I’ve said it before – at times, my naiveté astounds me.
- Licensed Professional Counselor – check.
- Loss & Bereavement Specialty – check.
- Survived Mom’s death 25 years ago, when she was only 59 years old – check.
- Working through the grief process (and it is a process) for Dad, who died a year and a half ago at the age of almost 87 years old – check.
- Prepared for the grief involved in no longer having a parent alive – not even close.
Everyone grieves differently. It depends on your relationship with that person; if you’ve lost someone before; whether their death was far too quick, with no time to say good-by or agonizingly slow, with unbearable suffering; expected or unexpected; natural or by suicide; your age; and, whether you’re male (like to take action) or female (want someone to listen). The list goes on… There’s no set “process,” per se – no time frame or stages that must be followed in the correct order. Some people act like nothing has happened, while others are prostrate with grief. Shock, denial, bargaining, depression, anger with lots of people (including God), until hopefully – finally – some measure of acceptance.
My patients often ask when they will have “closure,” and I answer honestly there is no such thing as closure, only survival. They will survive.
My head knows this. My heart struggles to keep pace.
Mom’s death was 6 months after her breast cancer diagnosis, after having suffered through a modified radical mastectomy, chemotherapy, surgery, and a 29-day hospital stay. The fact that she was only 59 years old and my close friend made her torment agonizing to watch; so much so, that I actually asked her physician if I could end her suffering (and mine) by just letting her drift away with extra morphine. He shot that option down quickly.
Dad’s death at almost 87 years old was sudden. Two weeks before he died, on Father’s Day, we noticed he was slurring his words. We took him to the doctor, got him a bright red 3-wheel walker and made plans to either move him downstairs in his home (one floor, no steps) or to have him move in with my sister. That was all underway when I got the call that Dad passed away. He was walking down his driveway to get his newspaper, a morning ritual, when he collapsed. The neighbor called 911 when she saw him lying there, but he died “instantly.” (Do doctors tell that to everyone to ease their suffering? Just wondering…)
The shock of Mom’s death shook me to my core. Admittedly, after 25 years, I still light a candle every day in her memory. I don’t know how long Dad’s death will sit so fresh and raw; it’s been less than a year.
But this I do know – I was totally unprepared for the separate grief that comes with no longer having a “parental unit.” It’s unique – it’s different – it’s terrible – it’s lonely – it’s frightening.
I feel abandoned, lost, adrift, disoriented, incomplete. There’s no one to watch my back or to be my cheering section or to give me a safe place to fall.
Where is my anchor? Who will advise me, guide me, forgive me, support me, challenge me, love me unconditionally? Who will comfort the little girl in me, the lost child, as only my parents could?
I once told Dad when he was really missing Mom (which was for the entire 25 years) that he and Mom had given me everything I needed to be a success, that I had “stood on the shoulders of giants.” They were my giants.
“If I have seen further…it is by
standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
~ Sir Isaac Newton
He liked the thought of that and remembered with gratitude all those who helped him along the way.
I shared with him something I felt while at the Baccalaureate service the night before my grad school Commencement. While I sat immersed in the joyous music that filled the cathedral, I could almost sense two lines of ancestors standing behind me. They were in pairs, from my shoulders, back and up, until I lost sight of them. Without turning around, I could visualize them. Somehow I knew that one line included Mom, my maternal grandparents and the rest of her family, while the other line was my paternal grandparents…on and on and on. They were all shapes and sizes and colors, all dressed in different clothing that gave a clue to their work, some younger than others, some faces lined while others were smooth. They were all smiling. Generation after generation after generation.
I have been schooled well.
The best psychotherapists are those who have been through pain. Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and author (1932 – 1996), reminds us that “in our own woundedness, we can become a source of life for others.”
Who better to sit with you in the darkness than a wounded healer?
I have sat with people who have lost their child (the worst loss), spouse, parent, sibling, friend, grandparent, married lover, colleague – but never someone who was grieving the loss of both parents as a “unit.” How is that possible?
But now, as is always the case, I will be able to sit with someone who no longer has parents – as one person said to me, “Welcome to the Orphan’s Club” – and empathize with their longing for wholeness.
But a broken heart empties us of all that we might hang on to, often too long, so that it might be filled up with something greater and more wondrous that we could ever imagine or think ourselves deserving of. When I am tired enough of struggling, I will once again accept Your glorious grace. I will once again accept the plans You have for me. I know You understand.
Help me to be Your Counselor, Defender, Teacher, Listener, Instrument, Vessel, Comforter, Starfish Thrower (thank you, Diana), Harvester, Secret Keeper (bless you, T), Heartsong, Wellspring.
“Much is expected from those to whom much has been given.”
~ Luke 12:49
Dad’s favorite saying, as well as the way he always signed off on a letter or in a card – “Keep the Faith.” I’m doing my best, Dad, but I still miss both of you more than I ever thought possible.
Like I said, I have stood on the shoulders of giants – Mom and Dad the biggest and most important of all. They lifted me up so I could soar.
Your Circles of Grace – those Circles of Compassion – widen.