Beyond Shame – Reconciling Complex Parental Relationships

By Lorraine Le, January 26, 2024

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Beyond Shame is a mission-driven column, aimed at destigmatizing difficult human experiences, offering insights and strategies to empower personal growth, healing, and deeper connections.

"When you don’t know where to start, begin with the end in mind."

Last week, I experienced a panic attack – a rarity for me these days. After a two-hour wait to speak with my father's oncologist, I had learned that my dad had explicitly instructed the medical team not to share any information about his illness with the family, including me.

This revelation hit hard, prompting a lot of masked tears and hyperventilation. I eventually found refuge in a bathroom cubicle, allowing myself to confront the full extent of my fears; I've never shared a deep emotional bond with my dad, and as he approaches the end, the chance for the closeness I crave feels even more out of reach.

My father is dying of late-stage mesothelioma, with the doctors projecting “short to medium” months ahead.

Connecting on a deep level with my father has been a lifelong goal and struggle. Despite my many hope-filled attempts to express and seek love, the sense of not being perceived as enough, or being seen as a failure in his eyes, lingers in parts of me I don’t connect to often.

His past, marked by surviving poverty, hunger, the Cultural Revolution, immigration, and unhealthy cultural and familial norms, shaped his perception of love and emotional wellbeing as luxuries, not necessities.

Even since moving to Australia 36 years ago and living a life that has been free from the challenges mentioned above, the emotional walls erected so many years ago have always persisted. And because of that, his relationships have been few and far between.

Even in the face of death, it pains me to see that my dad finds solace in dealing with his difficulties alone. Our emotional distance persists, but in the time remaining, I want to strive to let him know how much he means to me, despite our past relationship’s lack of depth.

As I navigate anticipatory grief with my therapist, a crucial question has helped me during this time: What can I do before my father passes to avoid feeling regret? What do I need to do to feel I have done enough?

My answer is – I want him to know he is not alone, and that I love, care, and appreciate him deeply.

In our silent interactions, I've slowly found ways to connect with him. Daily forehead kisses evoke a simple “thank you.” Moisturizing his skin, though done in silence, provides visible comfort and allows me a way to express my care. 

Sitting together in silence, sharing physical space, I hope can help alleviate any loneliness he might feel. And forcing myself to say the words “I love you,” even when I’m scared, has initiated a gradual reciprocation that means more to me than he will ever know.

I’m learning to respect his boundaries, understanding that my role – as defined by my own answer – is to bring happiness and peace, not challenge or conflict. I’m accepting that the gestures he permits are enough, and that the angst I sometimes get from feeling that I want to do more, share more, or connect in more depth before he passes is something that is driven by my own ego and not necessarily what he wants or needs.

For many of us who lack emotional connections with our parents, it can undoubtedly leave enduring voids.

A significant part of my journey with my own parents has involved recognizing their humanity, understanding that they carry their own past hurts and traumas, and realizing that their experiences have shaped their understanding of love in a way that differs from my own – and that's perfectly okay.

Even as a mother with two children of my own, in the presence of my parents, I still find myself reverting to that inner child – seeking love, acceptance, and approval.

Acknowledging this dynamic exists is important, but perhaps what is more crucial is developing self-awareness, dismantling the pedestal that places them as fulfillers of our needs, and seeing them as individuals beyond parenthood, each with their own limitations.

Genuine self-worth, I've learned, comes from fulfilling our own needs rather than seeking approval or love from those we crave it from.

Relationships with parents are often (always?) complex, but they don’t always have to be all or nothing. I’ve found for myself that working with a therapist to create and express my boundaries has allowed me to maintain meaningful relationships with mine, despite any challenges.

If your own relationship with your parents is complex, but you know for certain you want to find a way to make it work, try starting from the end. What actions can be taken before they pass one day to avoid feeling regret? What do you need to do to feel that you've done enough?

You don’t need to wait until illness strikes; you can begin again today.

And, if your answer is nothing, that's perfectly okay too. Only you can truly know what is best for you.

Epilogue

A few weeks after writing this column, my father passed. I was blessed to be by his side when it happened.

Seeing the signs, the nurse told me what was happening and told me to focus on speaking to and being with my father.

He passed as I held him tightly, telling him I loved him and not to be scared. I’d like to believe he passed without any doubt in his mind that he was loved deeply.


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Lorraine Le is the Founder of Mental Health platform Inward Living, and CEO of The Kindness Dealer, a confidential and bespoke consultancy that specializes in in-depth sessions for people to gain a 'birds-eye view' of their struggles and the influences that have and continue to shape them. 

To get in touch or follow her advocacy and work, contact Lorraine through the WeChat ID: growwithlorraine or follow @growwithlorraine on Instagram, and @growwithlorraine on YouTube.

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[Cover image courtesy of Lorraine Le]


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