Losing a parent is a special kind of grief. It’s often existential and hard to move through. Grief can be complicated if you have a strained relationship with your deceased parent. It can be devastating if it’s a tragic passing.
As the formidable Lady Bracknell says in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”
I love this quote because it sums up the almost absurdity of compound losses. For some people losing one parent is terrible, but when you lose both parents you are suddenly an orphan. Your identity has changed. You are more alone than you’ve ever been. At least that’s how it can feel.
Coping with the loss of both parents
Personally, I lost both parents by the time I was thirty-five. In my experience, the emptiness that surrounded the loss of my second and final parent was profound and a major turning point in my life.
As a psychotherapist, I often work with clients who are experiencing grief around the loss of a parent. It’s a life stage that we all must go through at one time or another. If we have been fortunate enough to have a parent or caregiver that we have a relationship with. Luckily, we are not the first humans to survive and digest loss and grief. Eventually, grief can be a powerful teacher, but first comes the shock, awe, and pain.
Five stages of grief around losing a parent
Elizabeth Kübler Ross made the stages of grief infamous in her book On Death and Dying. According to Ross, the stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For those out there who like frameworks, the stages of grief can be useful goalposts to refer back to. In my experience, one often cycles through the stages in a nonlinear way. One day you might feel anger, the next depression, then back to anger. There’s no “right” way to move through these stages. They provide a vocabulary to talk about some of the feelings that can feel unbearable one minute and absurd the next.
Death of a father
I lost my father when I was sixteen. We didn’t always see eye-to-eye and I never had the opportunity to come out to him as a gay man. Our relationship was complicated, and he died of cancer at a relatively young age. That has left me worrying about my own health and longevity for years. At the time of his death, I threw myself into school and work. It wasn’t until later that I finally went to therapy and began to process what the loss of my father meant to me.
The tricky thing about loss is that it never fully goes away. You can do therapy. You can “process” your grief. In my experience time does soften some of the pain, but a random song, smell, or memory can bring you back to the loss at any time.
Loss of a mother
My mom and I were very close. When she passed away unexpectedly a few years back, the grief was overwhelming. It hurt so badly at times that the pain almost felt physical. I didn’t know how I was going to get through it.
Tools for dealing with death
In his book The Smell of Rain on Dust, Martín Prechtel beautifully describes grief as a form of praise. We only grieve and hurt because we loved who or what was lost in a meaningful and profound way. When we grieve, we are celebrating and honoring who or what was lost. I say “what” because sometimes we grieve the loss of a country, home, career, or life stage.
Many cultures around the world honor their lost loved ones. Think of Día de Muertos in Mexican culture or the Obon Festival in Japan. If we don’t allow ourselves space and time to grieve, the pain will show up in other ways. As a therapist, I have seen countless folks who try and numb or dull their pain and end up creating more pain and trauma in the process.
Forming a relationship with grief
My personal relationship with grief has been long and twisted. I was fortunate enough to have a supportive partner to lean on, the financial capability to see a therapist and access to psychedelic-assisted therapy.
In addition to Prechtel’s book, there are a number of other beautiful resources out there. Joanne Cacciatore’s book Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss and the Heartbreak of Grief was another nightstand savior in the early days of the loss of my mom.
My mom left my brother, sister, and me a note in her estate documents that encouraged us to listen to Lee Ann Womack’s I Hope You Dance together. While that song still has the power to bring me into the ugly cries, I’m grateful that she offered us that tool to access our grief. We took a quote from that song and dedicated a bench in her honor with views of the mountains so that we always have a place to visit and remember.
Keeping your heart open
Grief is so powerful and painful that it has the potential to close our hearts. It’s my belief that the great mission of the human condition, should we choose to accept it, is to work to try and keep our hearts open in the face of grief and loss.
Acceptance and beyond
I want to make it very clear, I don’t believe in the concept that on some magical day we wake up and grief is over. In my experience, there will always be moments when the pain surprises you. However time does have a powerful way of softening the blow.
Recently, my partner and I adopted a young rescue dog. She’s vibrant and full of energy and enthusiasm. When I think about how much I am starting to love her, the ghost of grief attempts to scare my heart and close it down. For a moment I think about her aging and the eventual loss that will come. I get scared. And then I remind myself that a life without love is not an option for me. I will keep working to keep my heart open because the alternative is not the way I want to live.