I’d thought many times about how I’d feel the day my mom died. 

It wouldn’t be a celebration by any means. I wouldn’t be glad, wouldn’t be happy, but I also didn’t think I’d be necessarily devastated. I knew it would be sad, as it always is when someone we know passes away, but I also expected to feel a strange sense of . . . relief. Not relieved she was gone, of course, but relieved to be free of the hold she had over me, relieved to see us both out from under the toxic cloud she carried with her everywhere she went. Relieved to no longer be under her influence even though that meant I could never again be in her presence. 

My mom was not well, in every sense of the word. She was mentally ill, emotionally volatile, manipulative, deceptive, attention-seeking, competitive, and spiteful. Much of the harm she caused could be chalked up to her mental illnesses, but just because they had a name, didn’t make them any less painful to experience. I don’t like to use the word often because I feel it’s too liberally applied, but my mother was, indeed, a toxic person. She created chaos everywhere she went and brought pain into the lives of anyone who got close to her. 

But she was also my mother, the only one I had. 

I’m an only child, and when she and my father divorced it was just her and me against the world for a very long time. I knew she wasn’t right, I knew her behavior and treatment of me wasn’t OK, but I was too young to do anything about it but survive. 

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As an adult, I made the decision to keep her in my life at arm’s length, close enough to maintain a surface relationship with her that could still scratch me, but not close enough that she could get past me to hurt my kids. I knew what she was and chose to love her as-is.

Or so I thought. 

One of the great heartbreaks of having a toxic parent is the constant mourning of the parent you’ll never have. No matter how many times you grieve the good mom who shows up to take you home, the good mom who can keep a job and doesn’t get evicted every other month, the good mom who doesn’t view you as competition, you still have a secret part of you that longs for that mom. There’s still something inside your heart that hopes your toxic parent will recognize the error of their ways, will apologize for their faults and flaws, and somehow make it up to you.

But they never do. And the longer you keep the painful parent in your life, the longer you hold on to that dangerous hope, the longer you mourn the parent you deserved but didn’t get. 

When the actual day came and I found myself in a room with my mom’s lifeless body, I didn’t feel anything like I’d imagined I would.

I wasn’t relieved, but I wasn’t devastated. I’m sure a lot of what I felt was shock. I wasn’t upset that I hadn’t gotten to recite my scathing deathbed judgments of her. I wasn’t upset that I wouldn’t get to say anything to her. It definitely registered that she was gone, I just couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel much of anything. 

Over the next several days I cried, sure, but not inconsolably. I was sad, yes, but not bedridden. I’m sure I seemed like a heartless monster. I loved my mother, I did, but our relationship had required protecting myself from her for so long that there was a wall that was taking some time to get through. Even in death, I was holding her at arm’s length because I was afraid of being hurt. And even in death, she found ways to hurt me, because, well, she was just that toxic. 

It took a long time for regular grief to sink in because I’d already grieved her so many times while she was alive. I’d grieved the mother she’d never be. I’d grieved her mental health, grieved our relationship, grieved my childhood. Our life together had been one of pain and loss that required so much healing that by the time I actually said goodbye to her, there wasn’t much left to say.

There weren’t any what-ifs because I’d mourned them long before she’d passed away. There was no sting of the empty seat at Christmas because she had already let us down every year and we were used to it. My life was so marked by her absence and attacks that the thought of her not being around anymore didn’t immediately present as any great loss. Like I said, I’d grieved her so many times when she was alive it made it a somewhat smoother transition to grieve her in death.  

But months later, I found myself sobbing out of nowhere. My mom was dead, my mom, and I was devastated.

She wasn’t coming back. We’d never talk again, never share memories again, never . . . wait. I was grieving all right, but I wasn’t grieving her. I was back to grieving who she might have been. If my mom were to miraculously walk through the door now, would we talk and share memories? Or would she find ways to criticize me and tell fantastic lies? Is it my mom I’m missing, or is it that hope of her making it up to me that I’m mourning? 

Probably a little of both. 

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Not long after, I had a dream about her—the first one since she’d died. I dreamed that our entire family was going to eat at a restaurant for my birthday, and I saw my mother walk in. It stopped me cold because I knew she was dead. No one else could see her, only me. She was furious that there wasn’t a seat saved next to me for her even though no one else could see her, even though she was, in essence, a ghost. So I had to ask a living family member to scoot over, and I sat awkwardly to appease the ghost of my uptight mother. I spent the entire meal making sure she felt like she was getting paid enough attention because no one else was talking to her—since, you know, she was a ghost. The whole time she had such a look of displeasure on her face, a look I knew so well from her time here on earth. Even in my sleep, even in my subconscious, my spirit knew that what I was mourning wasn’t time with my mother, it was having a mother. 

I’m allowed to love and miss my toxic mother.

She did me a lot of harm, and the scars will last much longer than she did. But she was still my mom, and I still made the choice to have her in my life. Some people choose to cut all ties, and that is their decision to make. They’re allowed to miss, grieve, and love the family they sever all ties with as well. Protecting yourself from a toxic family member doesn’t make you as cold as stone, it acknowledges that you’re breakable and soft, so you’re going to feel the pangs of separation. 

I’m feeling those pangs now. I’m grieving the mother I never had more than ever now. Now that small shadow of hope that used to be able to cling to someday is lost, tumbling around with nothing to hold on to. Now my hope of having a good mom, however irrational and unfair that hope was, is impossible. It’ll never happen. She’ll never make it up to me. She’ll never apologize to me, see the error of her ways, see me succeed in spite of her. I don’t get any payback, ungodly revenge, nothing to make all of what she’s done to me seem worth it. 

So I mourn. I mourn because now she’ll really never be the mom I wanted and needed. I mourn because she seems to have gotten away with being the toxic person she was. I mourn because she is gone and I am here, left to carry the scars and do the work of healing what she has done. I mourn because there is no justice when your parents are toxic because it’s not fair, because it really is over, because I really am not ever going to see my mom again. And I mourn because I don’t feel a bit of the relief I expected to.

Jennifer Vail

Jennifer is married to the very handsome man she's loved half her life, with whom she juggles 3 hilarious, quirky, sometimes-difficult-but-always-worth-the-work kids. She is passionate about people and 90's pop culture, can't go a week without TexMex, and maintains the controversial belief that Han shot first. She holds degrees in counseling and general ministries, writes at This Undeserved Life, and can often be found staying up too late but rarely found folding laundry.