When you lose a parent
It’s been almost four years since I lost my dad suddenly. I’ve only really written about it on this site once. But it’s at the forefront of my mind every day.
I have some friends going through this pain right now. They’ve lost a great man. Their father, husband, grandpa, a great coach, friend, family man. Very much the patriarch of their family.
I remember after my dad died, I felt the need to go back to every friend of mine who had ever lost a parent and apologize to them profusely. Of course I had sympathized with them over their loss. I brought food. I prayed for them. I went to visitations and funerals. I was present in the best way I knew how to be. But I felt the need to apologize, because with my newfound intimate knowledge of this loss, I felt I hadn’t done enough. Had I known that THIS…this absolute personal hell…is what they were going through, I would’ve done more. Been there more. Said more. Been more of a presence for them. Not just immediately after, but in the weeks and months to follow.
But the fact of the matter is, until it happens TO YOU, you have no idea what it is like. You can feel bad and sad and sorry for their loss. But you cannot possibly fathom the agony. You will one day. But if you haven’t gone through it, you have no idea.
So, with intimate knowledge I wish I did not have, I can only offer advice based on my personal experience, to those who have recently lost a parent.
First and foremost, however YOU grieve is the right way FOR YOU. Your grief process is as unique as your fingerprint. Unlike that from anyone else on this planet. Your siblings, your surviving parent…they will grieve differently from you, I promise. And you may not like the way they grieve. But that’s ok. No way is the right way. I can tell you that all the “stages of grief” are normal and each stage may cycle through you in one day and drop you right back off at the beginning.
Very well meaning people, some who have known and loved you for your entire life, will completely, utterly, and unintentionally piss. you. off. They will say something with the best intentions, but it will come out wrong. Or it will come out right, but you will hear it wrong because your emotions are running amok. It will rub you the wrong way. It will make you angry. Forgive them. Or at least recognize no one means you any harm, especially now, and try not to dwell. They know not what they do. Truly.
Most people do not have a clue how to act towards you. There are no words to say to bring your parent back. They don’t understand the relationship you had with that parent. They don’t know what to say or do but they desperately want to help. This usually is expressed with offers of food. I remember my mom getting so upset after my dad died. Everyone wanted to bring her food or take her out for a meal and, while she appreciated it, she wondered why everyone though food was the answer. I think that’s just a human connection. We all know that everyone needs food and nourishment in order to survive. They don’t know what to say or do…but they know you need to eat. And THAT they can take care of. As much as it may irritate you, the best thing to do is say ‘thank you’ and allow them to feel as if they’ve helped. And it does help. It’s one less thing for you to worry about. But after a while, it seems repetitive and may be even annoying. That’s just because your emotions are at a constant heightened state. And that’s ok.
You may find yourself analyzing how many years other people have had with their parents, in comparison to the amount of time you had with yours. You may be angry that someone older than you still has both living parents. I mean, you may be really, truly, legitimately pissed off. Not that you wish anyone ill will or to experience this loss – but you will be mad at the circumstances. Mad at the universe. Mad at God for cutting your time short.
It’s hard for me to admit, but I have been mad at God for taking my dad from me. I’m not proud of that, but it’s an honest admission for me. I have only been to church a handful of times since he died. Most of which were for holidays; not a typical service. Not because I don’t want or need to go. Church has always been an emotional experience for me, even when I was young. I cry almost every time I go because I always get a great message; one that feels like it was directed specifically at me. And I’m just not sure I could make it through a service without breaking down. Maybe I’m just not ready for THAT breakdown yet. It will come. In the meantime, I still talk to God every day and am working on that relationship. He’ll get me to the right church at the right time. But I digress.
If your parents were still married, like mine were, you will have two losses to grieve. The loss of the parent that died, and the loss of the surviving parent as you have known them up until this point. Somehow, everyone finds the strength to get through visitations, funerals, dinners, etc. But the hardest part is yet to come. The hard part is watching your parent live alone in the house they shared with their spouse for so many years. To know they are sleeping in a bed that now seems way too big to them. To know they probably have an item of clothing they will cling to until every trace of their lost love is gone. That piece of clothing will soak up thousands of tears. It will become a security blanket. Your parent will never be the same. How could they be? That was one of the hardest things for me. The pain of losing my dad was almost completely unbearable, but watching my mother grieve for him…that was gut wrenching.
Your family dynamic will be forever changed. None of you will ever be the same. Relationships with siblings may change. You may fight with the people you love the most in this world. They say death either brings out the best in people or the worst in people. You will find this to be true. As much as you hate it and swear it will never happen to your family, a loss like this may cause irreparable damage to some of your relationships. Try not to let it. Remember – everyone grieves differently and there is no right or wrong way. It’s when we place expectations of how/when/for how long to grieve on others that feelings are hurt. Things can be said and done in a highly emotional state that will never be able to be taken back. If you’ve been holding it in for years how much someone in your family has annoyed or hurt you, now is not the time to voice that. No one is in their right mind, and no one will hear it the way you want them to. We, as humans, tend to go into very self-centered, self-preserving behavior when we hurt so deeply. Our hurt, our grief, our sorrow, our loss is paramount. It is important to remember that to each person grieving, their grief is the biggest thing in the room. The truth is, grief will now always be in the room. The ever present, uninvited, rude guest who has overstayed her welcome. I use a female pronoun because, to me, grief is a cold, heartless, cruel bitch.
You will divide your life into categories: Before they died. After they died. Dates from here on out will cause you to file everything into one of those categories.
The year of firsts is horrible. It seems like you can’t get a moments rest from grieving, because every time you turn around, there’s a new “first.” The first holiday without them. Their first birthday in heaven. Your first birthday when that parent won’t be calling you way too early in the morning to give you crap about getting older (as mine always did.) The big crescendo is the first anniversary of their death. You will want to lie around and shut out the world and cry all day. Lie, shut out and cry if you must. But at some point on that day – on all the days of those “firsts” – take just a moment to remember them and smile at all the wonderful memories you shared. And share that with the others grieving with you. Then, the next day, you get up and you live. Because that is what they would want you to do. I know for a fact my dad would kick my ass if he knew how much I “carry on and fuss and cry” about him. I can almost hear him reprimanding me for it all the time.
I wish I could tell you it gets easier. That has not been my experience. I can say that I deal with it differently now, almost four years later, but the pain and heartache today is every bit as raw as the day he died. I get so effing MAD when I still go to pick up the phone to call my dad about something. Or when I panic for half a second because I didn’t get his Father’s Day card/gift in the mail yet and it won’t reach him in time. (How great would it be if heaven had mail service?) WHY does the mind allow you to that to yourself?! How is it possible to momentarily forget that it’s real? That they are really gone? Yep. She’s a cold bitch, that grief.
You will feel the pain and heartache and profound loss every day. But you will have sweet, sweet moments when you feel their presence with you. They will come to you in a dream, a song, a memory, a beautiful sunny day, the way one of your kids does something that reminds you of them. A million ways, they will be there. Not in the way we would like, but there nonetheless. And I promise, one day, you will feel them and remember them and be filled with love and happiness – not tears. You may feel guilt over not being constantly sad, and while it’s normal to feel that way, it is important to remember that your grief and your tears are not what ties you to their memory. This is something with which I have personally struggled.
After the funeral, everyone leaves… they go home, you go back to your job and your other responsibilities, but you are left with your blinding grief and pain. The calls, visits, texts, etc. all slowly subside. It’s not because people no longer care. I think they just don’t know what else to do, other than leave you to try to pick up the pieces and move forward in your grief journey. You are not going to “get over this.” You will never be the same. You will wonder how the sun dares to continue to shine; how the world continues to turn while yours is falling apart. Grief will be your constant companion. But one day, you’ll realize that you have the ability to tuck that grief safely away in your pocket for a bit, in order to continue living your life. But there will always be times when it falls out of that pocket, landing at your feet, causing you to trip right over it. Go ahead and fall…but don’t stay there.
However you need to grieve is the right way for you. And you are NOT alone. ❤️