During the Advent season of 2020, my family and I received news that my Floridian Grandma passed away due to complications from surgery. This was a complicated loss for our my immediate family and I, but I will speak for myself, because each person in family’s experience is unique and similar.
I love my Grandma. I have many fond memories of her from my childhood in the Midwest & Southeast. She forever impacted my life. True to her Southern roots she instilled values of cleanliness being next to godliness, a stubborn strength and determination, the gift of gab and oral tradition, and that sassing your elders was disrespectful. Many of the better aspects of her spirit lives on in my mother and I even to an extent my nieces. Despite the fond memories and redeemable life lessons, my relationship with her became increasingly complex as I aged and matured. Even as a young child I knew something wasn’t right, but sometimes as children we struggle to verbalize and articulate the mature issues we are faced with.
Teetering on the edge of an eating disorder my sophomore year of high school, I began the long process of facing the emotional, mental, and sometimes physical abuse I experienced perpetrated by my Grandma. Faced with sliding further into destructive, disordered eating, I made a choice to discontinue all communication with my Grandma. I chose myself- my health and healing. I knew I couldn’t heal while still hearing her voice whether in-person or on the phone. This pained me very much because I valued our relationship, our common history, our memories, and the laughter and joy we shared.
When my family confronted me about my disorder eating and rapid weight loss, I broke down and explained the years of abuse. My family knew my Grandma was prone to divisiveness, manipulation, etc. Select healthy boundaries with her already existed. However, they were unaware of what she did behind closed doors or when she spoke publicly certain “healthy or good” sentiments what she truly meant. This isn’t uncommon for abuse victims to hear a very different conversation than what meets the ear at face value. My immediate family believed me and rallied behind me which I’m forever grateful and humbled. They’ve gone above and beyond protecting me from my Grandma through the years while they respected and supported my various decision of how I did or did not communicate with her.
After I spent the next two and a half years healing, I resumed contact with my Grandma with set boundaries: which days I would communicate with her, limit to only phone calls and letters, the duration of phone calls, discontinue phone calls if unacceptable communication arose, etc. But I was in the early, juvenile phases of learning healthy boundaries. I continued to communicate with her throughout college on an inconsistent, consistent basis. She visited on occasion from Florida and even attended my older brother’s wedding. I held out some hope that our relationship could resume with healthy boundaries until each phone call nearing my college graduation digressed worse and worse.
In Townsend and Cloud’s Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, they explain: “We can’t actually set limits on others. “What we can do is set limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly; we can’t change them or make them behave right.” I began limiting my communication with my Grandma after warnings against negative behavior and communication. After a full fledge verbal assault on every aspect of my life, character, and faith on Easter Morning a month before my college graduation, I made the final choice that I no longer owed my abuser any filial obligation. The limits I set weren’t working. At 21 years old, I chose to stop communicating with my Grandma in-person or verbally. I continued to send cards and write letters on occasion.
After I sought professional Catholic counseling due to unrelated concerns in my mid-20s, I finally worked through the many layers with a professional therapist. He assigned a couple books to help provide a framework to our sessions. He was the first person who identified and labeled my experience as abuse- emotional, physical, and emotional. What a terrible reality to identify your Grandmother as your abuser. I knew it deep in my heart, body, and soul. Once the words escaped my counselor’s lips there was no going back. My heart broke again. This time I experienced a very new sensation- the raw beginnings of freedom. Dr. K provided me with a set of strategies and tools that I could resolve to implement. Instructed to only resume contact if and only if I could practice healthy boundaries mostly emotional and mental boundaries with myself, I could chose the appropriate timeline if ever. If she persisted in certain behaviors, it was not my duty as her granddaughter to endure abuse.
As a practicing Christian, this forced distance from a loved one can be a difficult pill to swallow. Christianity is fundamentally relationship oriented. Bearing abuse is not a qualification of faithful discipleship. Healthy boundaries are loving because they are not only self-oriented but other oriented. The hope is that a healthy and well intended boundary not only protects your dignity as a child of God but the other person(s)’ dignity too whether recognized or reciprocated or not. Another important aspect of the healing process was forgiveness. Again as Christians, we can confuse forgiveness with reconciliation or an apology. “The Bible is clear about two principles: (1) We always need to forgive, but (2) we don’t always achieve reconciliation. Forgiveness is something that we do in our hearts; we release someone from a debt that they owe us. We write off the person’s debt, and she no longer owes us. We no longer condemn her. She is clean. Only one party is needed for forgiveness: me. The person who owes me a debt does not have to ask my forgiveness. It is a work of grace in my heart.” “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No” by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend
Forgiving my Grandma took years. I realized, after a few years, I still held the debt of her abuse against her. “If you continue to blame other people for “making” you feel guilty, they still have power over you, and you are saying that you will only feel good when they stop doing that. You are giving them control over your life. Stop blaming other people.” I struggled to forgive myself too. I can’t blame my Grandma for my decision to make destructive life decisions based off the abuse I received. The abuse is not my fault. How I inflicted more trauma from my wounds on myself and others is. Thanks be to God we have such a Merciful and Loving Heavenly Father! Years of the Sacramental life of The Church, spending time in Eucharistic Adoration, spiritual devotions, praying the Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet, continued Catholic counseling, and spiritual reading helped release the shackles of control and grant the graces to forgive.
When my life shattered into little pieces with a debilitating health crisis in my mid-20s, I participated in a weekend Young Adult Retreat. I left that retreat a changed women. God found me in one of the bleaker, desperate moments of my life when I felt completely stripped and laid bare which forever changed my life. One of the retreat themes was “Be Held.” A concept at the time and even now is a strenuous challenge in virtue against my controlling tendencies. During confession, the priest directed as my penance (which he knew I would take gravely serious) asked me to leave, walk into the next room, and offer myself up to our Lord in Eucharistic Adoration. I was to offer everything- all my brokenness, failings, sins, virtues, gifts, darkness, suffering, abuse, joys, etc. He said I was shackled by my chains of control, my inability to forgive myself, and trust in God’s promises. I would never be free and open to the infinite beauty, wholeness, and freedom of God’s plan for my life until I did. Rattled, drained, and suffering from a severe migraine, I collapse onto the couch before Our Lord in the Monstrance. Broken open, I offered it all. I forgave myself finally. I no longer grasped with clenched fists. I open my palms in praise to God.
Another challenge I navigated was discerning whether there was a relationship to resume or not with my Grandma. “Many people are too quick to trust someone in the name of forgiveness and not make sure that the other is producing “fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). To continue to open yourself up emotionally to an abusive or addicted person without seeing true change is foolish. Forgive, but guard your heart until you see sustained change.” for all my prayers and hopes, no sustained change ever occurred. I prayed everyday for my Grandma’s conversion. I prayed for her blessing, protection, healing, and peace. Close to a year before her death, I visited in-person with my Father (who was my protector and moderator) while on a business trip after seven years of letters and cards. During that interaction, I discovered I was free of her power over me. She could no longer hurt me in the ways of old. This was an experience of great hope and healing after years of diligence and suffering. Her inability through the years to accept any responsibility or recognize her abusive behavior festered into a tragic state. Sadly, in this life, my Grandma and I never reconciled.
When I learned of her death, I struggled to feel the more common feelings or emotions associated with the death of a loved one and close family member. This women and I barely interacted since I was sixteen. After talking with multiple family members, all I could conjure was an immense gratitude and a deep sense of peace. My bold choice sixteen years ago sent a ripple outward. My immediate family modified their communication and behavior over the years to better protect they and their own families. God brought good out of a bad situation- a generational sin bad situation. After spending time with my Aunt while visiting family in Cambridge, U.K. in 2011, I realized I was, at the minimum, the second generation to experience this emotional and mental abuse. I was determined that this would not continue to a 3rd generation. When I held my infant niece and godchild in my arms at seventeen, I resolved that she would not live what I lived through or I would die trying. By God’s grace, therapy, and the support/determination of my immediate family, this cycle of abuse ended. We discovered a new way of life my Grandma never experienced. By the evening of my Grandma’s death, I cried a few tears. Complex tears filled with 31 years of life, love, loss, and abuse.
I love my Grandma. I hope and pray for her salvation. I trust that God will be the most merciful, loving Creator towards his daughter. My Grandma lacked peace in this life; I believe and hope she finally experienced the peace she could not find in this life. God will sort all this out in His loving and capable hands.
Rest in Peace, Grandma.
Love Your Granddaughter, Hannah
*** All quotations in BOLD are from “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No” by Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend