Thursday, July 30, 2009

On Death and Dying and Sex

Sex has been the last thing on my mind in the last week. It was a week ago today that I heard the fateful but expected news from my mother-in-law: her husband of 50 years had just died.

Sue and her mother are both "soldier on" types, and soldier on they did, with sadness, yes, and a few tears, and certainly a lot of lost sleep. But mostly it was graciouness, smiles, poise and grace. They did really well.

The funeral was a memorable affair. So odd! Held at a funeral parlour rather than a church, the ceremony was a bizarre mish-mash of Christian, new-age, secular and Buddhist philosophies. I couldn't get my head around it. A service conducted from the point of view of any of those philosophies would have been fine with me -- it would have felt honest and earnest. But a service from the point of view of ALL of those philosophies felt... a disengenuous, confused mish-mash of an affair. The celebrant had only met with the family for 10 minutes before feeling she had enough information to deliver her homily about the man whom she never met. Cliché after cliché came out. The best was: "He packed more into his 72 years than most pack into a lifetime!"


The service was, of course, more than just this. It was a place for the family to mourn, a place and time for visitors and extended family to come together, a time where we could all get up and say what we admired and remembered fondly about "dad". I shouldn't encapsulate the whole experience by one thing that I found a bit off-putting.

And so it was, I found myself thinking, about Stan's life.

Everyone kept saying all these wonderful things about him, remembering the good times. There was a tinge of realism to the family's comments, though the celebrant really lionized him. But I kept thinking, "and he was a sexual abuser."

And it was tempting for me at times to think that all those good things that were said were a load of codswallop. That here people were honouring this man who was nothing more than a pedophile.

I looked across the room and saw his two granddaughters, both of whom he had abused. Sue was next to me, and all three had tears welling up in their eyes. Sue's sister was a row back, and I couldn't see her face. She, too, had been his victim.

It drove home to me that even a serial abuser like Stan is more than "just" an abuser. He was, also, a working man, a husband, a father. Like the service itself, Stan could not be said to be all bad or all good. He was a part of our family, and there will be an emptiness at future gatherings, where his laugh should have been. And he was also a pedophile who, thankfully, will never again damage another young soul.

It's amazing to think that it's not just "young souls" that he may have damaged, either. Stan's abuse has put a strain on my relationship with Sue, which in turn has had an effect on our children. If we can't sort it out, then it may be that his self indulgent actions from 30 years ago could result in our divorce, and have a major effect on our children -- and on their future relationships. Where does it end?

How many abusers, like Stan, go to their grave as a family secret -- never publicly accused. Never pilloried. Never divorced or even completely estranged from their victims. The secret, I suspect, will die with Sue, her sister, and the (now adult) grandchildren. Will anyone else ever find out?

One of Stan's uncles came and stayed with us. He was the picture of sweetness, helpfulness, and unobtrusiveness. He is a very elderly man, now, and very affectionate to our children, giving them hugs and pats on the back, motivated, no doubt, by warmth and affection.

Was that what motivated his brother, Stan? A need for affection that knew no quenching? Not a power trip, not a sick fetish, but a profound thirsting to be loved? A thirst so big that it turned fatherly affection to damaging, hurtful, amorous acts?

I make absolutely no apology for the man or his actions. More than once while he was still alive did I entertain fantasies of confronting him -- hitting him, punching, kneeing in the gut. I also had fantasies before and during the funeral of the truth coming out. Not to shame him or his memory, but to be honest about it. A funeral, though, is a ritual. We come together to ritually lionize the dead, to comfort the bereaved, to leave unsaid those things best left unsaid. An hour for a glimpse at the casket, a hug, a few words from speakers, a ceremonial carrying of the coffin to the hearse, a cup of coffee and a muffin and see you at christmas. Grief for a rushed society.

I went to a funeral once that lasted three days. Everyone who came from outside the village was welcomed one at a time, with long speeches and greetings. Then their were hours of talks in the meeting house, where every person was given the chance to say their peice about the dead man.

Much of the ceremony was conducted in a language I didn't speak, so I don't know exactly what was said. Perhaps it was the same plattiudes as I heard (and spoke) at Stan's funeral, just repeated over and over.

But I would like to believe that there was scope over such a long funeral to speak the truth of a man. To remember his attributes as excatly what they were: some good, some bad, some sublime, some nefarious. And perhaps if we knew, at least at his death, the full truth of each man's life, then the shock of it would not be so great, the scandal not so scandalous, and the healing, therefore, not so tortuous.


As for Sue, we mentioned the abuse once, a night or two before the funeral. I asked her how she came to find out that her older sister had also been abused. She started to tell me, then snapped at me angrily to drop it. I don't know what angered her about it: reflecting on the memory; besmirching a deadman's name; or merely a topic she had grown tired of.

She told me it came out years later. Something her sister's husband had said to her mother. But she had told me long before that, although she didn't like the abuse, she had also felt rejected because her father abused her sister more than her.

It looks like Sue, who is normally very honest, lied to me. Perhaps that's why she snapped at me -- so I wouldn't ask her questions that would mean she would have to tell more and more of a lie. Thirty years on, and she's still not comfortable enough about the whole thing to merely say, "hey, I'm not really comfortable talking about this. Can we drop it?"


Sue has seemed in quite good spirits over the last week. She has mourned, to be sure, and is very sad at the loss of her father. But nonetheless, she seems somehow more laidback, more relaxed, a little freer and happier.

It might just be her week off of work, and the implicit permission that a crisis gives us not to worry about the normal routines. Or maybe it was because I was making an extra effort to look after her and do my bit around the house. Perhaps she was just putting the best face on things. Or perhaps, on some level, her father's passing was a release from her childhood abuse, and all the unhappy feelings she had from him in her youth -- his yelling, his indifference to her academic achievements, his complete incapacity to do housework or look after himself. All this was on top of the sexual abuse.

Does the death of an abuser help their victim get over the pain? It could be a release, of course. Or it could also mean that she could never get closure with him, now that he is not here to hear what he did to her, to apologize to her, to ask her forgiveness.


Too soon:

I got some books out of the library. Laura Davis' "The Courage to Heal" and "The Courage to Heal workbook," self help books for adult victims of childhood sexual abuse. I asked Sue months ago if she was interested, and she said yes, she'd have a look at them if they were from the library. She would buy them if they looked worthwhile.

So, I had some free time in the days between Stan's death and his funeral, and I got them out. Now I have them hidden in a stack of books, waiting for the right moment.

She has enough on her mind right now. I'm worried that if I gave her the books now, she would think I had a sexual agenda: "Your dad is dead, so now can I bone ya?"

On the other hand, this could be perfect timing, while all the emotions are fresh and raw. The books could help her find a healthy step forward and help heal newly reopened wounds.

But when a woman doesn't talk about her emotions, the man in her life is just flying blind. There is only so far you can get with deconstructing gestures, and parsing tone of voice. So who knows.


  1. I wouldn't bring out those books just now. It might indeed come across as opportunistic, or just as insensitive, given that she's said she doesn't want to talk about it.

    I do think she needs to talk about it with both you and a therapist. However, this might not be the time. My guess (having seen my husband and his sibs mourn their tyrannical father) is that she's feeling a really complicated mix of emotions, which are probably as much a mish-mash as the memorial service turned out to be.

    I'm sorry for your loss, and I'm sorry for all the losses that preceded and will still follow it. Grief is easier when we're at peace with the deceased person.

  2. Thanks, Sungold. As you know, I respect your opinion a lot. I guess it was just unfortunate timing that I (finally) remembered to get the books at about the time that Stan died. Oh well. Change is nothing if not a slow process. Sigh.

  3. Wow! Reading this article made me feel a little bit like being punched in the stomach. I'm also a victim of sexual abuse from a family member (an uncle) that happened about 30 years ago as well. I hadn't really thought about it for a very long time now.

    I've never been able to successfully stay in a marriage because of this. My two husbands just didn't understand and I didn't have the capacity to help them understand (it's very paintful). I so respect you for trying to find a way to help your wife with this. I know how completely frustrating it must be for you. You seem very sweet and supportive of her. I really hope the two of you can eventually work through this and come out stronger on the other side of it. Maybe now that her abuser is gone, it could change the dynamic somehow. The best of luck to you both!

  4. Hi Paula, thanks for your feedback and very kind words. I am sorry to hear it was so uncomfortable for you to read. I can see I have so very much yet to learn about the dynamics of adult survivors of sexual abuse. By the grace of God, we'll get there one day. (I'm not a religious person, or in any kind of recovery, but I am starting to feel the need to surrender to a higher power!)

    I read some of the interviews on your website. They are really interesting! :)

  5. Mark, just continuing to mull over this ... while I think your wife could surely benefit from therapy, it sounds like she's far from ready to take that on. And of course, in the short run therapy can increase one's pain.

    But I wonder if it would be helpful for you to speak with a counselor who's got experience with survivors of sexual abuse? It seems to me like you're groping in the dark - as I would be - and some guidance might be invaluable.

    Just a thought. Please ignore if it seems off base!

  6. Hey Sungold, thanks for that. Yes, I think that is an excellent idea. Actually, a counselor I know in another context recommended the book "Allies in Healing" (Laura Davis) to me. But I agree it would be a good idea for me to see him on a professional basis. He used to run groups for partners of abuse survivors. You seem tentative in your suggestion, as if it might offend. I appreciate your kind tact, but I firmly believe in a factoid I picked up years ago: that the average mental health of people in counselling is higher that those who have not gone. Or, as they say, anyone who goes through a hiccup in their life and has not had counselling ought to have their head examined! :)

    BTW, Rae has also recommended to me the book "Ghosts in the Bedroom" (Ken Graber) for the same topic. I have not yet had a chance to read it, but I mention the title in case others reading this might be looking for helpful resources.

  7. Mark, I am just in awe of this post. I'm just sitting here with tears in my eyes and a heart of gratitude for all the love and compassion that you have revealed. It's very healing to read this. Thank you so much for writing it.

    I have thought many times about how I will feel when the day comes that I have to sit next to my sister at her father's funeral. She will no doubt ask me to help her plan for his services. I have committed in my heart to be there for her. But I can only pray that God will be there for me.

    And I know today, after reading your post, that there are others who will know my pain and will be there for me.

  8. Wow. I am so humbled by your response. Thanks so much for sharing your reaction, Rae. It's so good to know that my late night ramblings can have meaning for someone else, too.