My grandmother was a woman careful with position and careless with humans. The family whispered that a scandal in her youth forced her to be married to a poor man from the wrong side of town. She lost the privilege and deference she’d always treasured.
My grandmother never got over the loss and became bitter and shrew, obsessed with image, power and control. My strongest memory of Grandmother is watching her play cards with her friends and creeping too close. She gestured widely, her cigarette brushed my arm and burned. When I made a sound she grabbed me and pushed the cigarette into my arm again, telling me that this time I’d remember not to get in the way. The circle of ladies’ faces were shocked — and silent.
I fled with a new scar and the quiet haunting me.
When she died the emotions were complicated and deep — rage and sorrow, love and agony. It took a long time to get to a place of acceptance of our past, the potential wasted and the hurt caused.
When an abuser dies that tangled web of feelings rises to the surface. Scrolling through social media on the day Rush Limbaugh died, I was struck by how similar those emotions were. Intertwined in the rage at old hurts and obvious pain was the whitewashing of sins and a thread of mourning for what might have been.
Rush Limbaugh’s death has been a public instance of this. To be clear, I am not calling him an abuser. I have no knowledge of his private life.
But there is no doubt that Rush Limbaugh had a podium and he used it to hurt other people for his own gain. He did it because it gave him attention and power — another dynamic that abuse survivors are very familiar with. I don’t find it at all surprising that the reactions to death are as wide and as varied as my own when my grandmother died.
Relief — And Shame
My first reaction was instinctual relief. I’d never be starved then forced to eat until I threw up for asking for food again. I’d never be reminded that it was more important to keep the family name clear than for me to be safe from my father. I would never have to worry about her again. It was a freeing thought.
Right on the heels of the relief though was the overwhelming shame. What sort of monster was I, that was revealing in the death of my grandmother?
People have a certain protocol they expect to be followed after death. But like an abuse victim long after the bruises have healed, sometimes there are invisible scars that death brings back to the light. Unless there is a reckoning there is no healing. How do you forgive something like this just because he’s gone? The scar is still there, the wound is still deep.
People expect more from the survivors than the dead gave. Don’t forget, he also mocked people’s deaths. There’s a list including Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Eric Gardner, Curt Cobain and others who disagreed.
If the dead deserve grace and understanding, then so do the living. These reactions are the pain sowed by Rush Limbaugh exhaling from society on a wave of relief.
Expectations and Their Weight
When my grandmother passed my heart was heavy. Not from loss but confusion. Why didn’t I mourn, why wasn’t I feeling what I was supposed to? Other people noticed too and waited for me to perform the way they expected. I couldn’t and wouldn’t pretend. She didn’t protect me in life, why would I protect her in death? I heard “she was a complicated person” more often then not, people tacitly acknowledging the harm she had done to others. But still, we were all expected to play the part. As a rage filled teenager, that was not going to be me. I said very little because what I wanted to say was shocking.
This twitter thread shows the way people expect you to perform when someone dies:
Just as there is no doubt that my grandmother said and did things that were harmful to her family, there is no doubt that Rush Limbaugh caused pain. He had a segment in 1990 called “The AIDS Update” He used the airtime during a pandemic to celebrate the deaths of people who were stricken by AIDS. If you were one of the vulnerable, just diagnosed, part of the family of an HIV+ or AIDS patient, the shock and hurt of that is not going to go away. Someone publicly, openly mocking the deaths of your family is a wound that doesn’t heal. And after an abuser dies people feel free to vent and remember the actual events. It becomes a catharsis of sort, a lancing of old wounds.
Neither my grandmother nor the son she enabled ever faced justice for the harm they did. It stopped after we lost contact — it was apparently easier to lose a child and grandchild than to pay any child support. When my grandmother slipped into a coma a long-lost aunt called. She was dying, would we come?
It was the Right Thing To Do. It was expected of course. I made one demand.
I would go to the hospital and see her. I would see no one but my grandmother and this one aunt. If my father was so much as in the parking lot I would walk away — and air my pain with any mutual acquaintance who cared to listen. The threat of that loss of face, known to be more important to her than her actual kin, was enough to have the agreement made. I walked into the hospital room, a 16-year-old deeply wounded and barely containing the rage. That call had brought back every single wound, every careless smack, every time I was told to wear long sleeves to hide injuries because “what would people think if they saw you looking like that”? As if I was the one who had wielded the belt, the broom handle. I didn’t make the deal with the devil — I was just forced to endure it.
In the hospital room, I gave no absolution. I had none to give her. I said all of the words I had never been allowed to say. I sat in the chair next to her bed as machines did her breathing and kept her tethered to this world. I wondered if it had hurt as much as she had hurt me. I told her that I could not forgive the harm she had caused. And I laid out the exact list of sins that she had either participated in or turned a blind eye to. They were all things she had brushed aside when I asked for help, when I begged. She had to listen now. I would be heard.
I told her that I would never forgive her, but maybe one day I would not hate her. And then, crying purging tears of relief, I walked away.
My father’s family approved, because that was the way things should be done. I never saw any of them again. I never wanted to.
After she passed I skipped the funeral. I had said what I needed to. My best friend asked if I was okay. I said, “I’m better now actually. I got to say what she never would listen to.”
People are complicated
People are complicated — that was her reply. She’d been someone who I had confided in for years and knew the depths of what I’d put up with and survived. But in death we’re expected to whitewash sins. We’re expected to extended grace. We’re expected to hush up the excesses and gloss over the evil done.
Grace isn’t just for the dead. They aren’t living and dealing with the wounds they inflicted anymore. People are complicated yes, but so is survival. So is endurance. The complicated reactions of someone harmed by abuse are all natural and to be expected. Rush Limbaugh did something my father did and my grandmother ignored: he entertained one group of people by hurting others. If you were not one of the ones an abuser hurt it’s unrealistic to expect them to feel like you do. Don’t expect the hurting to hold to your script or not feel their own emotions.
Because people are complicated. And that includes the bullied and the survivors. People are entitled to their complicated feelings about Rush Limbaugh. Given the pain he sowed in the world it should not be shocking. The reckoning he never faced in life has come with death.
This post was previously published on Medium.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want a deeper connection with our community, please join us as a Premium Member today.
Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS. Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.
Photo credit: Shutterstock