I recently read a review of a book about a mother and daughter. The mother has dementia. In the review it says there’s no longer any chance for them to come to an understanding: the mother’s failed memory has erased their shared history. But the daughter is still living it; still having to process what went on between them. I thought this was a very insightful description of what happens when you lose a parent – or anyone else you’ve been closely linked to.
I did have some practice with this. Mum was very good at erasing uncomfortable memories when she was alive. I’d bring up issues that had affected me and she would deny they’d ever happened. Well, ok, I accept that, as far as she was concerned these events might have been minor incidents that she honestly didn’t remember – but the fact remains they were important for me so I recall them in great detail. Mum would never acknowledge the effect they’d had on me. This removed the possibility for us to discuss what had happened; or for me be able to ask for an explanation – let alone, heaven forbid, get an apology. So, even when she was still alive, I’d be left with the issues unresolved. And this is even more true, after death.
Even if travel were possible during this global crisis for the first time in my life, I’m not in the mood to go far. There’s too much risk of cancellations, quarantines, lockdowns etc etc. I can’t complain. I know many other people are in a worse situation. But the reality is that I’m living on my own in my parents’ house. So, inevitably, my mind goes back, begins to retrace steps. The events of childhood lay the foundation for our adult persona. And, at the moment, I feel like I spent a lot of my time and energy reacting against my mother.
I’m beginning to see how the dynamic that underpinned our relationship continues to be played out in my psyche. Except I’ve got no one to play it out against. I suppose, if I wasn’t so isolated, I’d have other things to occupy my mind – it could also mean I’d be following the same ‘scripts’ but be projecting them onto other people. Stuck here on my own, I’m like a wrestler who’s spent their whole life practising moves against an opponent and now, suddenly, find myself without an antagonist. I’m at a loose end. In a limbo. And that means, I’ve been forced to look into the mirror.
Now mum’s gone, there’s no one to play the role that triggers my life script (to use that bit of jargon once more). I’m like an astronaut floating off into space, cast off from the mother ship, the umbilical cord of the oxygen mask cut, finally. Now I’ve got no one left I can rail against, I’m starting to see things from a different perspective. Why I did or said so-and-so – or why I didn’t do or say it.
Whatever my mother’s motives, whatever her character faults, I have to live with the consequences of having reacted to them – or against them. The Jungians speak of massaging our wounds: that is, no matter how negative a learned pattern of behaviour might be, it induces in us a state of comfort, of familiarity and safety. That comfortable, emotional maternal wound, even if negative and dysfunctional was massaged when mum and me were having our familiar battle of wills. But now that wound is raw, dismembered.
They say people still feel pain in a limb that’s been amputated. In a way that describes grief, because the imprinted patterns of behaviour still exist but there’s no partner – or opponent – left. All that’s left is this ghost pain and the increasingly sneaky suspicion that it may have been the grounding for much of my past behaviour. Of course, I’m not sure of that yet. Things are still very inconclusive. But I really don’t want to settle back into former patterns of behaviour.
I want to try and repair the damage. To see what will emerge. This may not be pleasant. I shall have to acknowledge some home truths. But hopefully something positive will come out of it.