by Christina Enevoldsen
I’d known my dad was getting close to the end. Ever since I’d really been facing my sexual abuse, I’d wondered how I’d deal with his impending death. There’s such a fantasy about deathbed reconciliations. Death makes us consider what’s really important in life—love and the people close to us.
After a six year estrangement, I didn’t follow the advice of well-meaning people to “let bygones be bygones” before it was too late. I couldn’t buy into the “he won’t be around forever” threat.
It reminds me of a high-pressure sales pitch, “Hurry! This deal won’t last!!!” But what kind of an offer is that? The advertised version of the last moments with my dad would be bittersweet but fulfilling, but based on my dad’s history, that’s not what I’d really be buying. Rushing to my dad’s deathbed in hopes of finally getting the love I used to crave would be like buying a product from a company that’s repeatedly cheated me.
If he had only been abusive to me during my childhood, maybe I would have had a little more hope for a better outcome. Maybe. But his claims that he loved me while telling others I was lying about his abuse didn’t make me want to trust him. Neither did the fact that he and my mom sued me a few months after I confronted him and gave him one more chance at a relationship with me.
What Does “Too Late” Even Mean?
I don’t regret keeping myself at a safe distance. It’s true that it’s too late to reconcile now but what does “too late” mean? Too late to compromise my well being in an attempt to get something that is almost certain to be harmful? Too late to settle for a false love that meant sacrificing myself so someone else could be fulfilled? Too late doesn’t mean much to me.
Too late means it’s out of my control now that my abuser is dead. But it was already out of my control before he died. The lie is that there was something I could have done to make my dad love me. I tried all my life to earn that from him—to convince him I’m worthy of being loved. It was never in my control. Not in the end, not in the beginning, not in the middle. Never.
I could have been with him at the end, but I could have been with him the entire six years of our estrangement if I’d only set aside my emotional health and renounced my boundaries. The separation from my parents has been the most validating time of my life. Why would it suddenly be an improvement to my life to be with my dad as he died?
My choice to protect myself validated myself in a way that he refused to.
But also miss the person I no longer wanted in my life.
It was nine months before I could bring myself to discuss my dad’s death publicly for fear of hearing someone say, “Good riddance! One less child molester”. Most of the people in my life knew him only as my childhood sexual abuser and that’s all they knew about him.
Some people didn’t understand why I was grieving. Why would I mourn someone who had caused me so much pain? Through him, I lost my innocence, my childhood, my sense of safety, belief in my own personal power, trust, and much, much more. Through him, I lost my connection to a dad, to my mom, my brother, and for years I lost connection with myself.
One person commented to me, “At least you don’t have much to miss.” But that’s not true. There were good times mixed with the abuse and a whole lifetime of loss of the loving father I never had.
I found myself missing what might have been. There were so many “what might have beens”. To honor my feelings and to validate my grief, I decided to have my own small memorial service with a few friends who would sit with me in my pain even though I was mourning a child molester.
My Final Goodbye to My Dad
My dad wasn’t born a child molester. Once upon a time, my dad was an innocent child with a desire to be loved and valued. Somewhere, his life took a detour from what it might have been. In childhood, he took on the pain of his family. My dad told the story of the time his father threw him out the window for not making enough money on his paper route. My dad masked the pain of that incident behind a smile as he talked about it. I can still see him shaking his head, as though he was thinking that he should have worked harder at not making his dad so angry.
I grieved for the childhood my dad never had and for the ways his abuse lied to him about his place in the world. I grieved not only for him, but for how his pain caused an avalanche of misery in my own life and the lives of my children.
When my dad was sixteen, his mother got pregnant and married the father, an alcoholic. The new step-father and my dad fought constantly so my dad joined the Marines when he was seventeen to escape the war at home. Eventually, he became a VMO-6 pilot in the Korean War, flying casualties from the front lines to medical facilities. The flights were made at night, under enemy fire, in all types of weather, without adequate instrumentation or a homing device. My dad was shot down twice behind enemy lines and feared for his life regularly. He was a hero to those wounded men.
I grieved that my dad was a hero to wounded soldiers he didn’t know, but he wasn’t a hero to me. He risked his life to rescue others, but he refused to risk his reputation to be reconciled to his only daughter.
At my dad’s memorial service (which I didn’t attend but I saw a recording of), many people recounted stories of how much he had helped them in some way. I don’t know how much of his acts of kindness and generosity were motivated by love rather than to protect his image, but I know he could have done a lot of good in this world. I’m sad that so much of his life was wasted with his perverted cravings and in covering them up.
Some of my most frightening and painful memories come from my dad but some of my favorite childhood memories also come from him. When I was about eight, I insisted that if I could just get high enough, I could fly with an umbrella like Mary Poppins. Being a pilot, he could have explained to me the principles of flight and told me it wasn’t possible. Instead, he went outside with me and threw me up as high as he could. I kept yelling, “Higher, higher!” and he laughed and continued until I was satisfied that I couldn’t fly with an umbrella.
I grieved that though my dad genuinely seemed to enjoy spending time with me, all of my memories with him are tainted. I’ll never know what was motivated by real love and what was grooming me to accept his abuse. The good came with the bad. I learned that love comes at a price and abuse was the price of love.
My dad was an excellent teacher. He was the one who taught me how to drive. I was terrified of having so much power but he eased me into driving slowly until I felt more comfortable. He taught me things I still use today, “Look five cars ahead of you. Whatever that driver is doing will affect you, so be prepared.”
I grieved that with all the many good things my dad taught me, he also taught me a multitude of things about myself that I now know to be lies—things that made me more compliant to his abuse and things that compelled me to carry his shame.
I don’t have any regrets about not saying a final goodbye to my dad. Trading my self-compassion and self-protection for one last time with him would be a price too high to pay. My dad’s death did cause me to think about what’s really important: Life is short, much too short to spend it being abused.
Have you ever struggled with mixed feelings about your abuser? I’d really like to hear your experience. If you’d like to comment, you don’t have to use your real name. Email addresses are never made public.
I’m Christina Enevoldsen and I’m the cofounder of Overcoming Sexual Abuse and the author of The Rescued Soul: The Writing Journey for the Healing of Incest and Family Betrayal. I’m a Strategic Interventionist and Certified Professional Life Coach with a specialty Life Story Certification. As a survivor of incest, sex trafficking and a 21-year long abusive marriage (now remarried to an emotionally healthy, loving and supportive man), I bring personal experience, empathy, and insight as well as professional training to help childhood sexual abuse survivors thrive.