Losing your parent is hard at any age, I’m told. Losing a parent in your 20s is harder.
I was 23 when my father died after decades of alcoholism. I still remember the day I walked in the front door of my mom’s house, just home from work, and she was sitting on the sofa. “We need to talk,” she’d said. She’d received a call at work from someone she hadn’t spoken to since my parents divorced in 1985. Some friend of the family (my dad’s family). “Your dad died today. Apparently, he’d been sick for a long time.” I cried, but I was silent in my sadness. My dad hadn’t been around for a very long time, he had a new family. The last time I’d seen him I was 19 or 20, and before that it had been about 15 years.
I was 28 when I walked in to that same house and found my mother alone, lying on her bedroom floor – unresponsive. I screamed so loudly the neighbors heard me from inside their house. There was no gentle reveal for my mother the way there had been for my father. No one was crying with me, holding me, telling me they were so sorry.
When the paramedics arrived they seemed almost confused. “Is there a minor here?” I guess while on the phone with 9-1-1 I’d reverted to calling her “Mommy” as I tried to wake her up and roll her over as instructed. I don’t have any memory of this.
My mother died on March 29, 2012 from leukemia. It’ll be seven years this year and while I wish I could be more uplifting in my message today, what I have to say is a harsh reality most of you will never have to deal with.
I think, to some degree, we are all preparing to be older when our parents pass away. Parents of adult children who maybe have kids of their own. My grandma Bruce died two days before my sophomore year of high school, and my grandpa Bruce followed eight years later. My mom had been the youngest of four by a lot of years (her sister, closest in age to her, was 6 when my mom was born). That was my gauge.
My son was 18 months old. It was the right number, maybe, but the wrong bullet point in my timeline. Nothing prepares you to lose a parent in your 20s. Absolutely nothing can prepare you to lose both of your parents 6 years apart, before you finish your 20s.
Over these seven years I’ve learned a lot, I’ve researched more, and I have dealt with an unexplainable feeling of regret, as if it was my fault somehow. There are comparisons I cannot fully grasp as I hold the entirety of her life within a single photo album. I see her from birth to death and realize when she had me, she was at her mid-life point. I had my son at the same age my mom had me. When she was 30 she had my brother, her second child. When I was 30, I still had just the one and she had been gone for one full year and two weeks.
Here are the things you will come to know when your parents die:
- Time is short. You’ll have your own photo album, and seeing someone’s life from start to finish in a matter of minutes will slap you in the face every single time.
- Milestones are impossible to bear sometimes. Celebrations are nice, but they are never as grand or glorious when your parent is missing from them.
- Your grief will be forgotten by others. Those closest to you will remember it around anniversaries of birth and death dates, but to them and others it’s a situation outside of themselves. For you, it’s inside at your core. It’s a part of your molecular makeup because you came from them and now they’re gone.
- Your realization of your own death becomes something you think about more often.
- Material things don’t matter. It’s the memories we leave behind that truly mean something, not the money or stuff.
Here are the extras if you’re especially young when one (or both) of your parents die:
- Anniversaries aren’t fully happy. As previously mentioned, there is a shadow on every big moment because the person who should be around, isn’t.
- You will get irritable with others. When your friends complain about their parents for any reason at all, you will absolutely snap at them. This goes back to others forgetting your reality and its out of this separation they don’t think about what they’re saying around you. Be patient with them, but don’t feel too badly if you clap back with your reminder about how good they have it. On this same note, expect others to say things such as “Are you still sad about that? Life moves on” and “I don’t know how you’re handling this? I’d be a sobbing mess all the time.” It’s contradictory things you need to ignore.
- On that note, it’s going to impact relationships. Going into new relationships may have you wondering about how long you’ll know that person and the significance on each others’ live you may have. I know I tend to project expectations, especially on potential romances, because I have a deeply-rooted feeling of loneliness. Relationships just mean more to someone who has gone through this deep loss because we understand how incredible it is to feel so much for a person whether it be friendship, a healthy working relationship, or a romantic partner.
- Sometimes, you’ll cry without warning. I have been in my cubicle at work, driving, grocery shopping, exercising, dancing, bathing, and so many other mundane, everyday things when I’ve broken down without warning. Grief is as unique to people as their fingerprints and the way I deal with our parents’ death is probably vastly different than the way my brother deals with it.
- You’ll forget things from your past. I have mostly forgotten my childhood due to some trauma and the self-preservation tactic of memory blocking. This is my defense against emotional pain and unfortunately, it’s bled over into my memories involving my mom. Things can jog my memories most times, but I don’t remember the way her voice sounded, for example.
- You might feel emotions such as guilt and hopelessness. I felt like it was my fault somehow – if I wouldn’t have stayed after class that day to talk to my professor, if I’d stayed on the phone instead of brushing it off as a “butt dial” on my way home she could have heard my voice as she slipped away. I could have (should have) been with her the way she’d always been there for me. Feeling guilty, I lost hope in so many things: myself, relationships, the meaning of being alive; it all lead to one thing: death, so what did it matter? Find your “matter” because you will need it in the darkest of times.
- You will be longing for your parents much longer than most of your friends will have to. When we plan to be older before losing our parents, we assume a couple of decades may pass before we go (give or take some years). When you’re young and lose a parent, you have many decades of missing them ahead of you.
- You wonder about your own mortality and may have the thought constantly on your mind that you, too, may die young. If my life is like either of my parents, I’ve hit my mid-life point and I’m fully into my second half. 50s are too soon, but longer than that is something I can’t even fathom anymore. I don’t have my parents around to show me what that phase of my life could be like and report back or guide me.
Want the good news now? You’re getting it anyway. There actually are some really positive things for those of us who lose our parents at young ages:
- We appreciate relationships with people much more than our peers who have not experienced loss this deep or close to home. Because we spend so much time reflecting on how short a life really is, we take advantage of each day. (This is, of course, on the assumption one has not had grief lead them into darkness and stay there.)
- Motivation to leave your loved ones with good memories becomes a driving force in our lives. Making a lot of money is great and leaving it to someone you love is a nice feeling, but they could blow all of it in seconds essentially because money doesn’t matter. Rich or poor, remembering a person with a smile on your face is better than something that doesn’t truly belong to anyone anyway.
- You can find your purpose in life. How many articles and blogs have been written about people who were spurred on to accomplish their goals and live their dream life situations after an incredible loss? After the loss of my parents, my journaling advanced (before then I was living a superficial life not worth writing about) and from these journals I’ve created some writing I’ve had insanely positive feedback on.
- You might find out the things you thought mattered to you, do not actually matter at all. As wonderful as our parents are, once you’re without their influence and have to learn about life on your own you start to learn about yourself. What you learn, sometimes counters what they believed and instilled in you, and that’s okay. If you’re a good person, you’re everything they hoped you would be.
So here I am. I’ll be 36 this year, and I’m just finally branching out into the world of writing for the public. I have things I started writing years ago that have never been seen and I have unfinished novels my old writing group buddies beg me to bring back and get them done for publishing (I guess I’m good at writing, or something).
Part of this blog will be a journal of sorts. I’ll allow a glimpse into my life if I feel like it’s something relatable. Seven years without the one parent who was there every single day for just shy of 29 years and it kills me every time I think of her being gone. Wanna know what makes me smile and laugh, though?
Beliefs: My mother became a woman in a time when the culture was shifting from “women in the kitchen” to bras being burned. She graduated high school in 1971 after seeing things like the moon landing, Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam war, and the shooting at Kent University was still super fresh in terms of timeline (only a year before she graduated and went to college). She was a hybrid of female stereotype and feminism, and she taught me traits from both of these sides as she saw fit. Still, at times, she’d often say, “You are your father’s daughter.” That whole nature versus nurture theory, you know.
Music: She liked some really great music, and I think it’s one of the few things my parents had in common. My dad was a big ol’ hippie and my mom was a bit of a disco queen. I remember sitting on the sofa flipping through channels when I caught “Purple Rain” beginning on VH1 and from the kitchen she said, “Keep it on, and turn it up. I love Prince!” My conservative mother loved Prince?! I didn’t believe her. In response to my questioning she danced into the living room singing along with Morris Day and The Time and then quoted the first few lines of the movie. Mind: blown! She was full of surprises like that.
Even the title of this post comes from Sweetwater, aka: the first band to play at Woodstock, aka: one of my favorites growing up. My mom was a fan of Peter Frampton (he’s not my favorite, but for nostalgia I listen to him), Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles were a big deal in our household, The Monkees, The Carpenters, Santana, The Eagles, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and so many more greats. My dad was big into The Rolling Stones (his favorite band, one of my lest favorites). My mom could thank my older cousin for introducing me to Aerosmith, Iggy Pop, The Doors, The Stooges, The Ramones, Blondie, The Cure, INXS, and many others that eventually lead me into those dark 90s days she abhorred: Sublime, Nirvana, Marilyn Manson, NIN … I put her through the ringer, and she loved me anyway.
Humor: She had the dirtiest jokes, the foulest mouth, and best zingers. She was quick about it, too. Everything was followed with a fit of giggles, too. No one has ever made me laugh so hard as my mom. Often I thought I was close to passing out because I couldn’t breathe from laughing so hard. She suffered from depression that worsened as she aged, but man could she break tension and sadness with a really great quip!
Creativity: I don’t know how much of it we got from our father, but my brother is incredible at art and I’m a writer, and both of us learned about photography from her before taking a couple of classes as various points in our own lives. I have a piece of her high school art framed and hanging in my living room, she wanted to be a journalist when she was in high school, and there was never a time she denied me some wild fantasy of acting, singing, or really just becoming famous. I take that back, when I heard Disney was auditioning for The Mickey Mouse Club she refused to uproot us to Florida on a whim so I could audition. (If she had done it, though, I could have been in a cast with Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling. Can you even imagine?!) For my 16th birthday, she paid money for me to not only record a demo of popular songs at a recording studio, but she then sent them to every major label in the country. (We can see how well that turned out for me, but I swear I can sing). She was at every school function – choir and band shows, plays, Halloween dances (in costume), dance recitals.
Sports: My brother and I are actually pretty athletically-inclined. Well, we were in our younger days, and she let me venture into the realms of swimming, gymnastics, figure skating, baseball, street hockey, colorguard, and maybe others I cannot remember now. She may have been overprotective in much of my life, but she never stopped my brother and I from enjoying experiences.
Disney World: She took us to Disney World for the first time in 1991, and the last time in 2000. I went to Disney World a total of five times! While I wish now we had allocated vacations to doing more things like seeing an ocean, going to the Grand Canyon or Niagra Falls, all these places and things she saw growing up, it’s still pretty cool to have had that vacation tradition of ours.
All-in-all, my almost 29 years with her were incredible, and I still live to make her proud. I don’t get to hear her telling she is, but knowing the feeling of her pride in my decisions is one thing her death didn’t impact. That’s really cool! If you’re someone going through this, take it from me it doesn’t get that much easier as time passes … but it doesn’t get worse, I promise.
Help Is There
If you are struggling with the loss of a loved one and you are not able to pull yourself out and others can’t seem to help, you can call the grief hotline at 866-219-7416 24-hours a day, or visit this list to find a grief counselor in your area (US-only).
UPDATE 3/27/19: Refinery29 made a post regarding the increase in millennials becoming caregivers for their aging parents. Take a look here.
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