent, even though you know it's not possible. You might also feel angry that the abusive parent's death didn't bring the relief you expected it to. 

You may find yourself so full of rage and anger that it seems impossible to move on with your life because you're still suffering from the depression and anxiety resulting from their abuse. 

The emotional effects of abuse can sometimes manifest as intense anger after a toxic parent's death without any resolution in sight. Finding healthy ways to release these emotions will help you move past this stage and strengthen or rebuild your current relationships that might've suffered as a result.  

Confusion

When your abusive parent dies, you might suddenly feel safe from the pain they inflicted with their words or their actions. Although you might grieve the relationship that you never had with them, feeling relief, anger, and confusion are all healthy emotions that help you cope with the death of an abusive parent. 

It's OK if you feel a confusing, unidentifiable mix of emotions over the loss of someone who's abused you or created a toxic relationship between the two of you. There's nothing shameful in the way you feel, and every one of these emotions is valid in light of the emotional abuse endured at the hands of an abusive parent. 

Being deprived of a loving upbringing or relationship with your parent can create confusion when they die because there's no longer any opportunity for reconciliation.

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How to Cope When an Abusive or Toxic Parent Dies

You may feel like you’re unable to begin the healing process when an abusive or toxic parent dies, making it challenging to cope with their loss. Overwhelming and sometimes surprising emotions can take over. In fact, emotional overwhelm is one of the most prominent responses after this type of loss. 

But there are ways to move forward and start processing that tangled web of emotions.The following ideas might help you deal with the loss of a parent who died without making amends.

Seek therapy

When trying to heal from the complex trauma created by your abusive or toxic parent, it's challenging to make sense of everything you’re thinking and feeling. 

Trauma creates physical, emotional, and cognitive effects that can be challenging to overcome. Therapy is a process that can be an integral part of your healing journey. Creating a healthy relationship with someone who's already gone might no longer be an option. But working through your feelings and emotions can lessen the pain. 

Therapy often helps resolve some of the manifestations of anger, stress, and anxiety from toxic relationships and parental abuse. Treatment also addresses feelings of shame and guilt that may follow for a lifetime when abuse is left unaddressed.

Find meaning in your life

Finding ways to add meaning to your life can help you overcome abuse that has created changes in your self-identity or personality. 

Seek alternative ways of finding hope and joy in your life, separate from the toxic environment created by your abusive parent, as a catalyst for healing. You may never make sense of what happened to you or why it happened, but you can explore how you want the rest of your life to proceed without them. 

Find forgiveness

Finding solace in forgiveness can help your bereavement process after the death of an abusive parent. Grief reactions vary considerably from those who had healthy relationships with their parents. As an effort to promote self-healing, it can help to integrate the loving side of your parent along with their cruel behavior to see them as a whole person and validate your positive memories. 

Deciding whether or not to forgive your abuser can help ease some of the emotional discord created by abuse. There are books about grief available that touch directly on finding forgiveness as a way to heal from past trauma. Reflecting on forgiving your toxic parent and making a decision that feels right for you is essential in healing.

Seek spiritual development

Spiritual development as part of the bereavement process is an integral part of healing from trauma for many abuse survivors. 

Spirituality increases hope and self-acceptance after experiencing lifelong trauma at the hands of an abusive parent. A carefully charted path toward recovery may include:

  • A series of professional treatments and counseling
  • Connecting to others in a safe and supportive environment
  • Reconnecting to your fundamental or core values and beliefs 

This process may include attending religious services, reading books on spirituality, and daily prayer or meditation.

How Can You Honor or Remember an Abusive Parent That Died?

Emotional responses to the death of an abusive parent can make it challenging to honor or remember them when they die. Whether or not you participate in the funeral or memorial service is an entirely personal choice that you should make after carefully weighing each decision. 

Many abuse survivors experience distinct stress and anxiety at the thought of paying tribute to them at the end. Here are some things to consider.

After-hours visit

Deciding not to attend your parent's funeral or memorial service is valid and deeply personal. You can avoid facing family members who might scrutinize your emotional responses by skipping the planned services altogether. 

The decision not to attend your parent's funeral is yours alone to make. You can still honor or remember them by asking the funeral director to accommodate your visit after-hours. By strategically planning your visit to the funeral home, you can skip any added stress or drama from family members and others who might not understand the strained relationship between the two of you. 

Visit their gravesite to say goodbye

Like making a private visit to the funeral home, you can choose when to pay your last respects at the gravesite. Decide on a time when you're more likely to be alone at the cemetery to say your piece and your last goodbyes in private. 

Giving yourself this opportunity for closure can help you along the journey of post-traumatic growth without the pressure of reuniting with estranged family members or being expected to display “normal” mourning behavior.

Coping With the Death of an Abusive Parent 

Immediate responses to the death of an abusive parent are not final and will change over time. You’ll soon find that you start to feel different towards their death when you’re in various stages in your healing process. 

In the beginning, you’ll benefit from feeling heard and validated. As you progress in your journey, you’ll begin to find healthy ways of making sense of your experiences after your abuser dies, with the proper help and guidance from your support group or therapist. 

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