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Dealing with Guilt Over the Death of an Unloving Parent – Part 1

A man I mentored years ago, called me a few months back to tell me that his father had died. I knew that his father, although a public Christian, was privately emotionally abusive to his whole family. All his adult children were afraid of him. So, when he finished, I asked him this question, “You’re feeling very guilty right now because you’re really not sad about his death, aren’t you?”

“Oh my gosh, how did you know?”, was his response, said with palpable relief in his voice that the elephant in the room was finally out. He could talk about his guilt. I assured him that many other fine Christians, who’ve had an unkind or abusive parent beside him, have felt the same emotions.

Many aren’t sad because the person who made them so miserable is finally gone, but they do feel guilty. They’re relieved that they will no longer have to dread holidays with that parent, or hear from brothers and sisters who cannot or don’t want to forgive and forget, or think you’re nuts because the abuse didn’t happen to them. Like Holocaust survivors, the unstated motto of some abuse survivors has become “never forget.”

But now, they have to stand in line at the funeral home, put on a sad face and endure people saying all kinds of nice things about their parent. They’re sad that the kindness of their deceased parent was rarely shared with them. Another reaction is anger that these people would actually want to honor such a dishonorable person. It feels like abuse heaped on abuse. They either want this farce to be over, or for someone to tell them, they understand and that they knew their parent was unkind at them. They really want to hear, “it’s okay to be sad.”

Sound familiar? Here are some thoughts I shared with him. 1. It’s okay to not feel sad. You can’t force yourself to feel a sadness you don’t have. What you’re feeling is an honest reaction to the death of a person who hurt you deeply. As my wife often says, “It is what it is!”

2. Take care to not relive the memories in your mind. It’s a real temptation to privately and endlessly recall the pain and the words, said or unsaid. We tend to fondle these kinds of memories don’t we? But, doing so will only harden your heart and make you feel self-righteous. The person who hurt you is dead. Pray for the Holy Spirit to keep you from the temptation to bring them back to life again. Resist replaying mentally, what you wish you had had the courage to tell them while they were still alive. We use the term, forgive and forget a lot in Christian circles. I’ve found it’s easier to forgive than to forget. But the key to forgetting is to stop reliving the memory, as soon as it pops into your head.

3. Get godly counsel and do what they tell you to do. Go to your pastor and ask for the name of a spiritually mature Christian therapist. It’s my experience that these issues are very complex and generally beyond either the competency of most pastors, or the time your pastor has available.

4. Honor your father and your mother. I’ve been asked hundreds of times, how a Christians can honor a father or mother who were not honorable. My long answer can be read in this blog ( The short answer is this; while you can’t make yourself truly honor your parents emotionally, here’s what you can do: you can speak respectfully to them and about them to others.

Resist the temptation to tell and retell the stories or to speak disrespectfully about your parents in public, or in the presence of your own children. I’ve been with people who’ve had horrendous parents who tell the same stories over and over. It’s shaped their whole worldview. It’s almost as if they wouldn’t really know who they were if they truly forgave and let the memory go. If that describes you, pray for the wisdom and discernment and let it go.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.“ Ephesians 4:29-31

This Thursday I’ll post Part 2: Things you shouldn’t and should say at a funeral.

Following Jesus in Real Life

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