When I first told my 3-year-old that my mom, her Gigi, wasn’t going to be coming home from the hospital, that she had died, I thought I was equipped to handle the fallout. After all, I had already lost my dad 10 years prior.
Armed with countless hours of research and reading, I obsessed over approaching the conversation: what to say, how to respond to the complicated questions about mortality and death, and — primarily ― how to help my young children process loss while processing it myself.
The results presented everything from religious consolations to philosophical truisms about gratitude and the limited time we are all lucky enough to get on earth. Purported experts had helpful tips and sample scripts. Still, none could capture the dualism of being both the child and the parent, oscillating between the roles, moving through the grief and the responsibilities simultaneously.
And none captured the situation in which I found myself: 29 years old, mother of two, two dead parents.
Upon learning my mom had stage 3 lung cancer, the reverberating phrase in my head was all-encompassing: It’s not fair, it’s not FAIR. With my 1-year-old son in my lap on the plane from New York to Texas, I prepared to witness similar desperation in the eyes of my older sister, my only sibling. Here we are again, I imagined they’d say to me as we stood next to her hospital bed. How will we handle burying another parent?
There was a sense that we had gained some expertise navigating this after the first death and that by the second time around, adult children have a sort of blueprint, a list of boxes to check. It would appear as: organize the funeral, file the paperwork, divide the possessions, write the obituary.
A separate, unspoken list quickly overpowered the executive functioning needed to complete the first: relive the trauma of the first parental death; digest that loss in a fundamentally different way; begin the grief process for the second.
The new assignment was to mourn the loss of a parent and the loss of myself as a daughter. I feared the permanent erasure of this piece of my identity. Who was I without my parents? And as a parent, how would this identity shift inform the relationships I built with my own children?
My experience in the child/parent dynamic’s next iteration was short-lived. It’s the one in which the now-adult child realizes their parents had, actually, been right about many things. The parent can now enjoy their former adolescent on a deeper level and release much of the stress from the hands-on caregiving years. Both parties soften, allowing themselves a more profound understanding of each other.
Losing my father at 19 meant I never got to explore this space with him. When my mother died, any opportunity to bridge this developmental leap died also.
In my late teens and early 20s, considerations about the future were narrow in scope. Romantic endeavors, career aspirations, and how to pay my rent took precedence. I never contemplated asking my parents questions; we all assume ample time to have those conversations when we get older, when they retire, when we enter middle age.
In many ways, this relegated the understanding I have of my parents into one dimension forever. I could never have foreseen that one day I would yearn to ask endless questions about my childhood, or desire to explore who my parents were as fully realized, multifaceted people
On the practical side, I feel my parents’ absence most intensely in the heaviest parts ― raising children with its myriad daily challenges, getting (and staying) sober, navigating marriage and friendships. The trivial, too. What would Dad say about TikTok? Would Mom have liked the new hosts of ”American Idol”?
As my peers have begun to lose their parents, I witness how more prepared many seem. They have had the advantage of time. Time to mature, think, and have the conversations with their parents I desperately crave. Yet, I know the mere fact of that additional time doesn’t foretell how well we will use it. It certainly didn’t keep me from repeating the same mistakes in my relationship with my mother after my father’s death.
Last year, I gave birth to my third child. What kind of parent would I have developed into had I not lost mine? I still don’t have any good answers for my kids about death.
My now-9-year-old daughter’s reading interests have progressed to more mature stories. Both of my older children are sensitive about characters’ deaths, sometimes abandoning an entire book if they sense someone will die, or sometimes looking ahead to the later chapters in preparation before proceeding.
Sometimes I wish that’s what I could have done ― I wish I could have previewed the upcoming chapters, jumped ahead, and peered into this part of the timeline, as my kids do with their books. I could have known that, yes, I would lose them; yes, it would be way earlier than I imagined.
As children, our sense of self is intertwined with that of our parents. The gradual separation from them requires years of delicate approach and attention. This process is like navigating a sticky zipper with a tendency to catch the fabric ― too slowly, and the teeth begin to splay; too quickly, and you must extricate the material carefully to avoid damage. When you lose both parents, an abrupt termination of this developmental process occurs.
I know now that I will always feel somewhat incomplete, as if I am suspended, still loading. I will always have memories I cannot connect, questions unanswered.
Did I steal knickknacks from the Christian bookstore when I was 7, and dad made me return them, apologize, and offer to pray with customers? Or was this a moral he attempted to impart, exaggerated and disguised in a funny story? Was it something that happened in a dream?
Does my clear recall of feeling bothersome and annoying to adults correlate with the ADHD I didn’t receive a diagnosis for until my 30s? What would I be able to glean in parenting my daughter, also diagnosed with ADHD, if I had a collated history and understanding of my parents’ mistakes, successes and realizations? They aren’t here to fill in the gaps.
Many of the childhood insecurities for which we seek parental comfort and reflection propagate wildly without our parents present. For as long as I can recall, I’ve always been terrified of the dark, and I struggle with sleep and anxiety. Through years of therapy and medications, I’ve exhausted all avenues of exploration for the cause.
Maybe my parents know the origin story, a detail, an event, or a facet of my childhood self unknown to me. Could I make strides to improve my mental health in this area if I had their insight?
When my sister and I bickered growing up, my mother always reminded us that someday we would be the only people each other had left.
“You only have one sister, one sibling,” she’d say.
Her relationships with her three siblings spanned the range of toxic and distant, and she wanted something different for us. It was her way of goading us into being kinder and, I assume, enticing us to knock off the fighting.
I wish I had known that the tedious grief of losing both parents when I did would be accompanied by a longing to enter the next phase of a relationship I could no longer access. It means forever standing at a door, waiting to be let in.
I can’t tell you what eventually opens that door – maybe a combination of therapy and time, or through fostering my relationship with my sister and continuing to discuss the Big Things with my children candidly.
I’ve come to realize that choosing to walk away from that door doesn’t mean I leave my parents behind; it means I am taking them with me somewhere new.
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