After the loss of a parent, especially one who may have lived to a more advanced age, there often follows predictable attempts at comfort: "He lived a good life" or "It's the natural order of things" or, "You were lucky to have him for so long".
I was guilty of this. In my early days of making phone calls as a bereavement coordinator, I'll admit to creating expectations of how the griever on the other end of the phone would respond, based on the age of the person they lost. I'll never forget calling the daughter of a woman who had just lost her mom on Hospice. Mom had been 101 at the time of her passing. 101! Meaning the daughter had to be in her 70's or 80's. This was a "child" who had very possibly lost her father, friends and peers, or even her own spouse. Perhaps she had her own health issues that were serious enough to have her concerned about her own life and mortality. Surely this woman, of all the calls I would make that day, would be the person who would say, "we're doing okay. Mom was 101, we're just glad we had her so long".
But, boy, was I wrong. What I expected to be a quick call turned into a long call, that lead to a visit, which lead to this woman coming to our groups to talk about the very painful loss of her mom. "It sounds crazy, but she lived such a long time I just assumed she'd be around forever" she told me that day. And I quickly realized that at her own "advanced" age of 79, this daughter was going to need to relearn her life and what it was going to be like to not have her mother in it.
So never again. Never again have I made an assumption about how a person should respond when a loved one has died, and never again would I assume that any part of grief or loss can be easy.
I've facilitated a group for those facing the loss of a parent (or both parents) for several years. And one thing I find that most every person who attends has in common?
A total and complete lack of understanding from those around them.
Our parents are "supposed" to go first. If using the "natural order or things" argument, then a parent dying before their child is what's supposed to happen. But does that make it any less painful? That seems to be an assumption. When something is "supposed" to happen that we're somehow better equipped to handle it. But so many other painful things happen in life that are "supposed" to: children growing and moving from our homes, beloved pets living for so fewer years then we'd want them to, even the sale of a home or leaving a career when we're "supposed" to...
These all represent significant life loss and life change, for which most will find a network willing to talk and listen about the challenges related to each. And yet I've seen so many people struggle to find support and understanding when facing the loss of a parent, and it only serves to amplify the grief and isolation they feel.
Besides the rather obvious fact of simply missing having a very important person in our life, here are some issues faced by a child (because yes, I believe as long as we have a parent in our lives, there is someone who still considers us their child, but more on that in a minute...) who has lost a parent:
- Loss of ourselves - for better or worse, there are few people who know us better than our parents. Or at least know us from our earliest days - who have seen us through every high and low. No matter how accomplished we are today, or how far we feel we've come from who we once were, our parents were the witnesses to all of it. And if we were lucky, they were also our cheerleaders, our comfort, and the ones who would have taken us back if it all went wrong.
- Loss of unconditional love - I have a friend who is happily married. Every year she goes on vacation with her husband, children, and her parents. She confided that she looks forward to this time, especially because of the time she gets with her mother. My friend went on to say that she sometimes feels her mom is the only one who understands and anticipates what she needs and when she needs it. And despite her truly happy marriage, she knows the love her mom has for her is different than the love she shares with her spouse. And we agreed, plain and simple, there is an unconditional love between parents and children that can not be matched or compared to any other relationship. We agreed that we feel it for our own children, and it makes us understand better how our parents feel about us. And the loss of that, the loss of that person who loves us no matter what, can leave a greater void than we could ever anticipate.
- Loss of a generation - our parents represent a time in history. As much as we may have rolled our eyes at their music or movie choices, there is a cozy warmth in the things associated with our parents' generation. Besides history or pop culture, there is everything else that goes with it...their friends, our aunt and uncles. Each loss can feel like a disconnection to their past, and to ours. For many as they move forward and further away from all that felt so familiar they mind find themselves in a world that they don't always feel they belong in.
- Reality of our own mortality or of "being next" - while we probably spent the better part of our youth wanting to be older, it doesn't take long to realize that being older and getting older are two very different things. In our early years being older means more responsibility and perhaps others to care for, but getting older can turn our concern inward. We will feel ourselves slow down and face our own health issues. But nothing will make us look at our own time on this Earth more closely than the illness and eventual loss of a parent. There is a comfort in knowing the generation above us is there to keep an eye on things, and the loss of that can be unsettling.
- Loss of one parent, care & responsbility of remaining parent - here is something I see happen all the time. A son or daughter taking care of their parent, in some form or another, for weeks, months or years at a time. When their parent dies, there is very little time to mourn. Because suddenly all of that care, energy and attention shifts immediately to the parent who remains. Can they live alone? Who will they eat dinner with? Are they safe? No matter how frail or dependent our parents together may have been, there is a security in knowing that at least- they were together. With one parent gone and one remaining, there may be little time to think about the parent who was lost. Which brings us to...
- Loss of both parents - so following this line of thinking above, what most often seems to happen is that the loss of the remaining parent means finally, the "child" can grieve them both. This will likely be a surprise, as the griever thinks, "oh my gosh, Mom died 10 years ago, why am I suddenly grieving so much more?". For many of us, our parents are a package deal, and thoughts of one, and sadness for one will so often be linked to the other. With both parents gone, the final question is: am I a "child" anymore? Without a father or mother am I a son or a daughter? Of all the roles we play in life, the role of child was our longest- the one that was most familiar, and perhaps the one we took most for granted. Long before we were a spouse, an aunt, uncle, mother, father, or grandparent...we were someone's child. Even if we have long separated ourselves from needing the security that feeling can bring, isn't it to be expected that a fundamental shift in our identity is experienced whether we are aware of it or not?
So for anyone familiar, you may see that I do this a lot- present you with the idea of "why" as in, "why is this so hard?". And the idea is not to point out things that make it harder or sadder, but instead to help organize or even label the bad feelings we know we experience. In grief, we are all well aware of just how much we're struggling, and though the "why" we feel sad is easily answered, the "why" we will struggle long after we feel we should, is not.
The hope is that by understanding all that we've truly lost with the loss of a parent or parents, we can become more patient with ourselves. If we can find the reason and the words, and perhaps if we can outline better for ourselves the depth and complexities of these losses we can educate those around us who express or suggest that we "should" be handling ourselves in a different way.
Sit with the loss. Understand why it hurts, and why it matters, and let the magnitude of the loss better dictate the timeline it takes for you to heal. Don't rush through it. While painful, let the memories and the lifetime shared with your first loves have a place in your heart always. Let their unconditional love guide you and let this loss matter. Because at one point in your life they were everything, and they mattered.
At www.griefincommon.com we recognize just how complicated the loss of a parent can be. While some parts of this writing may represent a more idealized version of the parent/child relationship, we do recognize that not everyone has had the same experience or feelings for their parents. With that in mind, I suggest reading our blog on "Grieving the Relationship that Never Was" www.griefincommon.com/blog/a-different-kind-of-loss-grieving-the-relati… for a more detailed discussion on grieving the more complicated bonds in our life.