In the past nine or so days, three friends have had a parent die. All three of these friends come from separate parts of my life and I knew all three parents to some extent: one from college whose mother had attended the bridal shower when I was first married; the second friend a former neighbor with whom we had many parties with and whose parents visited often; and, finally, a friend who with his dad stayed at my house after Thanksgiving one night during their move from Illinois to Arizona.
For most of my life I thought that I had old parents (my dad was 41 when my parents had me and I’m not the youngest child). While a parent can die at any time, I saw a decline in mine, particularly my dad, when I went off to college. It wasn’t until recently that I began to realize how many friends had parents the same age as me.
Still, in many ways I was one of the first to lose a parent, and now to be without both of them. As I think about my three friends and the grief that’s washing over them, I can’t help but also think of how I have learned to cope with it.
I still remember when my paternal grandfather died over Labor Day weekend in 1989, the start of my senior year of high school. As we drove home from the north side of Chicago– where they lived– to our home in the western suburbs, I felt awful. The funeral was over and while I hadn’t been overly close to him, there was still a sense of loss.
And the feeling of what now?
Each loss in my life since– in particular that of my younger sister, my parents, all my grandparents, my dogs (who are like kids to me), and all the other people close to me, has forced me to rethink this each time it happens.
It’s probably the worst part of the grief experience to me, that sense of emptiness after the funeral is finished. Finally, after my mom’s death two years ago I began to understand it better.
There is a time after a person dies that feels as if each of our lives has a divide in them. We have the life with the person, and then there is the life we will have without them physically present. That awful feeling I’m describing is what I have felt as I’m trying to merge the two together, to figure out a way to keep that person in my life, even if they aren’t physically here.
It’s not something that’s easy but because grief is not something we have talked about easily in our lives, it’s also not something which many of us are familiar. I won’t say that it takes time to work through this feeling and close the divide (I have seen many people thirty and forty years following a death and still struggling) but rather it’s a process. We have to feel– which means allowing pain and sadness to overwhelm us– and we have to be open to the ways in which our loved ones are still with us.
There is no one way this works for each of us, we all have unique journeys to travel. But for my friends who I know are relieved their loved ones aren’t suffering anymore, but are still mourning the sadness of losing a parent, I also know that their parents are with them still (and always will be), cheering them on.
My hope is that all three feel that, too.