My uncle died. Sorry to kick this off on a depressing note, but there it is. I’m going to come around to something encouraging shortly, but sometimes, we have to go through the hard stuff to get there, you know?
Like getting through the thick layer of dislikable stuff to find the lovable part of that one family member.
I’ve lost a lot of family members and friends over the years—to cancer, lung disease, addiction, alcoholism, suicide, you name it.
Grief and I are old bedfellows.
But this one is unique. And I’m going to be frank about why, so hold onto your hat.
My uncle was wicked smart, well-traveled at a young age, a real animal lover, a multi-lingual and highly educated man of letters, an eagle scout, and a barbeque connoisseur.
He was also a hoarder and a sociopath.
And he looked at me like I was sex on a stick from the time I can remember.
Here’s the thing about people who harm us: Sometimes we love them anyway.
My uncle was like that. And now that he’s dead, I find myself with so many conflicting feelings and so large a desire for closure that the only thing this writer knows to do is write.
My hope is these words will help you as you walk through your own contradictions.
Because isn’t every relationship a contradiction in some way?
I think we all love someone we don’t like. Maybe they’re not sociopaths or hoarders—and maybe they are—but loving someone you don’t like hurts.
Turns out, it still hurts after they die.
I loved my uncle. I still love him.
Don’t get me wrong: He was an ass. A total, unapologetic ass who bullied and screamed at his mother (my grandmother) to the point that I had to stand between them when I was a kid so he wouldn’t hit her.
But he also volunteered for the animal shelter. He was so whispery and cuddly with every cat he brought home that if it was your first encounter with him, you’d think he was just as furry-purry as they were.
He suffered terribly with OCD, a disease I did not even know existed when at 7 years old I would sneak into the disturbingly well-organized pantry and tip over the towers of tomato paste and shake the cookie jar of teetering Oreo stacks just so he’d have to rush in there after me and stack it all back up again.
I know now, I was torturing him mentally.
But he never scolded me. He never said a word about it, just stood in his own private hell under the single light bulb of the pantry and tried to find some peace.
Later, those stacks spread into a hoarder’s paradise with seven bed-in-a-bags lining the hallway outside the bathroom, boxes and boxes and boxes of men’s shirts never unboxed, four jars of mayonnaise, backup spices and batteries and soap to wash an entire nation of dirty people, and a garage full of Costco inventory that would make a doomsdayer salivate.
But every year on my birthday, he spent I-don’t-know-how-long in the card aisle of the Safeway picking out just the right “For my niece” card, and then he mailed it to me at my house so I’d get actual mail.
“I love you,” he’d write above his name.
He meant it. I could feel that he did.
Have you felt that before? The sure sense deep down that someone loves you, even if they don’t show it well?
My uncle was, other than the occasional death stare when I was in the way of his rage at my grandmother, always gentle and kind to me.
I could feel that he wished he could be closer to me.
I could also feel how much he wanted to see under my night shirt.
As far as I remember, he never did. But the threat was real and ever-present because he had done it to someone else—more than once.
I wonder now if he worked to stay away from me because he DID love me. I like to think that’s the truth.
He lived with my grandmother in a creaky, antique-filled ranch house in old north Dallas. He was unable to hold a job after the age of 30, as his mental illness progressed to the point of making him so incredibly odd he was unemployable.
As a kid, I spent every afternoon and evening at their house during the week.
Sometimes those evenings turned into overnights.
I slept in a king size bed—the old master bedroom that my grandmother couldn’t bear to re-enter after my grandfather died—and lay awake as long as possible to make sure he was asleep first.
Even as a 4- and 5-year-old child, I knew instinctively he was a threat.
I was already being sexually abused at another house, so my Spidey sense was keen.
My grandmother must have slept with one eye open because I recall a few nights when she intercepted him in the hall and grilled him in that loud, angry whisper of grandmothers about why he was out of bed.
Yes, she knew what he wanted.
She had seen him take it from someone else before.
And while none of us could ever get her to admit that reality, her nighttime sentry duty proved to me that she knew her baby boy was still a predator.
As an adult, I had what I’ll call a doorman relationship with my uncle.
I saw him when I visited my grandmother and said hello (he lived by then off his disability and her social security checks).
We visited like I would with a doorman at an apartment building in New York City—about the weather, the holidays, how I loved/hated my job, what type of cat was that.
But I stayed away more and more as the abuse toward my grandmother worsened.
Another family member and I worked to save her, to get her out of the house and away from him, but she wouldn’t leave.
She wouldn’t stand for her son being called “sick” or “mentally ill”—ironic for the widow of a psychiatrist.
She wouldn’t leave her home and she wouldn’t send him away.
The police came. Again.
Adult protective services were called twice.
Nothing we did changed what was happening or changed either of their minds about stopping it.
Ultimately, when we saw the futility of helping people who don’t want help, even the police told us to stay away.
They believed my uncle might kill us. They told us all signs pointed to his being a sociopath.
So to protect myself, an adult in the line of fire now that I had tried to take away his only meal ticket and safe place, I kept my distance.
I can say now—not without regret—that I also stayed away because watching my grandmother subject herself to that kind of treatment in her last years was too painful to bear. I would visit, hug her, watch her mind slip away, and leave feeling grateful I got out alive.
My visits were fewer and farther between.
And then my grandmother died.
After that, he lived for 12 years in her house, hoarding pets and men’s shirts and beds-in-bags and batteries.
And now he’s dead too.
Have you ever lost someone and not discovered they were gone until much later? Do you remember the feeling of powerlessness and anger you had? The denial of your chance to say, “I love you” or “Goodbye” or “Screw you.”
My uncle died in May and I was just told about it two days ago. It’s November.
Yeah, ouch. Welcome to my family. I’m sure some of you can relate.
This week I’m supposed to travel with my husband and son to see my husband’s extended family (it’s Thanksgiving here in the United States), and I’m looking forward to it. They are a warm, huggy, food-loving people.
But I’m also keenly aware of the fracturing of my own tiny, sick family as we blow with the frigid North wind into the holiday season.
See, when I was little and my mother was single, my only family members were my mom, my grandmother, and my uncle.
When it came time for Thanksgiving, it was the four of us around a fancy table, passing garnish in a cut-glass dish as if we were entertaining the queen and not four mildly-psychotic people in Sunday clothes.
Now, another member of my first family is gone.
He was an ass. He was a predator. And he was my family.
It’s easy to look from outside and think, Why do you even feel anything good for this person?
The truth is, I can’t explain it.
But the same is true for others in my family who cause more harm than good.
Have you ever chosen not to have a relationship with someone but continued to pray for them, love them from afar, and wish they would get well so you could finally see the amazing people they could have been?
You love them from afar while you love yourself enough to stay far away.
I don’t know why we’re capable of that kind of love, but I believe we all are.
We’re all capable of loving people who deeply, clearly don’t deserve it.
All I know is that when I was a kid, my uncle was an integral part of my family. And now he’s dead, and I feel incredibly sad.
After my stepdad died, I attended a grief group for a while to deal with what was overwhelming sorrow and an inability to work.
I was told by the leader of that group that grief doesn’t look like a straight line from denial to acceptance through neat little stages like we’re all lead to believe.
Grief is a big ball of different colored rubber bands, all stretched taught one over the other in a mass of ready-to-snap feelings.
The red rubber band is anger that you feel on top of the blue one that’s sadness over the yellow one that’s resentment and the orange that’s guilt. And on and on in a mess of confusing, conflicting feelings.
Today, I feel pity that most likely my uncle died alone and in terrible mental anguish. He had cancer and spent his last months in the hospital.
No one visits sociopaths. Nurses don’t like them either. They’re not making flirty little jokes or bringing extra Jello to old guys like my uncle.
I feel resentful that I didn’t get to tell him to his face that I had forgiven him because it wasn’t safe for me to be at his house.
I feel guilty that I never mailed him a card to tell him I had forgiven him because I was afraid for him to know where we lived.
I feel deeply sad that I didn’t get to tell him: “I love you. Despite all that you are and all that you’ve done, I love you. Someone loves you.”
I also feel angry.
At the person who held this knowledge from me and took away my choice to get closure while he was alive.
At my uncle for being an ass and so damaging to the people we both loved.
At myself for not being braver when he was alive.
And amidst all the sadness and anger is a rush of memories.
You know how when someone dies you suddenly remember all sorts of times with that person when you laughed at that one line in that TV show over and over again or ate at that one restaurant that turned out to be so good/terrible or just watched them walk by in that pair of jeans they loved?
I have all sorts of memories about my uncle that I had boxed up and left unopened until now. Some of them are benign. Some of them are traumatic.
His death stirred up old pain and created new pain.
And the gap in between his actual death and the privilege of my knowing about it created even more pain.
So yes, I’m grieving right now for someone I didn’t like. Have you done this before too?
It’s not crippling like it would be if someone had died who you loved and also liked.
It’s not a deep ocean of grief like it was when someone integral to my everyday life died, like my dad or my stepdad or my grandmother.
But it’s there—heavy and sad and angry and regretful.
This person who was the sickest man I ever knew is gone.
I’m telling myself all of the things we tell ourselves about his spirit being at peace. His presence being aware of my love and forgiveness. His true self being someone higher and brighter and far less creepy.
But what I really wish right now wasn’t that someone else would tell me he’s in a better place or that he’s finally not suffering, while all of that is kind and well-meaning.
Instead I wish someone would agree that it’s okay to feel love and dislike at the same time.
To feel both angry at not being told he was dying and relieved I didn’t have to make the decision about seeing him.
To feel sad that a person of my earliest memories is gone and glad that he’s not suffering or causing suffering any longer.
So here’s my encouraging message for you in all this and in all that you’re facing today as we enter this mixed emotional bag of the holiday season:
Your feelings are okay.
It’s okay to be glad you never have to see someone again and sad that they’re gone.
It’s okay to love them and not like the way they treated people.
It’s okay to forgive someone and never be able to tell them so.
It’s okay to see something tender and worth loving in the very worst of people.
Especially now, especially in this world of ours where justice is not always served.
I hope forgiveness wins even when justice doesn’t. Because we deserve to be free in the end.
This holiday season, it’s okay to be free and to be yourself.
It’s okay to let your feelings out.
And it’s okay to love and dislike at the same time.
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