I’m Not Visiting My Mother In Hospice, But I’m No Monster

by Shannon Ashley
Old woman sitting in the room in hospice
Sima Sebastian/EyeEm/Getty

When my mom first entered hospice care more than 18 months ago, I mistakenly believed I was “done” processing our past. I thought we were good because I’d come to terms with all the crap. Sigh. My naivety sure was nice while it lasted, but over the past several months, I’ve been reminded of an inconvenient — and often painful — reality for survivors.

Trauma decides when and where it wants to pop back up in your life…

Even when you think you’re done with it.

My sister, who is 5 years older than I am, went to prison when I was just 18. Twenty years ago, I don’t think any of us had the language or revelation to truly recognize that sort of wound in our family. When I returned from a year-long ministry internship (ahem, cult), I came home to my mom’s Section 8 apartment and my 8-month-old niece.

It was strange for me. Like being thrown into a world of adulthood without any acknowledgment about what was going on. I took a job at a bagel shop, but discovered that the government wanted a pretty big chunk of each paycheck for as long as I slept on my mom’s couch.

Having had no experience with babies before, the whole thing was also pretty sobering. That’s when I got a firsthand look at my inability to juggle a full-time job dealing with the public every day with child-rearing at home. As it turns out, it’s a bit too much for my mental health.

It might have been because I was struggling with my new life, or maybe it was the fact that I still didn’t have a solid grip on the dysfunction within my family. Whatever it was, there were some big red flags with my mom that I honestly missed.

You see, she… really liked when my sister was away in prison. She liked being the grandmother who had her grandbaby with her full-time. She liked talking about herself as the sort of mother who would give and give until her hands bled.

Never mind the reality that she tormented both her daughters. Never mind the fact that she raised us in a constant state of fight or flight fear. Both she and her mother suffered from a suffocating need for attention and martyrdom that couldn’t exist without tearing our family apart.

Our mother never questioned why I, an intelligent and obedient child, struggled so much in school. My challenges grew bigger the older I got, but all she ever saw was a rebellious and ungrateful daughter who needed deliverance from literal demons.

It was the same attitude with my sister. Where other parents might have taken some time to reflect why one of their children had turned to drugs, all she could express was disgust and disappointment.

She had raised us to know better — that’s what she always insisted. Even when something awful happened to either of us (think rape or sexual assault), our mother was sure to question what we had done wrong to make the bad thing happen and how on earth we could have been so stupid.

As my sister went on to have three more children — all while battling her drug addiction and enduring domestic abuse — our mother was making plans. For the first and only time that I’ve known her, mom quit pretending to be seriously sick or dying. Instead, she focused all of her energy and attention on her four grandchildren.

I missed a lot of it because I ran away to college and then got married when I was almost 21. I dropped out of college to avoid telling anyone I’d been placed on academic probation and tried to create a new life 800 miles away.

It didn’t work. My marriage was unsurprisingly dysfunctional and adulthood only made my personal shortcomings grow. I worried that something was seriously wrong with me. I worried that my mother was right about me and that demons had taken over my brain.

Although I didn’t turn to drugs to cope like my sister, I abused food, jumped into unhealthy relationships, and wore a heavy blanket of self-loathing.

By the time I returned to Minnesota after my divorce, my family was a full-blown mess and it didn’t take long for my mother to take the next steps of her big plan.

Living out of state had detached me from the seriousness of everything that was happening back home. My sister needed help and healing. My nieces and nephew needed that too. Oddly enough, my mother who has always believed that fasting, prayer, and church were the answer to every problem big or small didn’t apply those here.

Instead, she decided that calling the police and child protection was the only way to go.

I didn’t know what to expect from her reporting my sister for child abuse, but I suspected that the outcome wouldn’t be good. When she first mentioned her intention to “get help” in that way, I cautioned her against that road. It was incredibly scary because never in my life had I dared to disagree with my mother out loud. Even as a kid, if I unintentionally expressed an opinion she didn’t like, there was always hell to pay. She’d yell that I needed deliverance and claim I always sided with the devil. And she’d tell me stories about how the rapture was coming and I was bound to be left behind.

It sounds so silly right now, I know. But this is how we were raised. I had no other baseline for “normal” or loving, and every other evangelical adult I ever met only affirmed such fears. But somehow, I gathered the courage to carefully tell her that it made more sense to exhaust all other resources like church, counseling, and rehab.

“I don’t know what would happen,” I slowly said. “But I think it’s the sort of thing that once you start you can’t stop it. You’ll have to be okay with whatever outcome happens and I don’t know that it would be good.”


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Our mother disagreed. “You don’t know what’s going on,” she insisted. Mom went on to say it wasn’t just drug use, or just negligence and poor housekeeping, but that there was sexual abuse happening too.

I don’t think I’ll ever really know if my mother was telling the truth about sexual abuse in our family. It’s the sort of thing she would never dare talk about with other people, but my sister and I grew up hearing about it practically every day.

According to mom, she and her siblings were all sexually abused by their grandfather. Then, she claims she left our father because he was molesting my sister. I’ve read all the court documents and the whole thing always feels so fuzzy. A doctor substantiated abuse through a physical examination but even that report was vague and done back in the 80s when folks still believed in hymen checks for “virginity tests.”

So, you know. Dad was never charged with anything — he simply didn’t have custody. He had visitation and we went to family therapy, and through our entire childhoods our mom told us that our father was a pedophile, psychopath, and all sorts of other things we never actually heard in therapy.

As a young adult, my sister refuted mom’s claims and insisted she was not abused. I never knew what to think. Mom was beside herself any time my sister allowed our dad to babysit her kids. I was never a fan of my father’s and not just because of the sexual abuse allegation or the fact mom always said he hated me. The way he treated me left much to be desired. He was cold, cruel, and inattentive with me, though my sister has mostly pleasant memories with him.

The only thing I think I’ll ever really know for certain is that both of our parents were mentally ill and they never got the help they (or their children) desperately needed.

Mom went ahead and contacted the police. I never knew all of the details, but there’s supposedly a 20+ page letter she wrote to the local police department claiming that my father, my sister, and the children’s father were all sexually abusing her grandkids. She also claimed that my sister and her boyfriend pimped the kids out for drugs.

Years later, when I became a mom, my mother sent me an email claiming that God gave her a prophetic dream and accused me of allowing my daughter to be sexually abused by some man.

Then she asked my sister if she should call CPS.

Despite setting the whole thing in motion with the grandkids, our mom was devastated by the results. First, she hated the foster mother and felt that nobody involved with the investigation liked her. Mom also bizarrely began to insist that she was being wrongfully accused of sexual abuse.

In the middle of the investigation, our dad died from a sudden heart attack. Mom insisted this was confirmation from God that she’d done the right thing, and she believed it was only a matter of time before CPS gave her custody of the kids.

But it never happened.

Instead, all four kids were sent away to live with their paternal grandmother and aunt in Missouri. My mother would never see her grandchildren again and it would take about 12 years for my sister to even get a chance to parent again.

To witness her response, you’d think that she was the only person affected. I don’t think she cared that my sister lost her children or that the kids lost both their parents. She didn’t care that the kids were losing every little bit of home and family that they knew. The only thing that really seemed to matter to our mother was that she would no longer have her grandkids in her life, and today, I understand that her plan to become the most important person in their lives was ultimately the only issue.

I didn’t know how to explain it back then, but I lost my family in one fell swoop too. My dad was a jerk, but his death was still traumatic. I had been an involved aunt, until suddenly the kids were gone and that side of their family didn’t want any of us involved. That’s also when my sister and I became estranged for many years as she dealt with her legal issues and drug addiction. My grandmother died around the same time, and one might think that at least my mom and I had each other.

But no. I was 26 when my mother quit being my mother.

Day in and day out, she told me that life was no longer worth living. Not without the grandkids. Every day she talked about how much she hoped Jesus would come back soon or simply take her to heaven. She had no qualms about how I might feel about any of it.

My mom was angry with me for not wallowing like her. I’m not sure what she thought I should do. I was living on my own and doing everything I could to survive on just a very basic level. I worked to pay the bills that allowed me to stay alive. I tried to have friends, romance, and a social life, but I was pretty terrible at juggling much of anything.

When the holidays rolled around, it was always the same thing. It didn’t matter if it was my birthday or Christmas — every single year, my mom told me that the holidays weren’t worth the celebration without family, and she told me to go find other people to be around.

Lately, my sister and I have been talking about how guilty we feel because our mother is getting hospice care, yet neither one of us really wants much to do with her. I don’t think either one of us ever imagined how much the supposed end of her life might reopen old wounds.

Aside from those few years when she wanted to be her grandkids’ full-time caregiver, our mom has always told us that she’s dying. In grade school it was bone cancer, in junior high it was a brain aneurysm, and in high school it was lupus and liver failure.

After our dad died, she claimed his friends were stalking her and accusing her of child abuse. Once I had my own child, mom’s stories shifted over to government torture and radiation poisoning.

Her stories always shifted over the years, including her stories about why she couldn’t work. It was arthritis or degenerative disc disease. It was some unknown tumor or infection.

As her children, we’ve always had this constant dump from her about everything that’s wrong in the world and all the ways life has been unfair for her. She’s gone so far as to tell us how awful it was when her mother faked a heart problem. Our mom says it ruined high school for her to think her mother was dying and then to discover it was all a lie.

At this point, it’s beyond ironic that she doesn’t give a damn how she’s feigned sickness and dying with her own kids even more.

I’d say it’s only natural for me and my sister to feel sort of shell-shocked now that our mom is in hospice care. It probably doesn’t help that she’s been in the program for so long either. We don’t believe she’s lying about hospice because I’ve spoken a bit with her nurse and coordinator. And I’ve seen the medical records when she was first diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 2019.

Even so, it’s been a year-and-a-half of constant comments about how she might die any day now… after decades of her telling us the same damn thing. To constantly live out this same dynamic with your mother is exhausting. I suppose we both sort of thought we’d gotten over it, but now with her hospice care “official,” I think we’re only now realizing how much we’ve tried to cover up and ignore the wounds.

Our mother was never much of a mother to us, and in our young adulthood, she honestly just stopped pretending to be there. She never taught us how to have healthy relationships or even how to get back up after a mistake. Instead, she taught us shame. She taught us to expect to receive a harsh, “you should be sorry” in response to any apology. Or to brace ourselves for, “I told you so,” anytime we made a mistake.

It’s much easier for me to understand now that I’m a mother myself. Now I see the love and care she never once gave away, despite her frequent mentions of her martyrdom.

These days, my sister and I are grateful that our mom has a couple of nurses and a patient care advocate. We’re also pretty sure that they hate us, but how exactly does one explain that the seemingly nice patient with heart failure alienated everyone who ever loved her?

We might be wrong for keeping our distance right now, but I know we’re also trying to salvage our mental health.

Perhaps this is a good reminder to all parents. If you want your kids to take the best care of you toward the end of your life, do everything you can to be the sort of parent they can trust.