Child survives death of parent, life will never be the same

February 19, 2015

It’s not a headline I’ve ever seen, but I can see the photo: a tiny human, three feet tall and looking up at an empty space in the world above them, wondering when daddy will come home or why mommy’s not back yet, wishing for something so simple as a hug they don’t yet know will never come. I wonder if the photographer will capture the innocence in their eyes while it’s still there, glistening. Soon, a dull heartache will be the new normal. At least for a time.

No matter the age or the circumstances, the initial impact is a double punch. The first is the loss, the confusion, the grief. The experts call it “child bereavement.” The second is realizing that the person you want to comfort you, the person who is supposed to be here, the person who always knew just the right way to hold you in moments like this, isn’t here anymore.

There was a book on my dad’s shelf called Part of Me Died, Too. I never read it. But I know the sentiment. There is a void in my life where my relationship with mom should be. I cannot fill it. I cannot forget it. The only thing that works is when I cup my hands around it and say, “this void belongs to me.” The only thing that fills it is learning to love myself the way she would have.

The Dead Parent Club is the club no one wants to join. Of course, we all do, eventually. I’ll tell you a secret known among its silent members: we never stop loosing our parents. We never get over it. With every milestone reached and every major victory, there is one face among the crowd we know is missing.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve wished “mom” was a contact in my iPhone I could call to commiserate over my latest failure or broken heart. I cannot tell you how many times calling on mom never crossed my mind because it’s never been an option.

Her absence is her presence. It was her death that raised me: her death that was my father’s coparent.

Ten minutes ago was the exact moment my mother died, twenty five years ago. I’m getting older now. I’ve note her absence at four graduations, births, weddings. Meanwhile my adult friend’s parents are dying. Siblings are dying and leaving small children behind. I can’t turn away, in part because I know how many people will.

I grew up as “the girl whose mom died.” I remember a long childhood spent as a symbol of hell in other people’s imaginations. I represented the horror of a parent taken from her child and symbolized a nightmare the likes of which people would do anything to remain ignorant. As the walking, talking representation of that quiet hell, I came to embody the taboo.

No one wanted to look at my reality, and so they turned away from me.

Meanwhile, I wanted to be anyone but Lily-whose-mom-died, I wanted to taste a life where the pain of her death was not constantly lingering.

I don’t think people ever “get over” their own life story. I don’t think it’s reasonable to ask. And I think it’s outright cruel to expect a child to forget their parent and move on. The idea that “enough time has passed” utterly fails to acknowledge that the loss only grows and shifts over time.

Life after parental death assumes a new normal. Accepting that is a step to healing that has to be made again and again.

So what helps? Companionship. I’ll never forget the people who could admit that they didn’t understand what I was going through, but who were willing to try. They were the brave ones who didn’t panic and didn’t run. Instead, they walked with me into the unknown and kept me company on the adventure of coming to grips and finding peace with what I’d lost. Exactly who and what it is I lost is something I will always be learning.

What helps are the people who don’t place their need for me to get over it — and be “okay” — before my own need to get through it honestly, in my own time and in my own way.

What helps is interest, not morbid curiosity. Interest sits back and let’s me talk about it on my own terms. Curiosity drives me to answer questions and dig up memories best left to rest in peace.

The Dead Parent Club is a thing. I can recognize children of dead parents from a mile away. It’s the depth in our eyes and the ferocious courage with which we love that makes us magnets, pulling or repelling with some mysterious intensity. We are the ones who grew up knowing the secret that all lives end one day, and who can taste exactly what that means for the ones left behind. Our solace is the knowledge that grief, like time, is a ripening agent, growing us into a deeper, fuller humanity.

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