Dear Captain Awkward,
I was estranged from my father, who emotionally abused me as a child, for nearly a decade. I was told he was dying of a terminal illness last year and his last wish was to talk to me. I figured, hey he’s a dying man and I’ve processed this in therapy. I can give him some closure.
He ended up receiving a life-saving operation and has been given several more years. His recovery from the operation is grueling but he is stable and out of the hospital.
My problem is that I only came back into his life to say goodbye. I don’t want a relationship with him. I don’t want anything to do with him. I am occasionally re-traumatized by his behavior and even if I weren’t, I don’t like him. He’s still recovering and has a long road ahead. He needs support. I don’t want to even text him, let alone keep him company.
I’m at a complete loss. It seems needlessly cruel to tell him the truth (“I only reached out because I thought you were dying so hmu when you’re at that point again”), but I don’t see an alternative. Ghosting just makes him pester my mom, sister, and husband. Low contact, even very low contact, is low-key triggering. I’m dealing with too much other shit to come up with a good script. Can you help?”
If you feel like you must say something to your dad before doing whatever you were doing before to gain peace and distance from him, maybe try this:
“Dad, I am so relieved that your recent health scare wasn’t the end, and I appreciated the chance to give you and Mom some peace of mind during a difficult time. But that doesn’t mean our relationship has fundamentally changed. I wish you well, but I plan to go on keeping my distance now that we’ve had a chance to say our goodbyes.”
This doesn’t have to be a conversation or negotiation where he gets to have his say. You’re not asking permission, you are communicating a decision that you’ve made, so if it helps, put it in a greeting card and drop it in the mail. Done.
If (when) he tries other tactics, you can adapt that same script to set boundaries with your mom, sister, and husband: “I was grateful that I could grant Dad/you some peace of mind in a terrible moment, but that doesn’t mean anything has changed about the reasons we are no longer in touch. I wish him well, but for my own well-being, I plan to go on keeping my distance now that I’ve said my goodbyes.”
With these other family members, you might add something like “I realize that Dad is putting you in an uncomfortable spot, and I’m sorry about that, but I’m not going to change my mind. There is nothing you can do to fix what’s broken between us, and I am asking you directly to stop passing on messages and pressuring me to be in touch with him. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve said our goodbyes.”
These scripts are for you, to help you say what you need to say so that you can close the book for yourself. They aren’t about convincing anybody of the rightness of your decision or persuading anybody out of their hurt. Even if you frame it as a series of good things [1) He didn’t die! 2) You both got to say your goodbyes like he wanted!], there is no version of this or any script that your dad wants to hear or will accept, and he will likely take it out on anybody else in your family who will still take his calls. So once you deliver them, you’ll need to adopt or adapt all the boundary-maintenance measures that you already know how to do: Not responding to communications from or about your dad, changing the subject whenever he comes up, and cutting conversations short when you need to for your own peace of mind.
If your mom and sister are acting as his caregivers, consider that there are lots of ways to show up in their lives and be supportive of them without having to engage with your dad or spend every moment rehashing the latest details of his condition. Depending on your capacity, that could mean material support with meals, housekeeping, babysitting any niblings to give your sister a break, making sure mom and sister are taking good care of their own health, or arranging treats and distractions now and again. It could also mean words of encouragement, such as “I’m glad Dad has you in his corner, and you’re doing such a good job looking after him” as you change the subject to literally anything but That Fucking Guy. The same will be true when he eventually dies, since nobody has to feel any certain way about the un-dearly departed in order to keep hot coffee and casseroles flowing to the grieved and bereaved.
Estrangement is painful and lonely. There is always the “But what if the person DIES?” pressure from people who haven’t lived through what you’ve lived through, and people who don’t realize that almost nobody cuts off contact with a close family member as a passing whim. So whenever I hear of someone cutting ties permanently, I ask myself how bad would things have to get for me to never want to speak to someone again, and I generally try to assume that whatever happened to them was at least that bad. Letter Writer, now that you’ve lived through the “But what if he DIES?” scenario, and the answer is “He’s still exactly the same crappy person who caused me no end of grief.” If the pain of not having a dad anymore is still less than the pain of having to keep dealing with that specific, nightmare dad, then I believe you, and encourage you to keep doing what you need to do to protect yourself from abuse. You did a very kind, generous thing when you didn’t have to, and I hope you are giving yourself a lot of love and credit for that.
I’m wishing you peace and comfort in the days ahead.