Last week I read something online in which people gave their responses to this prompt:
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?
For a second, my mind first went to famous people I admire, like Morrissey, Sylvia Plath and Fiona Apple, but none of them would want to have dinner with me. Then I settled upon my answer, and I knew it was the right choice if given the opportunity: My parents.
It surprised me, because when my parents were alive, I didn’t necessarily enjoy hanging out with them. I especially had issues with my mom, but my dad and I also went through some turbulence when I was younger, like the two years in which we literally did not speak or acknowledge each other, despite living in the same house.
But now that they’re gone, I miss them. I miss my mom’s silly jokes. I miss her positive attitude when faced with raising a special needs son. And how, when I was struggling in college and going through a spell of despair, she explained to me that she was “high on life,”not as a way to make me feel bad, but as a symbol of hope that yes, some people are just happy and that it was possible for me, too. I don’t know if she was quite as happy as she projected to the world, but she convinced me at the time, and it made me strive to be the same way.
I miss my dad’s way of plainly declaring his observations with fascination in his voice at the most mundane things. And the way he would laugh, with his mouth open wide in a smile — “HA-HA-HA-HA!” And the way he’d choke up with emotion and hug me when I’d give him a sentimental greeting card. Last summer, I stayed with my dad for a week while my sister went on vacation (he lived with her and her husband and daughter) and I griped about how he’d blast Fox News all day. But, he wasn’t completely inflexible, and he seemed to keep an open mind if I shared opposing thoughts (or at least he pretended to, anyway.)
Now it’s been just over three months since my dad passed away and eight years for my mom. I’ve learned a few things about grief during this time:
Grief isn’t linear.
When my sister told me our dad had passed away on a Tuesday morning, I sat back down at my desk and continued to work. Then that night I went out to dinner and chatted about work and normal things. I didn’t feel anything.
But recently, it’s hit me at random times. I woke up crying last week, and I was overcome with sadness while working one recent afternoon to the point that I could barely focus on work. I may not be brimming with emotion or even focusing on my parents’ deaths very much in my day-to-day life, but it’s always there, churning in the background.
After my mom died, I read a few books by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, including On Death and Dying, in which she introduces the idea of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
But in my experience, those stages don’t happen in order, if all of them even happen at all. Immediately after I learned my dad had died, I experienced denial (“Are you sure he died? Maybe he’s just tired and doesn’t want to get up. Why don’t you try to wake him up again?”), anger (He dealt with so much health bullshit in his life, cancer and a brain tumor and a bunch of other stuff and he always beat everything. And now he just dies in his sleep, when nothing was even wrong with him?!), and acceptance (funeral planning right away). I’ve yet to experience the other two.
I was gratified to find this New York Times opinion piece by psychotherapist Patrick O’Malley, whose son died when he was young. He says it’s time to move past the idea of the five stages of grief:
In those early days, my grief training was not helping either my patients or me. When I was trained, in the late 1970s, the stages of grief were the standard by which a grieving person’s progress was assessed.
That model is still deeply and rigidly embedded in our cultural consciousness and psychological language. It inspires much self-diagnosis and self-criticism among the aggrieved. This is compounded by the often subtle and well-meaning judgment of the surrounding community. A person is to grieve for only so long and with so much intensity.
To be sure, some people who come to see me exhibit serious, diagnosable symptoms that require treatment. Many, however, seek help only because they and the people around them believe that time is up on their grief. The truth is that grief is as unique as a fingerprint, conforms to no timetable or societal expectation.
After my mom died, I struggled a lot. A well-meaning loved one set up a therapy appointment for me three or four months after she passed away, probably feeling like this had been going on too long. But there was nothing wrong with me, I was just on my own timetable.
I have a right to grieve.
In my family, I was sort of a co-star, while other siblings were the stars. I was born at an odd time, nine years after my sister and six years after my brother, who has Down Syndrome. So I’ve always felt like I missed the good times when all my older sisters and my parents were young, when they did fun stuff and went on cool vacations. My parents took home movies of them and took lots of pictures, including some professional photos in a studio, but I guess they were past that by the time I came along.
When I was born, I’m sure it was a big whomp-whomp for my parents, who probably thought their baby days were over. So, they sort of phoned things in in lots of ways. I existed, and they existed, and then Doug was born, and he was their focus, as it should be. They did encourage my writing and art and they enrolled me in kids’ enrichment courses for those things, but they didn’t dote on me or make me feel special.
And as an adult, I wasn’t as close to my parents as my sisters were. I moved away shortly after college and stayed away for nearly 10 years, and I wouldn’t call home often or even answer the phone when they called. I could do email, but not the phone. My dad even jokingly described me as “the black sheep,” but it wasn’t really a joke.
So given that I did not have the seemingly uncomplicated relationship with my parents as some of my sisters did, am I still entitled to grieve their deaths? Yes. Because despite the fact that I’m one of six children, my relationship with my mother and my relationship with my father were unique and individual and had nothing to do with anyone else. I know they loved me.
Grief brings understanding.
You read a book. Or you watch a movie. As the story is unfolding, you’re reacting to it in various ways. Then when it’s done, you might have one initial opinion of it right after, but as you mull it over for a few hours, days or weeks, you might have more to say about it once you let it settle. To me, this is what it’s like when dealing with the death of a loved one.
You have more of a 360-degree view of them. When they’re alive, you really focus on what’s in front of you and how they make you feel at that moment. But when those moments run out, you can take it all in from a distance.
Looking at old photos and family movies and reading my dad’s memoir helps complete the picture. I’ve begun to see them as real people, flawed humans, rather than these people called “my parents.”
Even though they’re both dead, I can’t just focus on the good things about them, as some do when talking about the deceased. My mom did some really mean-spirited things to me. Both of my parents would get mad at me and things would escalate into ugly things that probably weren’t in the realm of most peoples’ childhoods or young adulthoods. But, I understand now. They were struggling, too.
With some distance, the full picture is a complicated one, but I feel like it’s important for it to be this way. I have no choice but to accept that they were who they were. They lived the lives they lived. They made mistakes. Just like me, just like everyone. They were human beings, and I can finally say I accept them for who they were, not for who I wished they were when they were alive.
And, I miss them.
Edited to add: I also learned that once one or both of your parents have died, you experience a certain kinship with others who’ve also experienced this. Although we all react to death differently and grieve in our own ways, there’s still some common ground that I find comforting. I don’t think anyone wants to be in this club, but it’s inevitable, and connecting with others who are in the same place can make you feel less alone. So, if you’ve been through this, I’m sending you a big virtual hug.