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Holiday grief affects daughter after abusive father’s death

In today's "Minding Our Elders" column, Carol says there are ways to try to remember the good and create new memories instead of reliving the bad.

Carol Bradley Bursack updated column sig for online 10-21-19.jpg
Carold Bradley Bursack, "Minding Our Elders" columnist.
The Forum

Dear Carol: Both of my parents are deceased. Dad was an alcoholic who verbally abused everyone, and physically abused both of his daughters. Mom never did anything to stop it because she was afraid of him. During therapy, I’ve worked to rediscover my softer feelings for Mom because she was a victim, too, but my memories of Dad are mixed.

They both loved holidays, but Dad made them super fun with decorations and music (until he drank again), so it’s Dad that I associate with Thanksgiving and Christmas. I find myself aching for those good times. Before you say it, I do intend to go back to therapy, but I wanted your view though since I read your column during Mom’s long decline. Thank you for whatever advice you can provide. — HS.

Dear HS: You have fun memories of holidays with your dad so you long for that time and probably recall them mostly unsullied by his drinking and abuse. To me, that’s entirely normal. Why wouldn’t you grieve his loss during what you remember as your best time with him?

Since you have had counseling and will likely go again, I’ll simply make some suggestions that might help you restructure your holiday routines. These activities aren’t meant to cover up your grief and longing, but to give you a chance to look beyond it.

  • Celebrate yourself in whatever way feels safest. For example, if your dad loved Thanksgiving turkey or colored lights on a Christmas tree, consider providing a version of that for yourself as a way to cement your good memories. Alternately, if those reminders bring pain, you could create a completely different atmosphere for yourself with perhaps an all-natural theme of greenery decorated with ribbon, nuts, berries and white fairy lights. Play music that brings back your good memories or make a new holiday playlist just for your own pleasure. Reminding yourself frequently that alcoholism is a disease may help, as well. While that doesn’t excuse your dad's behavior, consciously remembering this as part of who he was may make cherishing your good memories easier.
  • Reach out to others. As with everything, how you approach this will depend on what feels safe enough to try. There may be a time for activism in abuse communities someday, but for now, maybe you could volunteer for an organization that collects gifts for children, spend time at an animal shelter or help at a meal kitchen or food pantry. The idea is to get out of yourself enough to remember that while you won’t forget your childhood, you don’t have to continue to live in it.
  • Remind yourself that the popular view of unrestrained joy during the holidays isn’t the reality for most people. You aren’t alone with your complicated feelings, so talking with friends may help.

You are still grieving the deaths of your parents as well as the childhood that might have been — and that’s a heavy load. I’m glad to read that you plan on continuing therapy.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at She can be reached through the contact form on her website.

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