How to Survive Mourning the Living Dead

What would you do if I invited you to a funeral without a casket? You’d probably assume the dead had been cremated, right? But what if I told you they were still alive? You might even think of calling the police because you’re afraid I’m going to “off” somebody Godfather style. Of course, if you thought that, you’d be wrong. The point I’m making is that thousands of people mourn their family members every week — yet the people they mourn are still alive. These living dead are narcissistic people, who for one reason or another have made it nearly impossible to have a relationship with them.

living dead, narcissist, narcissism, narcissistic abuse, mourning,
Photo by Peyman Naderi on Unsplash

Whether you’re dealing with a narcissist shunning you, or choose to go no contact, chances are you’re mourning someone who is still alive. They might be an engulfing narcissist who tells you what to wear and eat and who to date. Such controllers force survivors to sing the words to that old Billy Joel song, “This is my life, leave me alone,” to reinforce their boundaries. Or they could be a covert narcissist who won’t make public waves, but will wait until your back is turned to twist the knife in — unless you meet their expectations. Either way, how much fun are these people to be around?

People who have never had to deal with narcissistic abusers have no clue what the rest of us have survived. We mourn what is missing because everyone wants to have parents who love them unconditionally. Everyone wants their siblings to be an understanding circle of love and affection. When our friends seem to have wonderful family relationships, it’s painful to realize we don’t have a family to rely on.

Sometimes we blame ourselves, but the truth is narcissistic people aren’t emotionally honest with us. There is a reason for the gap between us. Often it’s due to the narcissist saying “my way or the highway” or always having to be right. Some people care more about being in control than being in a relationship.

The narcissist treats us as if we are dead because they don’t want to be responsible for their behavior. Meanwhile, we who have empathy, mourn the loss of the relationship. We both might mourn, but the narcissist mourns the things we are no longer doing stuff for them, while we mourn the fantasy parent or sibling we wish we had.

Wishing for a narcissist to change will only drag out the pain. Waiting for the narcissist’s approval is asking for more abuse. We can dance through hoops like a Cirque du Soleil artist and bring gifts like the Magi until one day we discover we’ve wasted our lives by waiting for a flicker of approval from a narcissist who refuses to grant it.

Of course, we don’t wear black all the time, but on every birthday and holiday, a shadow passes over our hearts to remind us somewhere in the world, there is a shell of a human being we once loved. We mourn them because our minds continue to play tricks on us. What if I called? What if I showed up? What if they actually care? What if they want to apologize? All of these what-ifs get our hopes up, and sometimes, we listen and follow these cues — only to discover nothing has changed. We’ve groveled for nothing, then we are left wondering why am I so broken? Why did I let myself get tricked again? Why do I feel so unworthy of love whenever I encounter the narcissist?

It’s not worth it. If someone wants to be your friend, they’ll call you or text you or show up at your door because friendship is a two-way street. Of course, an engulfing narc will also do these things but in a pushy and controlling manner. Most of us can tell the difference between the narcissist abuser and a true friend who show up–not to push, but to be available. To say, “I care, happy birthday, I hope you are well, I thought of you, do you wanna go out for coffee?”

For those who have been ignored by a narcissist, it’s hard to know where you stand. When you go months without hearing from them on special days, you can be sure you are standing on the outside of the family circle looking in. Such discoveries can be as painful for an empath as if the person we once loved has really died — only worse. Worse because mourning the living dead gives us no closure. We don’t want them to die because that means we’ll lose the hope of ever reconciling with them again.

At the same time, we mourn them every holiday and every time we think about them and realize they are no longer a part of our life. They are alive, yet dead. Dead to honesty. Dead to empathy. Dead to any ability to have an equal relationship. Dead and beyond caring about how their victims feel. Mourning leaves us with no choice, but to become even stronger survivors — survivors who look death in the face every time we think of our family members. Survivors who are in a constant state of mourning the living dead.

Some liken the narcissist to a vampire. They’ll suck you dry until you feel like an empty shell. That’s because narcissism is contagious. Flying monkeys and the golden child are susceptible to becoming narcissists themselves. Victims who only partially wake up will continue to be victims over and over again. For some, the charade of pretending to be family brings more than one kind of death — the death of the living narc and the death of the living victim. “If you can’t lick ’em, join them” is a dangerous game. We might grieve the living dead so much that we forget to live.

A sibling once told me, “We will never be able to live until our parents are dead.” I cried because I didn’t want my parents to die, but I wanted to live. Recently my friend’s narcissistic mother died after years of estrangement. She said, “I grieved her loss years ago, today I grieve what could have been.” A mutual friend replied, “This profound statement beautifully articulates what we all are going through or will go through when our absent parents pass.”

It wasn’t long after “the great divorce” in my family. I hadn’t opened windows or showered or done the dishes or even looked at Facebook. I was too depressed. As an Enneagram Two, I felt I had poured myself out like a drink offering for my family — except I wasn’t Jesus, and I had no clue how to rise again.

I got a phone call, then a knock at my door. I ignored both. It was a sweet church lady named Mary Lou. She was a little older than my parents. She was always so upbeat; I wondered what she could want, but my house was a mess. The dishes were stacked up around the sink. The sofa had clothes on it that needed to be folded. The blinds were still shut because I was too tired to open them. Mary Lou left a voice message. “Cherie, I know you’re in there, and I am going to stay out here and even sleep in my car if I have to until you open that door.”

I couldn’t leave a nearly eighty-year-old woman outside in the cold for hours. I felt like crap, my house was a mess, but what could I do? I went to the door and cracked it open just enough to let in the light. Mary Lou came swooshing in, smelling like lilacs and dressed like a hyacinth. She opened my windows bringing blinding rays of sunshine and sparkles into the room. I still had bedhead, and the house smelled like the cat box needed changing, but Mary Lou’s hug and empathetic understanding brought the resurrection to my living death. She was the hands and feet of Jesus to me. She allowed me to mourn, but most importantly, she taught me to rise.

Mary Lou had spent her life with a man who for decades had not helped her with the housework or gone to church with her or even given her sex or affection. Her husband had lived many years without getting out of his bed while his muscles wasted away from a debilitating disease. Mary Lou, in essence, had mourned the living every day for forty years. She never gave up because she knew the value of the man she married. She loved him and he loved her. This wasn’t what they had planned, but it was all they had —  plus love. Her example of unconditional love is the opposite of narcissism. For decades Mary Lou continued to care for someone who could never meet some of her needs, but he was there for her in heart and spirit. Mary Lou and her husband knew love. They knew how to suck the marrow out of life and a marriage that many would have abandoned.

What Mary Lou taught me that day is if you want to live, you need to gravitate toward the light. Jesus once told someone to “let the dead bury the dead.” It’s okay to mourn our losses, but keep moving toward the light. Where there is light and love, there is life.