Thank you so much for considering my question. I always enjoy reading your newsletter.
My mom passed away almost 5 years ago. Since her passing my dad is a different person. He was always very strict and as a child I was afraid of him. Now, he’s become someone I don’t know. I see that he tries to treat myself and my two adult sisters ‘equally’ in all things including his time and finances. He allows one sister (I will call her “L” from here on in) to treat him with such disrespect and frankly, elder abuse, that it is mind- boggling to the rest of the family. His response is always ‘ that’s just the way she is’. Growing up, THAT would never have been his response.
My dad was in the Air Force and was very strict. My mom stayed at home and we grew up feeling frightened of dad.
I respect my dad because of the way he taught me to treat people, myself and others. He has integrity. I am confused in how he allows L to be. How he can say ‘that’s just the way she is’? She is mean, hurtful, spiteful and I do not acknowledge her as a sister.
I am angry at him because I feel that he’s not being true to himself. I know that without mom, he’s a little lost, but I feel as if he’s changed all the rules of engagement we had when we were growing up so it confounds me. He’s changed who he is and was; to fit someone who doesn’t appreciate or deserve him.
I need to stop waiting for him to change. If this is his ‘happy place’ who am I to ask him to leave it? I have gotten angry with him, raised my voice in frustration, but that did nothing but make me feel embarrassed and sad. I have told him how I feel he is disrespected and that no one else would do that to him yet he dotes on her. I guess I feel jealous of that? I’m not sure.
I just know that he’s not the dad I admired, yet, when I get back from having coffee with him, I see him as an old guy trying to make everyone happy. I don’t think that’s possible if he allows L to continue. I love my dad. I value every second I have with him but it angers me that he seems to condone L’s rudeness and lack of respect for the rest of us. If he won’t change, I guess I need to change how I let it affect me.
Any suggestions would be appreciated.
Thank you so much for this query as I feel that by exploring it, we will together, help many others who face similar challenges. I want to start by saying that I have heard similar stories from clients and that dealing with ageing and the death of parents is seriously difficult territory and the one thing I always say to clients in these situations is this:
THERE IS NO PERFECT WAY TO NAVIGATE THIS SITUATION. YOU JUST NEED TO DO YOUR BEST, PRACTISE A LOT OF SELF-CARE, AND GET THROUGH IT AS BEST AS YOU CAN.
Firstly, I want to say that I am sorry to hear about the loss of your mom five years ago. Losing a parent, no matter how old we (or they happen to be) can be extremely painful and throw the rest of the family into turmoil, especially their bereaved spouse. I suspect that no matter what your parents’ relationship looked like, that your dad has been greatly affected by the loss of his wife, who also happened to be the mother of his three daughters. Being the only male in the family now, perhaps he is unsure of his role with his daughters?
As a family therapist, I am wondering what your mother’s role was in “keeping the peace” between her three children and how she handled “L”. Did she tolerate her abuse? Did she ignore it? Did she let your dad deal with her directly? How has your mom’s passing affected your father’s ability to ‘father’ his three adult daughters; especially considering that one is abusive and that things aren’t exactly harmonious amongst his children?
Maybe he is afraid of losing “L” if he doesn’t acquiesce to her demands? Maybe he’s trying to keep the peace between his three girls so that you can still be a family in his eyes? He has already lost his wife and perhaps fears losing more family? Who knows? All I do know for sure is this:
WE HAVE NO CONTROL OVER OTHER PEOPLE’S CHOICES AND BEHAVIOURS AND WE WILL FIND NO PEACE UNTIL WE REALLY GET THAT AND STOP TRYING TO CONTROL THINGS WHICH ARE OUT OF OUR CONTROL.
I could sit here hypothesizing on the reasons why your sister is so mean and why your dad puts up with her- what most people would consider- unacceptable behavior. But I would just be guessing at all of it and in the end, even if you had the definitive answers to these questions, I seriously doubt that it would help you find peace with this situation.
Here’s what I can offer you which I sincerely hope helps you- and other readers facing similar situations- to help you turn this situation around in your own mind and heart and give you the peace you are craving:
A Buddhist Approach to Dealing with Family-of-origin
From a Buddhist perspective, I would say that there is a lot of suffering in your family right now: it seems to me that you, your father, and your sisters are all suffering deeply as a result of losing your beloved mother and that each family member has in some way or other, become ‘derailed’ and is displaying upsetting and confusing, and sometimes downright, hurtful behavior.
As I said before, you have absolutely no control over how your family members behave and I strongly suggest working on detachment techniques to separate yourself from their behaviours which are hurting you the most. Since you can only control your own thoughts and behaviours, I suggest that you engage in some deep spiritual practices which allow you to first and foremost, embrace yourself in deep love, acceptance and compassion. It is only when we truly love and accept ourselves that we can let go of other peoples’ ‘stuff’ and send them love- even if it needs to be from a distance for our own well-being.
The last thing I want to point out before I end with a couple of my favourite practices for you to try, is that there is always a very good reason for how people behave towards themselves and others; even if as an outsider, we are completely dumbfounded by what we see. Attacking behavior is often driven by fear and past experiences of being deeply hurt. Accepting abuse from another sometimes comes from previous experiences of being abused, or the fear of losing someone dear to one. I’m not sure what is at the root of your father and sisters’ behaviours, and luckily for you, you don’t need to know that information to let go of the hurt and anger and to then transform your approach into one of loving detachment and kindness towards yourself and your family.
Practices to Help You
Use the RAIN meditation method to begin to soften the edges on this painful situation. For a detailed overview on how to do this, read the article I wrote on using RAIN.
Practice the Loving Kindness Meditationtowards yourself, your father, and your sister as often as possible until you feel a significant shift in your feelings- i.e., less anger and more compassion and maybe even sadness. I can personally attest the life-altering shifts which can occur in even our most painful relationships when we do this meditation regularly and with an open heart.
And lastly, use letter-writing to your father and sister to get all of those stuffed emotions up and out by following these guidelines.