The Day A Parent Dies

About a million years ago when I was taking Lamaze classes in anticipation of giving birth to my first child, the teacher said, “Be prepared to tell your labor story…. over and over and over. You won’t be able to stop yourself.” I wondered aloud why anyone (let alone everyone as she indicated) would feel the need to do that. She explained that giving birth is among the biggest transitions of your life and as such it will have a profound effect on you. As a result, you will be compelled emotionally to process it, even if the compulsion is somewhat subconscious. The way humans process, she said is by word and often by spoken word, almost as if our minds need to hear us speak the thoughts in order to fully understand them. I doubted she was right about all that but weeks later and even years later I found myself telling people about my 33-hour labor and how my OB/Gyn went to the cafeteria and bought dinner for my husband.

So, if big transitions require the telling and retelling of the story, I think the death of a parent certainly fits that bill. Yet, we don’t. While some may revel in revealing the details of the day a child was born, we don’t love talking about the other end of life. But I hope that will change. I think talking about when parents die is one of the best ways to cope with that huge transition. Nothing is ever the same after a parent dies. Your life is irrevocably altered. It’s worth pondering. So I invite you to tell your story, if you have one. If you’ve suffered the loss of a parent, please feel free to share here. My goal is to help others cope with what we’re all told is a natural part of life — seeing a parent die — and yet I can tell you it hurts. It’s a profound loss and it merits processing.

Here’s the story of the day my mother died. I’m following that up with my “takeaways,”– things I learned since which I wish I knew then. If you share a story here, please also share anything you learned from the experience that you think could help others cope.

“Come right now, Mom had a heart attack and she’s been in intensive care since Tuesday,” my father pleaded. My husband and I were on a camping trip in Florida. There were no cell phones then. I called on Thursday because the next day we were supposed to drive to Miami where my parents were vacationing. We got to the hospital quickly; she was still alive. She lingered in a semi-conscious state for several excruciating days. They had told us she would not recover from this, her fifth heart attack, so we weren’t hopeful, just waiting. We stayed at the hospital around the clock. Per the hospital protocol in those days, we could visit her just four times a day for 15 minutes at a time. Her mouth was taped around a breathing tube so she couldn’t speak but she was awake and could look at me and hold my hand. It was heartbreaking. She was 63, I was 24. On the fifth day after her heart attack we were sitting in the waiting  room in between the visiting times. The nurse walked in and said, “She’s gone. You can come in and say goodbye.” My father went in. I didn’t want to see my dead mother so I stayed in the waiting room thinking about how she was all alone when she died. To this day the thought of that breaks my heart.

What I learned/What I wish I had known:

  1. What I thought was appropriate to say to my mom during those days prior to her death was,”You’ll be okay, Mom, you’re going to be okay.” What I should have said was, “I love you, I will love you forever, you’ve been a wonderful mother. Thank you for my life. Goodbye.” Maybe not in those exact words but you get the idea. My mother had the right to know what was happening to her and I should not have been a part of the conspiracy (one which still exists today, alas) to keep a dying person from knowing what’s happening in order to avoid upsetting them.
  2. I thought that because I was 24 I was a grownup and that an adult was supposed to cope with grief by showing strength and resiliency. Now I know that at 24 or 64, when a parent dies, you are still a child. You don’t grow out of being someone’s child. That death will hurt and you need to take the time to grieve it without being concerned about looking weak. It also doesn’t matter much about the quality of your relationship with that parent. Whether it was perfect or deeply flawed, that loss will hurt. My relationship was in the middle somewhere. I loved my mom but we didn’t wholly understand each other or agree about some things but I think we hadn’t yet had the time to develop a more peer-like relationship because I was so young when she died. Part of what I had to grieve was giving up the thought that we’d ever have that chance.
  3. You are your parent’s advocate. If you see something you don’t feel right about, speak up. I should have insisted on spending more time with my mom at the end. I should have insisted they come and get us when they saw she was nearing the moment of death. I should have at least insisted they tell her she was dying and take that damn tube out long enough for her to speak last words or kiss us goodbye. She was going to die anyway, removing that tube wouldn’t have made anything worse.
  4. I thought it inappropriate to laugh or feel joy or enjoy anything for a while after she died. That’s nonsense. My mother would have wanted me to be happy whenever and however I could.

So, that’s my story. I hope you’ll tell yours if, alas, you’ve lost a parent. I expect some stories will be sad, some will be beautiful, some will have sorrow, some will have joy, but all will help others to cope with this loss. One final thought: Everyone’s parents die, but the relationship lives forever. I still feel the presence of both of my parents, despite the fact neither is alive. I was running this morning, deciding whether this post wherein I’d ask people to share stories about their parents’ deaths, was a good idea.  I looked down at the ground and saw these, side by side.

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I don’t know what you see when you look at that photo. Maybe you see two rocks. What I saw at that moment was two heart-shaped rocks, one big, like a parent’s, and one small, like a child’s. I came home to write this post, thinking it was what my parents wanted me to do. I still hear from them from time to time. 🙂

I look forward to reading your stories.