I was 18 years old when my father died. 18 years later, my mother left this world. I’m 36 years old now.
I put these numbers out there because I want to make something clear. While I believe this guide can help anyone who is dealing with the death of a parent—or any family member, loved one, or friend—I do not pretend to know what it’s like to lose a parent as a child. I make no assumptions about what that particular pain is like.
I also put those numbers out there as a bit of a qualifier.
I’m a big believer in only writing about things that I know. Depending on when I publish this, my mother’s death will be relatively recent (she died the morning of December 18th, 2021). However, my father’s death happened almost 2 decades ago, so I’m familiar with the various stages of the grieving process, how the world tends to respond to you while you’re going through it, and how you will respond to the rest of the world.
Lastly, I want to say that my experience is only my experience.
While most people will experience the death of a loved one, everyone will have a different reaction to it. Not all people had the same type of relationship with their parents so not all people will have the same reaction to their passing. Still, I believe there is enough commonality that most people will be able to relate.
No matter what I say, suggest, or recommend, there is no right or wrong way to experience feelings of grief. My only hope is that whatever pain or sadness you’re going through, the rest of this post can help you through it.
You’re never ready
My father died suddenly and without warning. I wasn’t there, but according to his friends that were, he was cooking dinner and dropped dead from a standing position.
He was 45 years old.
My mother died over a period of 3 months in the hospital. Either my sister or I visited her almost every day. While there was initially some hope that she’d recover, it became clear about two months in that she was never going to see the outside of the hospital again. We were there for her last hour when they took her off life support.
She was 59 years old.
Having experienced both a sudden loss and a prolonged loss of a parent, I don’t think it matters either way because once they die, no matter how much time you had with them, you will wish you had more.
Even if you can see the end, you aren’t going to be ready for it.
In my mother’s medical power of attorney, she was very clear that we were to pull the plug if she was on life support for more than 5 days. Whether you have 5 days, one year, or one second, once death arrives, none of that time matters.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking “If only we had more time.”
You will never have enough time. You will never wake up one day and seriously think, “I’ve got all the time I need with my parents. I’d be good if they died today.”
You will miss the things that you hated
If there is some character defect or annoying trait that your deceased parent had, you will miss it.
You won’t miss how it made you feel. You’ll miss that it made you feel something from the person.
We don’t often think about this while our parents are alive, but the mere fact that they can make you angry or annoy you is a blessing that you’ll miss when it’s gone.
I never leaned on either of my parents for emotional support or comfort. In fact, I was often the one who gave my mother help and guidance. There were several frustrating conversations I had with her as a result of this dynamic.
As much as I disliked the arguments, I did my best to never take for granted that I could have them. Once their gone, your perspective on these types of interactions will likely change from “I hate this” to “I miss this.”
You don’t need to have the best relationship with your parents to miss them when they pass. Unless they were extremely abusive to you when you were a child, you will mourn the day the person who spent at least 2 decades caring for you finally exits this world.
Remember that all of their traits—good, bad, pleasant, annoying, and everything in between—made them who they are. You aren’t crazy for missing something you couldn’t stand. You’re just human.
[If it’s more than just annoyance that you felt, then perhaps you need to learn how to forgive your parents. Read how I teach you to do this here.]
It’s fine to be angry
As my sister and I cleaned out my mom’s apartment and took care of the last arrangements, I’d discover things about how she was living that made me quite angry. Things that either contributed to her early death or would have made her life more difficult than it had to be if she had survived.
I wanted her to be alive to yell at her about these things so maybe she could have changed course, but I knew that it would do no good.
A lot of times, we’re angry because we think that our emotions can do something. And sometimes, the actions that are spurned by that anger can do something. But without action behind it, that anger is annoyingly useless at best and tremendously self-destructive at worst.
“Holding on to anger is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to die.”
This is what it’s like to be angry at someone who is dead.
There is nothing you can do about your feelings so they eat you up inside. With that said, it’s a natural reaction and there is nothing wrong with you having it. Even if you had a great relationship when they were alive.
But it’s best to remember that there is nothing you can do, they had other positive things to focus on, and the longer it takes you to accept this, the more you’ll suffer.
It’s ok to accept help
I’ve always had a problem feeling like I’m a burden to people, so much so that I actually did not tell my close friends that my mother had passed. During my mom’s final days, I felt awkward that my fiance was along my side because I felt like it was a burden.
I didn’t share the news on social media until it was absolutely necessary—and even then, I simply reshared the details of my mom’s memorial service that my sister posted. Even now, I only talk about it to other people as a way to further my mission to teach.
Fortunately, my fiance reached out to people and told them what happened.
My friends not only came over to my apartment to console me, but they also showed up to the memorial service to be part of my support system. These were the same friends who were there for me when my father died 18 years ago.
Them being there reminded me of one of the main ideas that I live my life by:
The most important thing on this planet is other people and your relationships with them. No matter how tough you think you are, you should not hesitate to reach out to your friends.
Even if you actually do have things under control, a relationship is not only about what you get but what you provide. If you don’t give the people in your life a chance to be there for you, then you deprive them of a chance to strengthen their bond and be a support group for you.
You’ll never know where you are in the grief process
To be honest, I don’t even know the stages of grief. I just know that they exist. I suppose could have looked them up, but that would distract from the point I want to make here.
You don’t know when you’re going to feel sad. You can’t predict it or prepare for it.
When my dad died, I was fine for many months, and then one day I broke down crying while talking to someone about him. The crazy thing is that while my dad was in my life, he wasn’t a significant influence or someone that I saw often. In fact, he didn’t even really raise me.
My mom was a single parent and I lived with her growing up. Still, you never know what you’re going to be overwhelmed with sadness.
While I haven’t cried over my mom, there have already been moments that trigger sadness and longing. I went through the same thing with my dad, so I know that while you never stop thinking of them, you do eventually stop being sad when you do. It just takes time.
You’ll learn things about them that you never knew
For better or for worse. Some of them will make you angry. Some of them will make you proud. While you can’t control your emotional reactions to what you discover, you can control what you focus on.
While I learned some unflattering things about my mom, I also learned how many people she helped. She was an administrator in a high school and many former students and colleagues showed up at the memorial to give their condolences and let my sister and I know how she impacted their lives.
My mom’s memorial service was on one of the coldest days in my city in over 2 years. Many people still came to her service who weren’t related (or technically even her friend) because of the effect she had on their lives. Even if they couldn’t make it, I got quite a bit of random messages from people who wanted to let me know how my mom made them feel.
Rather than focus on things I didn’t approve of or that could piss me off, these are the types of things that I focus on. People are flawed and are doing the best they can. Your parents are no different.
For every moment they disappointed you, you’ll also likely have moments that made you proud. Or, at the very least, showed you that no one is perfect but at times, we can all be better than average.
You’re not selfish for needing self-care
During the final days of my mother’s life and time cleaning out her apartment, I was shocked at how exhausted I was. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, I was drained.
The death of a parent is one of the stressful things that you can deal with.
According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, the death of a close family member is the 5th most stressful event that you can experience. For reference, the most stressful event is the death of a spouse or child, scoring 100. The death of a family member scores 63, tied with going to jail.
There is nothing wrong with needing to recharge and take time away, even if it’s from the people who are trying to support and help you. Otherwise, you may find yourself dealing with health issues, both mentally and physically.
You will become acutely aware of your own mortality
My mom and dad both died relatively young. In fact, I’m only 9 years away from the age my father died at.
It made me wonder how I’ve used the time on this planet. It made me think about everything I’d done, everything I will do, and everything I won’t do.
I started thinking about how the people around me would handle my death. I also started thinking about how it would feel to get the news that you had seven days to live. The latter is exactly what happened to my mother.
A team of 4 doctors came into her room. With my sister and I there, they explained that she had approximately 7 days to live (2 days before she’d almost certainly be put on life support and 5 days after that, according to her own directive in the medical power of attorney). I’d like to think that I would have been stoic and strong, but I know that I’m human and I can’t predict how I’d react.
As far as I know, my dad had little warning before his death.
I’ve been told stories that he knew something wasn’t right, but as I understand it, he didn’t know he was going to (literally) drop dead on a humid spring afternoon.
The death of my parents reminds me that, from a purely mathematical standpoint, I’m almost halfway done with life (according to the average life expectancy in the United States). I’m also moving into the age range where cancers and the ghost of bad health decisions start to show up to haunt you.
We will all face the reaper one day, but we can only hope that it is not too early or not too much of a surprise.
You must always be at peace— Ed Latimore (@EdLatimore) August 31, 2020
Ready to die at any time
It's impossible to prepare
For the moment the Reaper appears
Guilt is normal
My mom was admitted to the hospital on Sept 25th. She was in various states of health before she died on Dec 18th. That’s a 3 month period of going to the hospital almost every day. This doesn’t factor in the numerous doctor’s visits beforehand over many years.
A small part of me felt relieved that I’d no longer have to do that. Then I felt a little bad for thinking that. And then, my analytical and stoic mind reminded me that it’s not like I wished for her death.
She just isn’t here anymore, and with her departure comes the relief of any responsibilities I had to her.
This type of guilt is common and natural. I experienced the same thing when my father died and I was excited once I found out I’d get $55k in life insurance money and his car.
Depending on your relationship with your dead parent, you will experience various levels of guilt. To help yourself through this, remember that it’s just a matter of circumstance and that you can’t control how you feel.
You may also feel guilt over any arguments or bad words you had while they were alive. Especially if those words were in the last days. Remember that it’s perfectly normal to have disagreements and for those agreements to get heated. Especially in family relationships.
Those disagreements, in no way, diminish the love you have for them or the emptiness you’ll feel now that they’re gone.
We will all die one day.
That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with when you’re the one left behind after someone close to you exits this world. However, there are healthy ways to deal with this so that your suffering is minimal and you can move on quickly but compassionately.
And always remember that this too shall pass.