Her.

It was a Facebook “memory” that alerted me to the fact that I’d missed my grandmother’s death anniversary. I’d missed it by an entire week. I stared at my iPhone screen for a solid minute, wondering why a post from four years ago, in which I thanked friends for attending the opening weekend of a play festival that I co-produced, would trigger such heaviness in me. And then, suddenly, I knew. It was because I had written that post just one week after my grandmother died. The anniversary of her death had come and gone, and I had completely forgotten about it.

When the call came on that Saturday morning, April 13th, I didn’t answer it. There was only one reason that my eighty-six-year-old grandfather would be calling me. Ever since I had visited Grandma in the home for Alzheimer’s patients two months earlier, I had known that her end was near. Her decline was steep and rapid. She had gone from placing daily, mostly-lucid phone calls to me, to being wheelchair bound, her white blond hair tangled and swept off her face with plastic little girl barrettes, her pale blue eyes reflecting no recognition of me, all in the space of a few weeks.

I got into my car and replayed my grandfather’s message. “We’ve lost another one, Sar,” he said, his voice tired, resigned. I called him back, listened as he told me that he’d arrived at her nursing home too late to say goodbye. “I’m sorry,” I said. I told him I loved him, hung up the phone, and went to rehearsal. And I told no one – not one single, solitary person – what had happened. Not for weeks.

Looking back, I suppose the fact that I kept my grandmother’s death a secret from everyone who knew me was not particularly healthy. But at the time, my decision – at least to me – made perfect sense. I was one week out from opening a series of one-act plays, two of which I was acting in, another of which I was directing. I had a full-time job, one that I had only recently returned to after taking a leave when my father died. And it had only been seven months since the death of my mother, who had crawled inside of a vodka bottle (or more accurately, a liquor store’s worth of vodka bottles) on the heels of my father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. The space between the deaths of both of my parents had been less than five months, and I was tired. I had taken enough “bereavement” time. I wanted to get back to my life. I wanted to get back to work. And I had a show to open.

But four years later, I can finally admit that there’s another, darker reason why I never allowed myself to grieve my grandmother’s passing; why I don’t mourn her loss the way I’ve mourned the losses of my parents. My grandmother was not a nice person.

That’s what I’ll tell you when I’m feeling kind. What I’ll tell you when I’m feeling brutally honest is that my grandmother was an emotional terrorist. She was a serial abuser, one who reserved her worst brutality for those she claimed to love the most. I can’t count the number of times that, as a little girl, she brought me to tears by telling me something hateful about my parents. And she took immense pleasure in depositing my favorite stuffed animal, a ratty and well-loved St. Bernard I never slept without, into the trash. Her only “apology,” was to tell me I was better off without him, because he was “full of disease.”

As I got older, I got tougher. My grandmother lost the ability to make me cry. I fought back. I called her out. And the bullying stopped. But my mother? She wasn’t so lucky.

I’m glad that I’ll never know the full extent of the hell that my grandmother rained down on my sweet, emotionally sensitive mother. I know enough to know that she destroyed whatever fragile self-confidence she might have had. Even as a little girl, I remember the temper tantrums and smashed dishes, the screaming and shrieking, my grandmother accusing my Mom again and again of being a “horrible mother.” I remember the multiple “interventions,” with Mom and Grandpa raiding Grandma’s stockpile of prescription drugs and flushing them down the toilet, telling her, “Enough.”

And I know that my grandmother, who valued money and prestige above all else, forbade my Mom from pursuing the only thing she ever really dreamed of: becoming a professional tennis player. Mom – ever the dutiful daughter – obeyed, but deferring her dream was an event that changed the trajectory of her life. Even after she married my father and moved to Alaska, finally out from under her mother’s thumb, she never seemed to recover the gumption to go after her heart’s desire again.

As twisted and grotesque as it may sound, in some ways I feel “lucky” to have been born the daughter of a woman raised by an emotional abuser. My mother, never allowed to follow her own dreams, fiercely supported me in the pursuit of mine. Starved for affection by a woman who didn’t have a maternal bone in her body, my Mom showered me with love, making sure I always knew that I was the center of her universe. And spending years watching the person who I loved the most never believe that she was good enough had a profound effect on me, making me determined to live my life in all the ways that she couldn’t.

Part of me will always blame my grandmother for my mother’s death. I have no doubt that her relentless abuse is the reason my Mom sought solace in the bottle in the first place. But I also know that blaming her is too easy, that life – and human beings – are more complicated than that. My grandmother was sick for a long time, longer than any of us ever knew. And my mother had her own mental health issues, which she numbed with alcohol and refused to seek professional help for. Mental illness and addiction run rampant in my family, carrying with them a legacy of dysfunction, a legacy that I am determined not to repeat. Which is why, even though I know that this essay would have horrified my mother, I also knew that I had to write it.

Family is complicated. So is love. And I believe that people are capable of harboring two competing emotions within their bodies at the same time. For example, I can tell you that I loved my grandmother deeply, and yet most of the tears I’ve shed over her death were for myself, because I wished that she were different. I can tell you that as much as I admired my mother, I am terrified of ending up like her. And I can tell you that though I feel guilty about forgetting the anniversary of my grandmother’s death, I also wish that I didn’t have to remember it. I wish that April 13th was just another day on the calendar.

Until next time, friends.

100 thoughts on “Her.

  1. Family grief has such a complicated thing, isn’t it? My relationship with my mother sounds very much like your mother’s with her own. I can very well understand the complicated and conflicting feelings. I often think how I will react when my own mother passes away. I’m sure there will be some measure of sadness, but I think I will feel sad more for the relationship we never had due to the fact that she is really pretty bad person in general. I greatly, I won’t say enjoyed this post, but I got a lot out of it and I hope it was cathartic for you to write it.

    • It really is! And I can’t say I enjoyed writing the post any more than you enjoyed reading it (haha), but I’ve found that the things I don’t want to write are often the things I most need to write. Thank you for your kind comment and I’m glad to know you got something out of reading this. Wishing you well. xx

  2. Your blog, and this post, are so insightful and brave and smart and inspiring. I love how you name the contradictions and complexities in our relationships – the loving and the hating both.

    I love that you stood up to the bullying. I know I would have been more like your mother.

    I am so sorry for all these losses in your life. But what you have learned and shared matters. Thanks so much.

  3. Firstly, sending warm wishes and big hugs for this extremely tiring time. Secondly, I love this piece for your raw honesty; it’s beautiful.

    Family love is complicated. And the fear of becoming or not becoming them is very real. But I think when you come to such brutal clarity as you have displayed, it becomes easier to rise above and remind yourself of who you don’t want to be.

    I wish you love and happiness. I wish you closure. And, I wish April 13th becomes a day to remember why you loved her so deeply, or just another day in your calendar.

    Payal

    • Dear Payal,

      Thank you so much! I really appreciate both your kind words and your well wishes. I think we’re all just doing the best we can, and when we know better, we should do better. As Joan Didion said, “Time is the school in which we learn.” And the more time that passes and the more clarity I gain as a result of the passage of time, the more I realize that’s really true. We’re all just doing the best we can. ❤

  4. I commend you on such a brave, emotionally honest post. It can’t be easy, but I think you’re finally doing what you didn’t after your grandmother died, you’re opening up about it.

    Family patterns are a funny thing. I never knew my grandmother, but I know her emotional coldness was responsible for my mother’s warmth. I think as parents, people either repeat their parents pattern or try to compensate for the wrongs they endured as children.

    Thank you for this post. x

  5. When my mom was in the final grip of dementia, she was completely transported back to being a child of an emotionally abusive mother. It was heart-breaking to watch her final days be a time loop of hurt and suppressed anger, but there was nothing we could do to interrupt or stop it. I hope she has found peace with Dad, and has nothing to do with her mother for eternity.

  6. My relationship with my mother sounds like your mother’s relationship with your grandmother. It’s amazing how the chain reaction continues down the line. I hope to be as good a mother as yours but with less alcohol and more counselling; I really think our generation is adopting a healthier attitude towards mental health. I think it’s great you wrote this. If you’re anything like me it probably felt like a weight off your chest when you hit ‘PUBLISH’.

  7. “She was a serial abuser…” Well, I would have used the “B” word but you didn’t. Great survival story, thanks for sharing. I’m finding that most humans go through life “unconscious” or “unaware” and your Grandmother is certainly an example of that mentality. You, however, are not. Way to rise above it!

  8. Okay I read this twice and now tears are strolling down my cheeks. I gotta stop. Great story. Even remembering her might be bad for your health. Just sayin’.

  9. My sincere sympathy goes to you dear. Reading your post, I could deduce (I might be wrong) that your grandma might have gone through turbulent times when she was much younger. She probably might have had a rough time growing up and she felt the best thing she could was to tear down your emotions to make you tough in a bid to protect you. That is actually a myopic mindset because it has left scars in your heart (which you might refuse to admit because she has actually been able to make you tough on yourself). I just hope that you truly forgive her and let God help you.

  10. Family is complicated. So is love. And I believe that people are capable of harboring two competing emotions within their bodies at the same time.
    This is one of the most perfect sentences I ever read. I have complicate family story myself and, unfortunately, someone very similar to you grandmother. I appreciate you sharing this story, because so many of us can recognize part of our life story in it. This post touched my heart. Tnx

  11. My condolences on the death of your parents, and of your grandmother, and wishing you happy memories of those most important to you.

    Congratulations on your success.

  12. Sarah. I feel you. The worst treatment I’ve ever been subjected to was all at the hands of family members. This is an additional hurt upon hurt. That those that should love us the most forsake that responsibility and cause us irreparable harm instead. So not only are we left licking our wounds but we are left mourning the relationship and love and fond memories that could have, should have, would have been. Like you’re mom did, I took how I grew up and how I was treated and went 180 degrees in the opposite direction. That’s the good. The good I try to find in the bad. Bravo, for writing about your multi-faceted grief. Anne Lamott wrote that we own everything that happens to us, and that we should tell our stories. And if people wanted us to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better. If you’re still feeling some angst about sharing your story I hope Anne can inspire you to let it go. I’m happy to have found you and your blog today. Carry on, warrior!

  13. Wow! What a powerful story and so well written. So raw and real and sad. I’m sorry for all you and your mother went through at the hands of that woman but I also understand complicated, dysfunctional, emotionally abusive relationships. Thank you so much for having the bravery to share your story.

  14. Sarah – sorry for your loss its difficult to understand why some people treat us in the worst way but claim to love us. What must have happened to her in life to make her the way she was? Just remember as we learn to understand ourselves we learn we are better than any negative words told to us as children and young adults.

  15. Tough subject matter to handle in a few paragraphs. “Harboring two competing emotions within their bodies at the same time,” is the part that got me.
    How do you sort it all out? It’s taken years to sort out pieces of mine and still I can be caught off guard with the force of an unwanted memory.
    Thanks for writing.
    Lqbrownrigg

  16. Thank you, Sarah, for taking us along on your journey of healing, grief, reflection and hope. Your resilience is incredible. I can relate to much of what you write – though my mother was (still can be) the cruel bully – so on that count, you were SO blessed with a mom who had your back and showered you with deep love, encouragement and support. Your raw and insightful writing is a light and a blessing in darkness; may it be so to other readers.

  17. As others have said, I appreciate you sharing this story. I have such a tough time with familial relationships. I wouldn’t allow others to treat me the way I allow some family members to treat me, and yet . . . I put up with it because of what, shared blood? I’m glad you found the courage to stand up for yourself.

  18. This all sounds so familiar to me that it’s almost scary. Like if you spoke about my own family, although there are of course few differences… But the main remains – my grandmother an abuser of whom my sweet loving mom became a victim.. Not just her of course, but she especially.. also my determination to never repeat any of the mistakes and fear of ending up like my mom which keeps pushing me forward. Very powerful read, thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing it!

  19. You have written with sensitivity and honesty on a topic that is so complex. I hope you found some release from writing that. It certainly opened my eyes on abuse, family and the juxtaposition of love and hate.

  20. Your story is wrought with pain and struggle but all wrapped up in love. I adore your writing and my sincerest condolences, you have had a tough time. They say true character is revealed in adversity and you are proving to be a woman of admirable strength. Thanks for sharing your story.

  21. So poignant..moving and sad and inspiring at the same time. I think it’s wonderful that you are sharing these stories of your family’s grief. And just facing the truth of your grandma’s character and her effect on your family. It’s tough. I commend your courage. Thank you for sharing.

  22. Wow. I echo what everyone else has said; great brave writing, thank you. And really made me think about my own dysfunctional maternal grandmother, from whom [thankfully] we were estranged… well done

  23. i knew i hated my grandmother when i heard the cancer diagnosis and all i could think was “good. maybe she’ll be dead soon and we will all be free”… and then i realized that maybe i have some heart work to do. i forgave her for a lot – but like yours, my life was indelibly impacted because of her, and my grandfather. — and regardless of the work i have done to settle these things in my heart, my chest hurts even now, thinking about all this – but thank you so much for your honesty, it reminds me to keep running toward freedom. we have to tell the truth, no matter who gets mad about it. thank you for telling your truth.

  24. I can relate to this on so many levels. This was so beautiful written and really gets to the heart of how complicated family can be. In a society that forces “blood is thicker than water” down our throats, it feels somewhat wrong to not mourn the loss of a family member. But, it happens. I feel like our family dynamics are so similar. We got the call this past week that we should all see my Grandma to say goodbye as she’s not doing well. A large part of me is not as sad as I feel I should be. But, my Grandma was not the nicest of people either and between her and my mom, they are at the root of so much turmoil and drama within our family….and especially within me. So, what you wrote gave me hope that all this won’t necessarily be a burden to carry forever. Thank you for sharing.

  25. This reminds of my grandmother and her relationship with my mother. In India, even language can be enough to verbally abuse someone and to this day, my mom says she hasn’t completely forgiven my grandmother.

    I am sorry for your mother, father.

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  27. It takes courage admitting the things you did in this essay. Many of your words mirror my own feelings toward my mother. I love that you were still able to admire your mother despite not wanting to become her. Family. Love. As you said, complicated.

  28. I think you owe yourself a lot of credit for all of this, for how you are handling death, for how you are pursuing your dreams, for how you seem to find a way to value truth and dedicate yourself to learning from your past. It seems that you have deep reserves of honesty and fairness to others. And it’s great that you are seeking honesty and fairness in regard to how you live your own life. I wish you continued strength and hope that drive to find what is best for yourself stays with you.

  29. You are brave indeed to have faced so much and moved forward. Wishing you all the best to soon reach a day free from all past sadness

  30. Abuse has to be one of the strangest of mixed blessings. On the one hand, I hate that I cannot look at my children near The Monster of my childhood without needles poking the back of my heart. On the other hand, I’m thankful I know how easily the grooming occurs, how easy it is to deceive oneself that it’s all “normal,” that surviving and breaking that fucking chain of hurt must happen, and I did it, and I am fucking stronger than any of that old pain.

    Liked your post, is my point. x

  31. I read this yesterday and came back again to read today. Thank you for writing this–you have really helped, influenced, guided, and “hugged” so many of us by putting these words on paper. I hope all of these wonderful comments encourage you to keep going, to keep writing when it hurts and of course, to keep being the person you are.

  32. Every day-the way we make others feel-has a ripple effect on future generations. In your case, and many of us, more of a tsunami effect. Thanks so much for sharing this honest, personal essay.

  33. I have felt it, and I remember crying every night, not because of I can’t accept it but the fact that the people I love cried so much too, and it hurts me more.

    This blog is so much relating 😊👍

  34. You’re probably the most honest person I’ve come across in a long while. Most that went through such or going through it still won’t ever admit it openly as you did on this post. You’re truly assertive and brave which is the only method that grinds bullying to a halt. I hope this write up gives you the closure you need concerning the past. I personally don’t see anything to feel guilty about here.

  35. At the start I thought it was too long but once I finished reading it, it was content! 🙂 Beautifully written! Women fight against all odds and still follow her dreams!

  36. I’m sorry. I understand exactly what you’re going through, even though the person who was abusive with my family and I wasn’t exactly a family member. It was a man my Mom got married to and was with for years. So I completely understand why you’re not so sad about your grandmother’s passing.

  37. Thank you for writing this essay. Family dysfunction can be difficult to talk about, and many people feel alone in their suffering. It takes courage to be honest about such things, and even more courage to express how you really feel. I know it’s something I need to work on.
    Hope your show was a success. ☺

  38. I’m completely new to this site and I just completely fell in love with your writing. I look forward to more of your reads, but I’m sure you’re already aware of the many fans you have

  39. Life can be complicated, but work is one way to feel positive about life. It is good that you have shared this and I hope some burden is relieved from your shoulders. Looking forward to read more from you. Stay strong and don’t forget that we all have something to fight for in this life. Good luck!

  40. Incredible, just looking at the all the reactions lets you know that your post hit a nerve with a lot of people, myself included. May we learn from our pasts all the things we Don’t want to pass along to our children so that we can break the cycle.

  41. Hello I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve lost both your mother and father. The woman you are describing as your grandmother, and the relationship she had with your mother might actually be something like this: Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you google Narcissitic Mothers you might find some answers. I was told about it a few years ago and it helped me understand my family dynamics and like your mum I now have son whom I will support and tend to with all the love that I can muster and give him what I never got. It’s a beautiful thing that you’ve recognised your mums gift to you. My heart breaks for you and your mum and dad. I’m so sorry.

  42. I have never had something like this so I can’t relate to you but somehow I feel you. It’s beautiful. Tug on my heartstrings. God bless!

  43. Very nicely written your honesty is so refreshing I sswca part of myself in that story. Maybe, we all have someone in our family who has that effect that terrorized to achieve power over those they see as weak. Thankyou for your honesty and again very nicely written. ELLE

  44. Each one of us has a story to tell, but very few are honest to bring it out. Most of the time we kept it inside. Unwritten and unread. Thanks for inspiring post. And God bless you.

  45. What a well written piece. I wish I had the courage to write so personally and honestly. One day, for now I’ll remain anonymous and potentially share my experiences with loss. You’ve overcome what a lot of us couldn’t. X

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  47. It’s the following morning of reading your post. It’s still dark here in NZ and I found my self thinking in bed… what if this was said to your grandmother when she was alive? I believe it would have been too traumatic to write this without the main offender being deceased. She would maybe have turned it into an issue of her being the victim – effectively never taking any blame for her behaviour. My other question, does your grandfather understand your position? My grandparents are both living – and I would probably be scorched from the earth if I wrote about my nan so truthfully. My mother also is the same as my nan and it’s just like a family trait at this point – would you laugh if I told you my twin sister also shares the same behaviours? It’s just a mess!

  48. This is beautiful. My Aunt suffers from severe alcoholism and because of this has torn our family apart. It is devastating the person she has turned into after all of these years. I miss her, or the person she was at least. I definitely don’t miss the person she is today.

  49. Thank you for sharing this. I, too, had a grandmother that I loved deeply but about whom I will always wonder if she knew that her husband was molesting her grandchildren. I learned in ala-non that it’s okay to love an alcoholic and now I know that it extends to people with mental illness. I have no love for my deceased grandfather even knowing that he was an alcoholic and a victim too. It’s hard not to see him as a very, very selfish man.

  50. Thank you so much for sharing this. I am stunned by the number of commenters, including myself, who can relate to your story. Emotional terrorism, as well as mental illness, also runs rampant in my family, and I work hard everyday to catch myself before I become my abusers.

  51. I like your honesty, I also wrote some blogs about my life, I hope you feel like I did once I had written them, it was like a weight off my shoulders, better than a thousand sessions with a therapist, as if sharing it all releases the pressure from inside. Good luck, I will be interested to see what you write next.

  52. Hugs to you, dear, and keep going strong. It’s amazing what you went through, and in such a short space of time…and yes, you’re human and can only go so long, can only grieve so long. Life is what it’s about, and I don’t think I would’ve responded any differently than you when you got the news, considering what you said she was like. It’s hard to love and despise someone at the same time, and sometimes you have to do what’s right for you. That’s something I don’t think can be judged, and I wouldn’t want to try. Be well for yourself and those around you still living. Seems like you have a ton to offer. Keep going strong…for you.

  53. Thank you for your deep honesty. I feel privileged to have had a window into a really hard part of your life. Family is so damn complicated… I’ve had a complicated relationship with my mom and I see myself loving my daughter like your mom loved you. But, since August I have been working on my mental health in hopes and STRONG belief that the buck stops here w me. Thank you for your bravery.
    Peace
    hst

  54. It’s a brave and hauntingly honest post. I have had a complicated relationship with my family but never could really talk about it. Thank you for writing this post and sharing your story, it means a lot.

  55. Wow, this had an impact on me and my current thinking and I am so glad that I came across it. Thank you for opening up and sharing that part of you with the world. Family can be extremely complicated and I am sorry for your loss.

  56. This post really resonated with me, it’s refreshing to come across someone who has two types of conflicting feelings towards family members as I do at this current stage in my life. Although the circumstances aren’t the same, it’s nice to have feelings I feel I share to some degree written down, as I’ve not often been able to explain my own conflicting feelings out loud. Thank you for sharing and your honesty around this subject and I am sorry to hear of the great loss in your family.

  57. Thank you very much of sharing! It is sad but at times just needed for FB to remind of our relatives. I am grateful for having both grandparents, and the memories of those already passed away have been one of the sweetest and clearest ones I have.

    Although I have never had tough experiences with my grandparents and maybe can not relate to you so much, I appreciate your honesty and truthfulness! It made me think a lot. Thank you!

  58. Relationships are hard at best especially when it comes to those with family but I have found that we take the bad experiences and turn them into good life lessons (Well most of us most of the time anyway). Thanks for sharing.

  59. Aw…I am touched by your blog. It reminds me if my own grandmother. She also seemed to be unlovable herself because of what my mother had gone through her as a child while we, her grandchildren, we’re always scared of her sermons that go like richochet. She had loved to borrow things from us but she had always forgotten to return them! (My poor violin is gone forever) I believe she and your grandmother have abstained showing deep love and affection to our mothers because they were born in tough times and they have the mindset that they are in authority and children are lower than them in ranking. Even though, we should be thankful for what we have learned from our parents and our grandparents so we can never, never carry on the mistakes they have made. Let’s keep on standing strong. 😀

  60. Brought tears to my eyes because I can relate. I have been (and still am) controlled by a control-freak of a father. The result? Although I am a mess inside, I am fiercely protective of my child’s freedom.
    Hope you felt better after writing.

  61. Thank you for having the courage to write this. I had similar experiences with my family during my formative years and I’m still learning to live with family dysfunction. It was difficult when I first began speaking openly about it but it’s getting easier and I’ve stopped blaming people for what this illness has done to me and I can’t blame others for what was passed onto them.

  62. Thank you. Your courage in speaking the words many people wish they could say about family members who continuously abuse the privilege of being part of a family will no doubt help others to recognize that even family can be toxic, and hopefully will help them be able to seek out help that they need.

  63. Pingback: Her. | My personal intergalactical guide to living in Germany :)

  64. Sometimes the truth hurts but your honesty allows us all to bring back memories of our loved ones…whether those thoughts were always positive or not. It reminded me of my grandfather who died from complications from cancer and my grandmother who recently passed away due to complications from dementia.
    You have reminded us of the ugly truth about family and how love is not alway sunshine and rainbows.

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