What It’s Like When a Parent Dies Young

I lost my dad during my final year of university and wanted to talk to other people with a similar experience because no one wants to talk about this subject.

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Nov 13 2015, 4:39pm

Photo via Flickr user Tassilo von Parseval

I was in the audience for an experimental puppet show when I got the text. My dad had been in an accident. He had taken our dog for a walk and he didn't return. Someone found him lying face down in the park by our house.

Later, the doctors explained that dad had suffered an aneurysm. He wasn't responding to outside stimuli, but they were doing their best to make sure that he was comfortable. People came and visited in the hospital room. There was a lot of crying. Two days later dad was taken off life-support. He was 56.

I was in my last year of university when my father died and was wholly unprepared for what life would be like without him. Everything lost its meaning. I got fired from my part-time job. I had difficulty sleeping. I dropped two classes and about 15 pounds.

While I had experienced bouts of depression before, this felt different. The sadness was acute. I knew the reason I felt like I did, and I knew that there was nothing I could do to change it. These feelings were exasperated by the fact that the person I usually turned to for advice was my pops. And clearly he couldn't help.

It's been five years since dad passed, and during that time a number of my friends have also lost parents. At first I thought we were just unlucky, but after a depressing Google search I came across a stat that said one in seven Americans lose a parent or sibling before the age of twenty. I was slightly outside that age bracket when pops had his aneurysm, and I couldn't find corresponding data for Canada, but I think the point still stands. This is more common than you'd think

Recently I interviewed some of my friends about their parent's death. My idea was that I'd pull some quotes and put together a primer on dealing with the loss of your mom or dad. I wanted to write an article that was glib and funny, and at the same time offered real advice. Something like: The top ten things you didn't know parental death or I couldn't stop crying at my father's funeral and you'll never believe what happened next.

After the actual conversations, however, that idea seemed ridiculous. My friends were honest and vulnerable and our talks lasted a lot longer than I thought they would. What I realized is that we were all desperate to share our stories, but rarely got the chance to broach the subject. It's not something that really comes up on dates or at dinner parties, and despite the fact that for each of us the loss has completely reshaped how interact with the rest of the world, none of us had really talked about it much.

The interviews felt raw, and sad, and I wanted to preserve as much I could of that in the writing. I figured the best way to do that was to get out of the way and let them say it for themselves. Below are excerpts from the interviews.

Mina - 26, actress

My Mom was a single parent and an immigrant to Canada. She was also a survivor of domestic violence at the hands of my father. To say my Mom was fierce would be a large understatement. She was stubborn, intense, and relentless in everything she did. Something I have, for better or worse, inherited.

She had the Indian hospitality thing down, too. She expected you to eat her food and hang out in her dining area. She opened her arms to all of my friends, even if she was worried they were turning me into an art loving, atheist, hippie.

When she passed she was visiting my uncle's home in Alleppey, Kerala, which is a southern province of India. She was praying. Mom was super religious. She was like a superhero for Jesus. She was doing the rosary while sitting up in bed. My sister and brother were in the same room with her, but they had fallen asleep. She apparently had trouble breathing. She woke up my brother and sister and started to panic. My sister escorted her downstairs. Everyone in the house woke up. They helped mom into my uncle's car to drive her to the hospital. They barely got out the driveway before she took her last breath. This was all recounted for me by my sister and brother. We believe it was a heart attack induced by her diabetes.

The death was overseas, so... complicated. My uncle pretty much took care of everything immediate, but when I got home to Canada I had to deal with cancelling credit cards, trying to find a will, cancelling and freezing her bank accounts, paying bills. It was overwhelming. My mom had nothing prepared. She was old school, never wanted to talk about her death, or wills, or what our life would look like without her.

Even though I didn't really like my childhood home, cleaning it out of the possessions our mom valued was horrible and sad. It was really final. It actualized that she was never coming back. This feeling was compounded because she was buried in India. I have no real place to visit with her or just sit and miss her. The estate home/family home was the last place for me and my siblings to do that.

Normally I'm a very social person. One of the biggest changes since she passed is that I've become incredibly internal. I never really want to go out and see people, even though I know it's good for me to probably do that. I don't really feel like myself and I haven't for most of these past eleven months.

If I had to offer any advice I would encourage people to actively (but gently) ask their parents if they have thought about what happens after they pass. Having those conversations with all children present, while awkward and morbid, will allow everyone to be on the same page.

Also, get a therapist.

Ron - 44, producer

My parents split up when I was two, and their differences meant that my dad kept his distance. I got a present in the mail most Christmases and a letter or two a year, but that was it. I didn't even hear his voice for the first time until I was 12, when he called out of the blue to say he wanted to come see me and be my dad. I was nervous to meet him and it was weird, but he was really nice and he was trying really hard. We saw each other several times over a year and he and my mom seemed to be reconciling. But then that fell apart and he took off again.

I only saw him once or twice as an adult, although there were more calls and letters. He stood me up one time when I was about twenty five and I decided that I'd had enough of getting jerked around by Occasional Dad, so that was that.

I was headed into a matinee showing of that stupid movie with Marky Mark and his talking teddy bear when I found out. I'd missed a bunch of calls from my mom. I called her back with that sense that something was wrong. She was crying. She kept on saying that he'd died completely alone. We're not entirely sure what killed him, because he was dead in his apartment for quite a while before anyone found him. They think it was a heart attack. The neighbors smelled the rot.

He'd made me executor of his will, which was perplexing. We hadn't spoken in over a decade, but I guess if not me, then who? Sometimes I think it was out of a kind of spite. Deal with me now. Here's my life. Surprise.

His papers were in disarray and it was a bit like a detective story, having to piece his life and affairs together from scraps of paper and little journals. I found out at the end of his life that he'd been something of a hermit who just continually passed on seeing and socializing with people. He stayed home and listened to Jays games on the radio. He went to church, but apparently he didn't talk to anyone.

It scared me a lot because I have that hermit in me as well, along with a series of failed relationships, so I could easily see myself winding up the same way. I'm inherently bad at a lot of the same things as him, but I'm trying to conquer them.

I'm not sad because I miss him. I'm sad because he blew it and I was deprived of a dad for most of my life. I'm sad because of the way his later life went and how he ended up. When I was first back from the whole experience of sorting through his affairs and laying him to rest. I kept on saying to everyone: "We have to keep each other close. These relationships won't tend to themselves, and they'll crumble if you let them."

Martha - 28, inventory specialist

My dad died in early September of 2003. He had pancreatic cancer, but we only found that out a week before he died. He'd been feeling like shit all summer. He'd been seeing his doctor, but they couldn't figure out what was wrong. One morning my mom finally decided that she was going to take him to the ER. They weren't going to leave until they'd figured out what was going on.

I remember Dad coming to my room at around six in the morning and casually saying that he and mom were going to the hospital. I started to get out of bed but he insisted that I should keep sleeping. I was 16, so I did. I'm forever kicking myself for not just getting the fuck up and giving him a hug since that was the last time we would speak while he was fully conscious.

Mom was diagnosed with ovarian cancer three years later, while I was finishing high school/starting university. I was super confident she wasn't going to die. The universe had already taken my dad, so losing her couldn't be in the cards, right? I swear I was sure of that even when she was in the ER, she'd get better, we'd get through this hump, and she'd be around. I kept thinking I'd have more time to become her friend when we got older. The joke's on me.

There have been times when I've felt that I should feel sadder and I'm not. Then there are the times when feelings come up out of the blue years later. It's hard to explain. People tend to have less patience for the dead-parent blues after a year, which is kind frustrating, but understandable. That shit doesn't get sorted out in 365 days, it's ongoing. It just manifests differently.

I don't feel it quite so much in my day-to-day, but I also find that as I get older in some ways it's gotten worse. I feel like I'm so convinced that nothing good can stay and that people will always leave me because I have no evidence to the contrary. I'm sadder and more pissed off that neither of them are here. I just wish I could show them that I've done ok and I just wish I could know that they're proud of me.

I miss my family. I miss the familiar physicality of my parents. I miss my mum crawling into bed with me on a Saturday morning because she was awake and wanted to hold her baby. I miss that I can't just hug my dad and hang off him like a weird jungle gym. I miss the safety net of them both. Even my dad's hands were like these massive baseball mitts that made my own hands feel so tiny but protected. I don't know. It's funny, even after all this time I don't know what to say or to tell people.

Graham (the author)

Your parents are going to die. On a broader philosophical level, this is something that all of us understand, but for obvious reasons it's not something any of us really like to think about. This is going to happen regardless of what you think of them, and whether or not you're prepared. The last conversation I had with my Dad was at a sushi restaurant. It was lunchtime. I don't remember what we talked about, but I know at the end of the conversation he asked whether I wanted to join him for a couple of beers later that evening after he had finished his conference. I lied and told him I was busy. I spent that night watching reruns of South Park by myself.

I don't know if there is a bigger lesson to learn from that, and anything I could come up with borders on cliché, but I think about the decision a lot. There is a lot of things I wish I could have done differently, but lately instead of dwelling on those, I've been trying to call my mom more often.

Graham Isador is a writer living in Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter.

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