When our parent dies
Posted on November 24 2018
We know from a fairly young age that we will outlive our parents. It’s no secret, just an unpleasant mathematical truth. Yet it’s a surprise when it happens. I think anyone who has faced the imminent death or sudden death of their parent will agree that even when expected, it’s a shock. Like, man I didn't see that coming.
Nothing really prepares us to face that moment, the single second that divides our life forever into before and after. It’s just one second, one moment, and suddenly nothing is the same.
I remember the day I found out my mom was sick, and she wasn’t going to get better. I remember thinking that the end would never actually come. The very prospect of her life being over was just too absurd to entertain. She’s mom. She’s invincible. The doctors are wrong. I knew in my logical brain what was happening. I knew she was dying, but my heart just figured the clock wouldn’t run out. That it would just tick on, in this pseudo purgatory.
I went about my life, we all did. Cooking, cleaning, working, doing laundry. The mundane robotic routine of life. It felt strange to get up, get dressed and go to work. People would come in and out complaining about XYZ and in the back of my head all I could think was, my mom is at home dying. This is really not a priority. I thought how on earth can people get so caught up in this, stuff?? But, I did what was expected because that's the way it is.
She slipped into a coma at home and still I thought she would wake up. I knew she wouldn’t. But I thought she might. I sat with her, read her words from some book she was reading that I thought might comfort her. I sat and watched and she just looked, asleep. Just a sleep that lasted for days.
Then the day came, when she took a breath and didn’t take another. There is a shock that hits you like a tsunami. A combination of numbness and rage and confusion. Your mind knows what’s happened but your soul is paralyzed.
I don't think we can really comprehend stillness of the body, we are so used to the rise and fall of breathing we see it even when it’s not there. And then you realize there is no more, just stillness. This all happens in a matter of seconds. It feels like eternity but it’s just seconds.
My mind just started firing. I looked around, trying to avoid seeing her there. Her glasses and rosary were on her nightstand, a glass of water, a book and her Estee Lauder serum. Artifacts of her life. Things take on a new meaning when someone is gone, as if they are imbued with pieces of a persons soul. I remember not knowing what to do next.
Turns out there is a business to death; paperwork and process. Maybe it helps to be distracted by bureaucracy. The professionals who helped us were so kind and thoughtful and very well trained. I remember thinking what an odd job choice it was, to work in the industry of death. One must have an iron constitution to see people at their highest emotional pain points and stay strong and be useful. It’s an incredible heroism to be sure.
These shepards of death sent us downstairs to the basement to wait as they took mom away. I remember the sound of the zipper. I clung to my father like a small child. Me and my siblings. Our family of 5 had just lost one. And we sat, huddled together in tears and shock. As if we didn’t know it was coming. As no doubt generations of families across countries and continents and cultures have done when they lose a parent. Bound by love and by loss.
Losing a parent is shocking. Even though we know statistically, it’s the most probable outcome. Your parents are a barrier, albeit an imagined one, between you and your own mortality. And then there is one less barrier, and you realize that it’s all transient. The clock doesn’t tick unchecked.
No one tells you the words that go unsaid and experiences that go unshared will weigh so heavily on your heart. There is no preparing for the erasing of a persons physical presence from our life when we have known them for most of it.
My mom died 13 years ago. She was sick and I was still shocked. It’s been 13 years, and I continue to feel shocked. I find myself looking for her in memories, photographs and letters left behind. I search for her smell in candles she burned and flowers she loved. I try to keep her spirit alive by doing things she loved doing. But she’s gone. And the pain of her loss is permanent.
I wrote this because I think so many people who struggle with the loss of a parent feel there is some time limit on grief and pain. That there is some acceptable window of experiencing loss, and there comes with that expectation a burden to let go, and shame when we can’t. But for many, that’s just not how it goes. For many life indeed goes on, but that void remains.
Grief doesn’t ever really go away; you just learn to coexist with it. There is no "getting over it", no "life getting back to normal." You find a new normal in the after part of the math equation.