I have been pulled away from my day-to-day responsibilities in recent weeks in order to spend time with my mother, who died earlier this month. She was 89, frail, and very ready to “transition,” but I miss her.
In my family, my mother was the brightly shining sun at the center of our universe, and the rest of us were dull planets circling her for warmth and light, and trying not to get burned in the process. For years, my mother’s approval meant more to me than anything else. If she was pleased with me, any disappointments faded into insignificance. If she was angry with me, I felt sick with dread.
My car accident happened when I was 22 years old and just beginning to strive for independence from my parents. In the midst of trauma, grief and fear, I pulled away from my mother – avoiding her telephone calls, discouraging visits, and choosing not to respond to cards and notes. She was puzzled, hurt and, eventually, angry.
I have given a lot of thought to why I distanced myself from the person who loved me most. I wanted the accident to make me a stronger, better person, and I felt I could not achieve that goal if I allowed myself to rely on my mother. I wanted to rely on myself instead.
There were other reasons, less clear to me at the time. Although the accident was not my fault, I felt horribly ashamed that I had exposed my family to legal and financial risk as well as community censure. And despite sincere assurances of love and support, my mother kept the accident a secret from even her closest friends and advised me not to talk about it. Before the accident, we presented ourselves to the world as a charmed family – happy, attractive and successful. The accident represented a big crack in this façade.
My parents were full of helpful advice, most of which was absolutely correct. For instance, they recommended that I sell my car and generously offered to buy me another one, so I wouldn’t be reminded of the accident every time I drove. But I refused to accept their advice, and the upshot was that I stopped driving altogether for almost two years. What they didn’t realize was that making my own decisions was more important to me at that time in my life than making the “right” decisions. Their advice, however well-meaning, suggested to me that they didn’t trust me to make good decisions. And I desperately needed someone to say, “I trust you,” because I definitely did not trust myself.
Finally, I was aware that the accident upset my parents, especially my mother, tremendously. They felt devastated by the death of a young child and his family’s anguish. They were also very worried about my wellbeing. They tried to shield me from their sorrows and anxiety, and I tried to shield them from my own distress, but of course we knew better. It was easier, somehow, to promise them that I was fine and moving on with life. If I confessed to the hallucinations, flashbacks, grief, guilt, and terror I felt, I feared I would break down. And the weight of my parents’ feelings was simply more than I could bear.
I often hear from parents who write something along the lines of, “My son/daughter doesn’t talk about the accident. Is that a problem?”
The answer is “it depends.” If the son/daughter has a strong support system or a good therapist, perhaps they are receiving the help they need. If they are keeping their thoughts and feelings bottled up, I expect that there may come a time when they will want to receive some counseling. Pushing them, however, probably won’t help. The most important thing parents can do is convey their love and their readiness to listen and help, without judgment and while managing their own feelings.