I was 32 when my father died after a long struggle with cancer. Because he was ill for so long we had time to spend together saying what needed to be said. In essence, we grieved his death together. After he was gone I missed him terribly, but my attention turned to meeting the needs of my mother and helping her adjust to life as a widow. When she died suddenly 11 years later I was totally unprepared for the devastating sense of loss I experienced. It wasn’t that I loved my mother more than I loved my dad. It was because it suddenly hit me that I was no longer anyone’s daughter. I was an orphan.
I realized there was no one to recall the times before I have memories. No one to ask who the people in the old photos were. No one to call for advice. No “home” to return to. And the knowledge that no one else will ever love me as unconditionally as my parents loved me. That’s not true for all of us. But clients I’ve worked with who had miserable childhoods with truly toxic parents are often surprised at their level of grief after a parent dies, even one they haven’t talked to in years. That death represents the end of their hope—even unacknowledged hope—things might change.
“There is no experience quite as stunning as when there is nothing where something has always been.”
If you provided extensive caregiving you often get a one-two punch after the death of a parent. The first emotion you experience is relief followed almost immediately by overwhelming guilt. It is undeserved. Caregiving is excruciatingly difficult and exhausting no matter how much you love your parent and it is normal to want to escape it. If that guilt persists I urge you to find a therapist, a support group, a pastor or even a friend who has been down the same road so you can let it go.
I soon discovered our society responds to the death of a parent differently from the loss of other family members. People were solicitous and kind and frequently asked me how I was doing—for about 2 weeks. Then the unspoken message was clear: “Time to get over it and carry on as usual. After all, she was 82 and lived a full life.” Is that supposed to make it easier?
I thought my therapeutic training had prepared me to deal with death but there is a vast difference between what is in books and what is in the heart. The level of grief was more intense than I’d have ever believed possible and this was magnified by the fact it felt somewhat shameful–like a weakness. Catherine Sanders, author of Grief, The Mourning After writes, “There appears to be impatience with the grief of a bereaved adult child. Adult orphaned children must keep their feelings to themselves and mourn in secret.” And mourn secretly I did for quite a long time.
Even though I was only in my early 40s when my mother died, I was confronted with a sense of my own mortality as I realized I’m next up to die in the natural order of things. This left me with a sense of urgency to get on with pursuits that are important to me and that feeling has intensified as I’ve grown older.
For years I held onto things whose sole importance was that they had belonged to my parents. Slowly, gradually, I have divested myself of all but the most cherished items and very few of them have any monetary value. My parents both loved horses so I kept their favorite boots along with my dad’s battered straw hat. Using the old cast iron skillet always brings back memories of weekend breakfasts and I still wear one of my mother’s old robes even though the zipper sticks and the sleeves are frayed. But perhaps my favorite memento is a scrap of paper with a note written in my mother’s slapdash scrawl. It is this quote by Thoreau she wanted to remember:
When it comes time to die, let us not discover that we have never lived.
I keep it close because I want to remember it, too.