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Grief is such a unique word, not in definition, but in practice. It is something that just happens to you. No one ever teaches you how to grieve. Even if they did, your pesky brain doesn’t necessarily communicate with your heart. How are you supposed to reconcile the knowledge of loss with the love in your heart? The death of my parents has taught me so much about the word, grief.
Experiencing the death of a parent for most is inevitable; however, most don’t expect to lose their parents at a young age. How do you navigate life without your guide? Although I am not an expert in formal education on this subject, I have endless experience. The death of both of my parents happened 16 years apart. One was unexpected and one was a heart wrenching, year long journey. One happened when I was in middle school and one when I was well into adulthood. No matter the differences, the pain for both was, and still is immense. This is what I have learned thus far in my experience with the death of my parents, leaving me an orphan at 28 year old.
Lesson 1: Every Single Experience is Unique
It is no secret that every person grieves differently. Our own, unique personalities have created our “grief compartments” of our brain. Mine can be different from yours. What I did not necessarily expect was to grieve differently for my mother than my father. With my father, his death seemed quick and unexpected. In hindsight, it was clear his health was at risk, as he had a few heart attacks without changing his lifestyle. He was a “ticking time bomb” of sorts. However, in my 12 year old mind, it was so unexpected. The day he died, my heart was ripped out. I didn’t have the coping skills needed to deal with such a huge loss in my life. In fact, it was the first death I ever had to deal with, and it was my father. Since I was his only child and he was divorced from my mother, I had a hand in every detail of his funeral, including designing his headstone. This experience changed me. I suddenly knew how incredibly fragile life was for all, even my father. It made me grow up entirely too soon. I had resentment in my heart and self pity because I no longer had my father to help guide me through life. I even remember having the very sound thought that I could always have the excuse of his death to live any life I want, whether it be positive or negative.
My mother, on the other hand, was a very different experience. She was diagnosed with breast cancer that rapidly ravaged her body. She had ups and downs with recovery, but came to a point where we knew her life would end sooner, rather than later. In the whole scheme of things, her decline was rapid, but the last few months seemed to be never ending. Watching someone you love turn from a strong, independent woman to a fragile, suffering shell of a woman was absolutely gut wrenching. There is nothing you can do to help, you can only stand by and watch. When she finally passed, my heart physically felt like a piece was lost. But at the same time, it was almost a relief because I knew she was no longer suffering. I, by no means, wanted to lose my mother, but the daily struggle of her life wore on my soul. I knew how hard every day was for her and I just wanted her pain to end.
With the death of my parents, the result was the same. I had a void in my heart no one could fill. I felt abandoned and helpless. However, the immediate effects and feelings with each loss was different. I had to come to realization I did not love one parent more than the other, nor was one more important than the other. These were simply two different relationships in my life I lost at two very different developmental stages. Letting go of any guilt in the difference in grieving was such a relief of burden. We must be able to reconcile in our brains the loss of each unique relationship has different effect on our mental, emotional and physical state. You cannot compare.
Lesson 2: Allow Yourself to Feel
If you were to get into a car accident and get a gaping gash on your leg, you would most likely go to the hospital and get stitches. You would not put a band-aid on the wound and hope it eventually heals itself. Why then, do we do this with emotional scars? Many of us feel we have to be the “strong ones”; we can’t allow others to see us being affected. We tend to “suck it up” and hope we eventually forget the pain we feel after loss. Many of us never really deal with the wounds, therefore, they never get a chance to heal. I know this because I am the queen of the no feels. In the 21 years since my father’s death, I have finally learned the best way to handle grief it to take it head on. Dealing with the grief of losing my parents is not easy, but necessary. My advice to you: Allow yourself to feel. Allow yourself to speak to someone if that helps in your journey. What shouldn’t happen is bottling up and hoping the grief just goes away. News flash: grief is permanent. It is best to understand how you heal so you can deal.
Lesson 3: Grief is Permanent
There is an old saying, “Time heals all wounds.” This is absolutely untrue. The loss of a loved one is hard; losing a parent is absolutely heart wrenching. Your parents are your first role models, first cheerleaders, the first to give you unconditional love. Even when your parent fail you, the love it still there; it still lingers. When you lose a parent to death, it is permanent. Your rock is gone. Losing the only person/people to unconditionally love you is a permanent feeling. The hardest lesson I learned with the death of each of my parents, was the grief does not go away, no matter how much time has passed. It is always lingering. Although the relationships I had with my mother and father were very different and I lost them at different stages of my life, I still grieve both of their lives and deaths. I know this will be an issue I will face for the entirety of my life. The good news: grief is not a constant feeling.
Lesson 4: Grief is Not Constant
One of the good news/bad news scenario lessons I have learned after losing my parents is the feeling of grief is not constant. There’s always a tug at your heart or a memory in the back of your brain, but there isn’t a constant state of helplessness and sadness. It is much like a roller coaster. There are days that seemed absolutely like the lowest point. Those are days you are paralyzed in grief. It’s almost hard to function. However, there are days you don’t even think about not having your loved one around.
This has always been hard for me to explain when I tried to put the experience into words. I was lucky enough to stumble upon the ball and box analogy Lauren Hershel shared via Twitter. If you would like to read a more in depth description of the theory, please, click here. In summary, the article states grief is like a button in a box with ball trapped inside. In the beginning stages of grief, the ball is giant and hits the grief button often, causing a reaction. Over time, the ball shrinks in size, and in turn hits the grief button less and less. The grief button doesn’t go away, it just is not activated as often. I agree with this analogy whole heartedly. I still grieve both of my parents. A familiar smell, a song, a memory can pop into my head and I am overcome with emotion. There is no rhyme or reason. However, as time moves on, these instances happen less and less. Even after 20+ years without my dad, I still have moments of grief. My mother’s death is much more recent; therefore, those instances happen with her memory more often. Although it does not alleviate my pain, there is some solace in knowing the grief will not be a mainstay in my life. Just when that roller coaster of emotion hits the low point, I know it has to come up. My grief is the same way.
Lesson 5: There are Lessons in Grief
Although I don’t necessarily believe the adage, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I do feel like there is a lesson in every obstacle. The earliest lesson I was taught after the death of my father, was the world was not going to stop spinning because I was hurting. My mother, as well as my other family members, made sure to always let me know I was loved, but I was never able to use the death of my father as an excuse to not be successful. I am so grateful for this lesson, as losing my father was not the only hardship in my life. I was able to identify from an early age an excuse and what a crunch look like. It’s okay to have bad days, but it’s not okay to stay in the pit. If you have a young one dealing with the death of their parent(s), I encourage you to show love, but not allow excuses.
With the death of my mother, I learned I was much more capable than I gave myself credit. My mother had always been my go-to person for advice, how-to information, and all around rock for me. I have always known that I could do anything I really put my mind to, but I always had my mom to give me guidance and encouragement. When she died, I no longer could depend on her to push me forward. I had to figure out a way to rely on myself. There are still days I pick up the phone to call and ask her a question, but I’m reminded that’s not an option anymore. I guess the cliche is true, “you never know what you’re capable of doing until you have to do it.”
My Final Words on the Lessons I Learned in the Death of My Parents
The last two-plus decades navigating this life without both of my parents present has been such a learning curve. I’ve hit the worst days of my life, but I’ve also been able to learn so much about myself. Although dealing with a death of a parent is never easy. It’s imperative to remember you are not in this alone, no matter how strong you feel you need to be.