When our parents die and we are adults, we”re expected to say, “This is an appropriate death. My father . . . my mother . . . lived a full life. It is their time. I’m okay with that.”
But we are not okay with it.
Losing a parent—at any age—is a profound loss.
It is such a primal connection, that of parent and child. No matter what your age, no matter what the circumstances of your rearing, no matter how loving or how lethal your relationship, it’s impossible to completely ignore the people who gave you life. You can divorce a spouse but not your parents. There is that ultimate tie—the genetic inheritance that somehow entwines us no matter how hard we may try to disconnect.
As society ages, and more people experience this inevitable passage, people are beginning to realize that it’s not an easy loss just because your parents are in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, or even 90’s.
I was surprised at the depth of my pain when my parents died. And since there isn’t yet a lot of cultural support when adults lose their parents, I had to feel my way, as if walking through an unfamiliar forest.
We all pass through a four-fold experience of loss, and from each of our experiences, we can take a step forward. Grieving is a process that has its own time. But eventually, we come to some resolution of our pain and we complete our grief.
Our Experience Begins With The Realization That Mom Or Davd Is Dying . . .
The hospital room percolated softly with the hum of the respirator. It sounded like a coffeepot instead of a machine keeping my father alive. Carefully, I stepped around the other life-support machines, pushed aside an IV bag, and gently touched my father’s face. “How is he?”
“Blood pressure has dropped,” said Polly, the night nurse. She glanced at her thick charts, as if hoping to find something she’d missed. “Otherwise, no real change, I’m afraid.”
“Daddy, it’s me,” I pleaded. “Can you open your eyes? Please? For me?”
But his face, so yellow, stayed empty and closed. Only the furrows of pain seemed to deepen.
It should have been simple surgery. A heart bypass is not unusual these days. We telephoned Daddy the night before, all his children and grandchildren. My son Andy said, “You’re gonna be out of surgery at two thirty, Granddaddy? That’s great. I’ll call you at three.”
His grandfather’s hearty chuckle had spun across the telephone wires. “What do you think this is, a little Novocain job?” He was still laughing, repeating the story to the anesthesiologist, as they wheeled him into the operating room. Maybe he wouldn’t be talking by three, his laughter seemed to say, but he sure expected to feel good soon. He sure didn’t plan on a heart attack during surgery.
A Step Forward
Maybe it happened in a similar way for you; A problem during surgery or a doctor’s stunning diagnosis. Or a police officer’s call: “there’s been an accident . . .. ” Right in the middle of ordinary living, while you’re making plans for summer vacation, raising a family, going to work–abruptly, you face your parent’s mortality. Sooner rather than later. Reality is so shocking you feel it physically. You can’t take it in. There is no way to cushion the blow. Even as you gasp from the pain, realize you are starting a process that is a natural part of living–the inevitable letting go of someone you love. All you can do–and what you must do–is feel the pain.
After The Loss, We Feel The Struggle . . .
Memories of my mother tangled in my mind like multi-colored strands of thread. So much reminded me of her. On an office elevator, I overheard two people discussing an upcoming trip to Nova Scotia. By the time they get off on the fifth floor, I was teary-eyed. Mom and I had talked about traveling to Nova Scotia.
At Christmas when no gifts appeared wrapped in recycled paper and ribbon, I laughed sadly, remembering Mom and her thrifty habits.
My heart quickened one day as I caught a glimpse of a woman striding across a parking lot with my mother’s fast-paced, no-nonsense, shoulders-back walk. I even started to follow her, to call, “Mom, wait!” Then I remembered.
Yet I am grateful for my memories because I recall what my youngest son Andy said as he left for college. “Mom, I was so young when my daddy died, I can’t quite remember him. I reach and reach and almost touch him, but not quite. I’ve always envied my sister because she was older and can remember. All I have are family stories.”
It was the first time I realized that when you have no personal recollections, it’s like a second loss. So now I rejoice in my colorful tangles.
A Step Forward
Be grateful for your memories, even if they fill you with sadness now. “Remembered joys are never past,” wrote poet James Montgomery. Eventually the pain does leave, and your memories will weave themselves into a tapestry where the happy and sad, the light and the dark, create a beautiful pattern.
At The Same Time, Our Roles Are Changing, As We Are Often Called To Comfort Our Other Parent . . .
After Daddy died, Mom frequently phoned me, usually at night, her voice often brittle with anger. “I need your brother’s help,” she fumed one night. “There’s a hole in the kitchen window screen. Your father would have fixed it in a jiff. But Jack says he’s too busy right now. Why won’t he come?” Her voice was querulous and irritable.
“Mom, Jack is busy.” I tried to speak gently but she didn’t hear, until finally, to get her attention, I snapped in a voice as angry as hers. “Dammit, Mom, can’t you ever listen?”
The phone grew silent. My hands felt clammy on the receiver. I was ashamed that I had yelled. “Mom, Jack is a lawyer with a busy practice and two half-grown sons who are playing team sports. It’s all he can do to get to their games. Why don’t you call a handyman service? You can afford it.”
“I don’t want some stranger over here. I want my son.”
No, I thought, you want your husband.
Daddy was a putterer. A fix-it guy. He could always be depended on to glue together the pieces of a broken china plate, or to hang a shelf just where she wanted it, or to fix the wiring in a malfunctioning toaster. For forty-six years, she had counted on him to fix what was broken. But no one could mend what was broken now.
It wasn’t the hole in the screen that needed fixing, it was the hole that had come into my mother’s life, dark, yawning, immense. The space that my father had filled. She wanted my brother to fix it, but he couldn’t, nor could I.
Helpless, I tried to think of something to say. No words came.
A Step Forward
A psychiatrist friend told me, “even if you and both your brothers moved in with your mother, it would not be enough. You could not fill her emptiness or ease her pain. Everyone has to do their own grief work.” What I could do for my mother was to be there to listen. And that’s what you can do, too. Whatever form the grief takes, don’t judge and offer quick solutions. Just listen.
And Then, We Can Find New Meanings And Complete Our Grief AND .
My friend Dottie displays such exuberance for living that it’s easy to believe she is her father’s daughter. He was a charismatic Armenian immigrant who came to this country unable to read, write, or speak English. Yet he built a dry-cleaning business that became the third largest in America.
For three months after his cancer was pronounced terminal, Dottie flew halfway across the country every other weekend to be at her father’s bedside. They spoke by phone every day. “We talked in great detail about his life, and I told him repeatedly how wonderful he was and what a great father he’d been,” said Dottie, her voice softening in memory. She was with him, holding his hand, when, “. . . he pulled his hand away and I knew he was ready to go.”
Today, several years later, Dottie says, “I never felt my father left me. It’s as if he’s alive—just not in his body. I call on him when I need help and I talk to him regularly.”
A Step Forward
Dottie is one of the lucky ones. Her father died knowing she loved him. They had communicated openly and well. She had a comforting sense of closure. If you and your parent partied as Dottie did from her father, rejoice, even in the midst of your sorrow, because eventually, you will find that your parent is still wonderfully present in your memories and will be there for you. If yours was a different ding of parting, and you are feeling conflicted, remember that no one today has to heal alone. Funeral homes, hospitals, community mental health centers, and churches offer support groups.
I have learned that there is a special light that may come in the wake of our parents’ leaving. I discovered, as you will, too, that in a deeper sense, our parents don’t leave us. They become part of us.
Excerpted from Nobody’s Child Anymore, by Barbara Bartocci, SORIN BOOKS – www.sorinbooks.com , P.O. Box 1006, Notre Dame, IN 46556. Used with permission of the publisher.