How I’ve Navigated My Grief and Guilt Since Losing My Narcissistic Father
“One of the greatest awakenings comes when you realize that not everybody changes. Some people never change. And that’s their journey. It’s not yours to try and fix it for them.” ~Unknown
In 2021 my father died. Cancer of… so many things.
Most of the events during that time are a blur, but the emotions that came with them are vivid and unrelenting.
I was the first in my family to find out.
My mother and sister had gone on an off-grid week-long getaway up the West Coast of South Africa, where there’s nothing but sand, shore, and shrubs.
I was living in China (where I continue to live today), and we were under Covid lockdown.
He called me on WhatsApp (which was rare) from the Middle East, where he lived with his new wife. Asian and half his age.
The cliche of the aging white man in a full-blown-late-midlife crisis. Gaudy bling and all.
He looked gaunt and ashen-faced. That’s what people look like when they’re delivering bad news. He dropped the bomb.
“I have cancer.”
What I am about to admit haunts me to this day: I cared about him in the way one human cares for the well-being of any other human. But at the time, I never cared at the level that a son should care for a father. I had built a fortress around myself that protected me from him over the years.
He’d never really been a parent to me. He wasn’t estranged physically, but emotionally, he’d never been there.
He was emotionally absent. He always had been.
I was the weird gay kid with piercings, tattoos, and performance art pieces.
He was a military man. The rugby-watching, beer-drinking, logically minded man’s man.
We were polar opposites—opposite sides of completely different currencies.
I sat with the bomb that had just been delivered so hastily into my arms and ears. Information that I didn’t know what to do with. It felt empty. I didn’t know how to feel or how to respond.
Six years earlier, in 2015, I had flown back to South Africa to sit with my mother on her sofa for two weeks while she grappled with the complexity of the emotions of being recently divorced after forty-something years of marriage.
My mother and I always had been close. She had spent her life dedicated to a narcissistic man who had cheated on her more than once, who was absent a lot of the time during our childhood because of his job in the Navy, and from whom she had shielded my sister and me.
He had hurt her again. And I hated him for it.
She had been devoted to him. Committed to their marriage. Gave him the freedom to work abroad while she kept the home fires burning. She’d faithfully maintained those home fires for over a decade already. She had planned their whole future together since she was sixteen years old and pregnant with my sister, who’s five years old than me.
And this is how he repaid her.
He’d taken it all away from her and left her alone in the house they’d built together before I was born. Haunted by the shadows of future plans abandoned in the corners.
She descended into a spiral of anxiety and depression, resulting in two weeks of inpatient care at a recovery clinic with a dual diagnosis of depression and addiction (alcoholism) that wasn’t entirely her fault.
He caused that.
I remember lying in bed when I was about six or seven years old; I was meant to be asleep, the room in deep blue darkness. Hearing my father in the living room say, “That boy has the brains of a gnat.”
I assume I hadn’t grasped some primary math homework or forgotten to tidy something away. Things that I was prone to. Things that annoyed him to the point of frustrated outbursts and anger.
“Ssh! He can hear you,” my mother replied. I still hear the remorseful tone of her voice.
He was logical and mechanical. I am not.
I don’t remember my crime that day, but I still suffer the penalty of negative self-talk, a lack of confidence, and a fear of being considered “less than” by others.
It’s one of my earliest memories.
And there, in 2021, I sat with the news of his diagnosis. I didn’t know what to feel.
Guilty for not having the emotional response I knew I was meant to be having?
Shouldn’t I be crying? Shouldn’t I be distraught?
How do other people react to this kind of news?
I’ve always been a highly sensitive person. It’s my superpower. The power of extreme empathy. But there I sat, empty.
I felt trapped.
I was in China in 2021, and we were under Covid lockdown. There were zero flights.
I was emotionally and physically trapped.
Gradually, more feelings started surfacing.
At first, I felt compassion for a fellow human facing something utterly devastating.
Then I started to feel fear for my mom, who had held onto the idea that maybe, one day, they’d get back together.
I was terrified about how she would take this news when she returned from her holiday.
Within a few weeks, a “family” Facebook group was set up—cousins, uncles, people I’d never met before, myself, my sister, and my mother.
And the “other woman” and her kids from previous relationships, none of whom we’d ever met.
Phrases like “no matter how far apart we are, family always sticks together” were pinging in the group chat.
I didn’t know how to absorb those sentiments.
Family always sticks together? Didn’t you tear our family apart? Where were you when I was lying in a hospital bed in 2011 with a massive abdominal tumor? Family always sticks together? What a convenient idea in your hour of need.
More guilt. How could I be so jaded?
A month later, in January 2021, he passed away.
It happened so quickly, and for that, I am grateful. No human should ever suffer if there is no hope of survival.
That’s when the floodgates of emotions opened.
I cried for weeks.
I cried for the misery and suffering he caused my family, my mother’s despair, and my sister’s loss. I shed tears for my grandfather, who had lost two of his three sons and wife. I wept for my uncle, who had lost another brother.
I cried for the future my mom had planned but would never have.
And I cried for the father I never had and the hope of a relationship that would never be.
I sobbed from the guilt of not crying for him.
Then I got angry. Really, really angry.
I got angry with him for never being the father I needed. I got mad for the hurt he caused my mom. I blamed him for never accepting me for me. I was angry with him because I was the child, and he was the adult.
Being accepted by him was never my responsibility.
In the weeks and months that followed, the wounds got deeper. My mother’s drinking got worse, to the point of (a very emotional and ugly) intervention.
We found out that my father had left his military pension (to the tune of millions) to his new, younger wife of less than a year and her four children from different men.
While I want to take the moral high ground and tell you it’s not about the money—it’s solely about the final message of not caring for his biological children in life or death—I’d be lying.
My sister and I have been struggling financially for years, and that extra monthly money would’ve offered us peace of mind, good medical insurance, or just a sense that he did care about our well-being after all.
But there’s no use ruminating on it.
Accept the things you cannot change.
It’s been two years since he passed away.
I’ve bounced between grief, anger, and acceptance, like that little white ball rocketing chaotically around a pinball machine, piercing my emotions with soul-blinding lights and sound.
The word “dad” never meant anything to me. To me, it was a verb, not a noun. It never translated into the tangible world.
My mother once said, “Now I know you were a child who needed more hugs.”
She hugged me often.
But I also needed his hugs.
I’ve found a way to accept that he would never have been the father I needed. I will never have a relationship with my father. Even if he were still alive, he would never have been capable of loving us the way we needed him to.
You cannot give what you don’t have.
He was a narcissist. Confirmed by a therapist in the weeks and months after their sudden divorce.
He was never going to change. He didn’t know how to.
Using NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) techniques, I’ve been able to reframe the childhood memories I have about my father.
That fateful night all those years ago, lying in bed, hearing those words that have undermined my confidence and self-worth for thirty-four years: “That boy has the brains of a gnat.”
Through visualization and mental imagery, I’ve found a pathway to healing.
Through NLP, I became the observer in the room of that memory. I could give that little boy lying in bed, his head under the sheets, the comfort, protection, and acceptance he needed.
I wrapped golden wings around that little boy and protected him.
I became my own guardian angel.
During the same session, my NLP coach gently encouraged me to look into the living room where my father sat that night.
What I saw in my mind’s eye took my breath away.
I saw a broken and withered man. His legs were drawn up close to his chest. I saw the pain inside him. I saw a man who didn’t know how to love or be loved.
I saw a man who was scared, confused, and deprived.
In that moment of being the observer, the guardian angel in the next room, a brilliant light forcefully rushed from me and coiled around him. A luminous cord of golden energy.
I don’t know if the surge of energy wrapped around him was to heal or restrain him. Frankly, it doesn’t matter. It was pure love, compassion, and light. And it was coming from me: I was my own Guardian Angel.
At that moment, all the past yearning for his love, acceptance, and approval dissipated. I didn’t need it from him; I needed to give it to him—filled with empathy and compassion. I needed to release him from the anger, hurt, and pain he had caused.
I needed to do it for myself, but I also needed to do it for him.
I’ve accepted him for who he was.
It took a lot of journaling, visualization, mindfulness and meditation, listening to Buddhist teachings (Thich Nhat Hanh in particular), and sitting with the emotions.
It took the desire to heal myself and him—to be happy and whole again.
He was painfully human. But aren’t we all?
He was a narcissist. He drank too much, cheated on his wife, never took the time to have any meaningful connection with his kids, and loved Sudoku.
He caused my mother pain that still haunts her to this day.
She still dreams about him.
I like to think that if he had one more chance to reach out from The Great Beyond, he might say something along the lines of what Teresa Shanti once said:
“To my children, I’m sorry for the unhealed parts of me that in turn hurt you. It was never my lack of love for you. Only a lack of love for myself.”
He was a deeply flawed man—but he was my father.
About Xander Zweig
Xander Zweig is a freelance writer, voiceover artist, and podcast host from Cape Town, South Africa, based in Asia with his life partner, where he’s been studying Buddhism. Xander writes about life, spirituality, mental health, and mindfulness. A passionate lifelong learner, completing countless certifications and courses and fascinated by culture and languages, Xander is reinventing himself by challenging his past trauma and depression by pursuing a new life after returning to university at 41.