You Don’t Have to Forgive an Abusive Parent on Their Deathbed

Telling me to forgive my father means erasing the years of abuse I suffered at his hands

Bobbi Dempsey
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readAug 13, 2019

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Photo: Karl Tapales/Getty Images

My father was a bad person.

There are plenty of ways to sugarcoat it, or use lots of needless words to make it sound a little less harsh. But that would mean burying the truth under a bunch of excuses and cover stories — and people like me, who have survived the things I have, already spent way too much of our lives doing that.

He may be deceased, but he gets the legacy he created.

I see no need to be gentle to someone who was always so cruel to me.

My father’s character (or lack thereof) isn’t a new revelation to me — or to anyone who knew him. It’s just an accepted fact, something I’ve always known.

Recently, while watching a movie based on a bestselling memoir by a supremely talented writer and compelling storyteller, I noticed something that just didn’t ring true to me as the adult child of a parent like my father.

The deathbed epiphany/apology scene has become a staple in these kinds of stories. In them, the parent suddenly has a bout of conscience and wants to make amends for the things they have done. The adult child, in turn, realizes that their parent made mistakes but had a lot of good points — and besides, those hardships made them (the adult child) a strong person. So all is forgiven, just in the nick of time.

In the case of this movie, the main character was shown literally running to her dying father’s bedside, where their reconciliation happens shortly before he passes away. While this type of dramatic scene might provide the Hollywood happy ending that audiences may crave, it can also set unrealistic expectations and perhaps even does a disservice to the many people for whom there is no such final gesture.

Of course, I realize the author is telling her real-life story, so maybe in her case, it actually played out as depicted in the movie. Perhaps she’s one of the rare and lucky ones. In reality, for most people, it doesn’t usually happen that way. I suspect, however, in many such cases, people rewrite the scenes in their own minds, describing that final…

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Bobbi Dempsey
Human Parts

Writer whose recent work includes essays and op-eds on poverty and social issues, but I also love fun stuff like the 80s, bargain-hunting, and bad reality TV.