Question

My mother passed away recently. I love my mom, but I don’t have the fondest memories of her. My parents are great in many ways. Growing up they were a wonderful example of service to others.

But I was a sad and lonely child in need of attention. My mom was always busy. I noticed my mom and sister would talk but she and I didn’t have conversations. I remember only two compliments I received from my mother. However, growing up she often said to me things like, “You’re so dense.” My sister didn’t get criticized.

I would clean the house often, probably wanting praise that I didn’t get. My parents didn’t hug us or express their love for us kids or to each other. We didn’t have family time together.

Shortly before her passing, when my sister walked in the room, she said “There’s my favorite daughter.” My mother didn’t take an interest in my children, but my sister’s children were doted on, which my children noticed.

In my mind I rationalized a good childhood. How do I come to terms with everything?

Answer

The childhood wounds of emotional neglect and criticism are very real, as they’re imprinted when we’re in our most dependent and vulnerable state. They can create templates for how we do relationships. They can impact our view of God. I hear how painful it’s been to go through life longing to have your mother see you in a way that made sense to you. It’s even more difficult when your sister and her family received the affection and attention you desperately craved. Losing your mother means, at least for now, there aren’t future earthly opportunities to have a direct corrective experience with her. Let’s talk about how you might begin to find some resolution with this tangle of emotions.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks reminded us that “our greatest expressions of joy or pain in mortality come from the members of our families.”[i] Like all of us, you’ve experienced the full range of emotions in your relationship with your mother. The temptation, especially after someone passes, is to honor them by only spotlighting the positive memories. The challenge, of course, is knowing what to do with the other memories that linger in the shadows.

If coming to terms with everything means you’re left only with secure and loving memories of your mother, then you’ll struggle to honor your experiences as you try to honor her. It’s healthy (and less crazy-making) to embrace both realities as equally true. Your mother had strengths and made important contributions to you and others. She also didn’t show you the love and attention you craved. What’s it like for you to sit with both of those realities at the same time? I encourage you to stay with the tension of those truths and allow yourself to experience the full range of emotions that encapsulate your story with your mother.

This is the kind of tension familiar to God as told in the story of Enoch in the Pearl of Great Price. As Enoch witnesses sweeping views of both goodness and wickedness, he also witnesses God weeping over His creations. Naturally, he’s confused by this reaction and asks an honest question about God’s tears. God answers his children’s choices and struggles are painful to witness. He could certainly focus on just the good stuff, but he allows himself to feel the full range of joy and sorrow.[ii]

Honoring our parents is less about putting them on a pedestal or agreeing with how they did things, but, rather, more about synthesizing the complexities of their lives. While we don’t have to overemphasize their weaknesses and struggles to validate our pain, we also don’t have to pretend they lived lives free of painful impact on those around them. Seeing them as three-dimensional fellow travelers allows us to embrace our own messiness in mortality as we learn from their lives.

Because of your experiences in your home growing up, I’m guessing you committed years ago to show more love, affirmation, and connection with your own children. I believe honoring our parents also includes learning from their humanness and committing to do better. I certainly hope my children won’t be afraid to acknowledge the very real struggles in our home, but also choose to learn and do better.

Also, I don’t think it’s necessary to judge the mistakes of our parents with snap conclusions about their character. Instead, I think it’s important to pull back the curtain and understand as much as we can about their unique life journeys. While understanding these stories doesn’t erase the impact of their struggles, it can increase compassion for the complexities of their journeys.

I believe family healing is more likely to happen as we speak truth paired with compassion for ourselves and others. This isn’t easy and, in fact, we are commanded to allow ourselves to be filled with this level of love from our Savior, as we are simply incapable of generating it ourselves.[iii] This increased capacity for love will help you think about and speak about your experiences with your mother from a more truthful place that includes both the joy and sorrow. Your mother cannot restore what she couldn’t give. However, turning to your Savior and asking him to fill you with Him will fill you with the love you needed. I trust that as you embrace the full scope of your experience with this compassion, you will see that for both you and your mother, finally, “mercy…overpowereth justice.”[iv]

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]  


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About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

The advice offered through Geoff Steurer’s column is educational and informational in nature and is provided only as general information. It is not meant to establish a therapist-patient relationship or offer therapeutic advice, opinion, diagnosis treatment or to establish a standard of care. Although Geoff Steurer is a trained psychotherapist, he is not functioning in the role of a licensed therapist by writing this column, but rather using his training to inform these responses. Thus, the content is not intended to replace independent professional judgment. The content is not intended to solicit clients and should not be relied upon as medical or psychological advice of any kind or nature whatsoever. The information provided through this content should not be used for diagnosing or treating a mental health problem or disease. The information contained in these communications is not comprehensive and does not include all the potential information regarding the subject matter, but is merely intended to serve as one resource for general and educational purposes.

[i] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1991/04/honour-thy-father-and-thy-mother?lang=eng

[ii] See Moses 7:4-37

[iii] Moroni 7:48

[iv] Alma 34:15