My father died this morning, but I actually lost him many years ago.
There was a tragic pattern in his life, one which I couldn’t see while it was happening, but which is plain to see now that his life is gone. He was desperate to be loved and needed — something which I can understand — but he managed to destroy every relationship he ever had for long.
He attracted people to him with his good nature and charm. He drove them away with his need to control them — and with his incessant lies about just about everything.
His three children once loved and adored him. One by one, he pushed us away. My mother loved him when I was young, but he crushed her spirit and destroyed her love. He screamed at her. He belittled her. He tried to force her to be like him in every way.
Mother’s loving and childlike spirit was wounded badly — and she walked away from us because she came to believe she was either going to kill him or kill herself.
He married again — a pairing which I didn’t think made sense for either of them — and she eventually divorced him after he humiliated her and lost everything they owned because it became public that he had been embezzling money from a very wealthy man who had trusted him. (I’ll have more to say about that another time.)
In his retirement years, he found someone to love him. He had nothing and she was a financially comfortable widow. She fell for him — and he was good to her in his usual charming ways at first — and she allowed him to have a very good life. They lived together for years, but he eventually destroyed the relationship with his dishonesty and controlling nature.
When all three of your children have lost any trust in you — and will no longer have a relationship with you — and three women who’ve loved you have kicked you out or run away because they could no longer trust the things you said or did, you’re almost certainly the problem, not them. But he continued to bitterly paint himself as a victim of people who mistreated him.
The tragedy of his death is that none of these people who had loved and adored him were with him at the end. The tragedy of his life is that he couldn’t become emotionally healthy enough to heal his relationships with any of the people whose love and trust he lost over the years.
He refused my repeated insistence that we go to counseling together to deal with our relationship. For someone such as him — a man who suffered from narcissistic personality disorder — the only problem is that the people who he wanted to obey him would no longer obey. He thought everyone else was the problem, not him.
Some relationships in life need to end. There are times when a relationship is broken and it needs to stay broken — and we need to escape from that person. Not every relationship is worth saving. And it’s a choice. Do you have enough trust in this person — or could trust be regained — so that restoration is possible? Have you realized you were the source of the problem — or at least part of it — and you’re willing to humble yourself and seek healing for the relationship, even if it requires you to change?
There are a lot of variables. It’s up to you which relationships are worth saving and which are best left behind.
In my father’s case, he wanted to heal his relationships. He just didn’t know how — and he was too proud — and too scared inside, as a typical narcissist — to accept professional help when it was offered. He was desperate to get relationships with his children back, but when we offered him that chance — and laid out simple ways we could find healing — he refused.
What he really wanted was for other people to do what he wanted — to act in relationships the way he wanted — because he couldn’t conceive of the possibility that he might be any part of the problem.
It’s easy for me to say that he wouldn’t mend his relationships, but I think the painful truth is that he couldn’t. Addressing any changes in himself would have meant dealing with deep insecurities and dysfunction which he was scared to look at. It was an inner wound which was so painful that he wasn’t capable of going there. (This is typical with narcissists. They very rarely heal.)
Many of the people who once loved him would have welcomed a chance to restore their relationships with him in healthy ways. All three of his children needed him — not as the pathetic rescuer who lied and manipulated them in order to have control — but as a healthy parent who had good emotional boundaries with his children.
After I found out about his death early Tuesday, I spent much of the morning hearing the opening words from the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes in my head over and over:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
That confused me. Why was my subconscious dragging up these words of futility at a time like this?
And then I understood.
It was the child in me — the one who still wanted his Daddy to love him in a healthy way — who was raging with the adult in me about the futility of what happened to him.
Things didn’t have to end this way for him.
I wanted to love him, but he wouldn’t allow a mutual adult relationship based on honesty and trust. Other people wanted to love him, but he couldn’t find his way past the narcissistic pain to accept the love that would have been given to him.
He didn’t have to die alone. He didn’t have to die a bitter man. What happened to him — by his own choice — was meaningless. Without the human relationships that matter, life and death are meaningless.
I hurt for him today. I hurt for my sisters. I hurt for the women who loved him and who he disappointed. And I hurt for myself.
Some relationships are worth healing. Some relationships — and some forms of love — are worth going through the painful process of change and inner healing. It’s the love we get from those chosen relationships which give this life most of its meaning.
Without the meaning that my father could have had with people who once loved him dearly, his life lacked adequate meaning at the end. He built a prison for himself — and he wouldn’t unlock the door to get out, even though he was the only one who held the key.
Choosing which relationships to leave behind and which relationships to mend is one of the keys to having love and meaning at the end of life.
He didn’t learn that lesson in time. He threw away the love I was eager to give him. The fact that he wanted that love — and couldn’t figure out how to get it — is a tragedy that hurts my heart. For both of us.