Grieving the childhood loss of a parent, 35 years later. . .

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My dad and I, shortly before my first birthday, circa 1970.

February 7, 2014 would have been my dad’s 72nd  birthday. Today, would have been my mom’s 70th.  After my mom’s death 18 months ago, I found myself grieving my dad as well as the collective loss of my parents–something I never expected would happen.

I cleared the leaves and freshly fallen snow from my mom’s newly laid gravestone. It had only been a few months since she, along with my sister-in-law and eight year-old niece, had been killed by a drunk driver. As I looked at her name etched into the stone, I was sure the heaviness in my heart would cause it to explode. My mom was 68 going on 50 when she died and I had yet to make any sense of her senseless death. I stood there in tears for a while and when I finally turned to leave, I noticed my dad’s gravestone. It was covered in layers of dead leaves and snow, nearly forgotten by me. My heavy heart sank further into my chest.

The year was 1977 and I was eight when my dad died suddenly of a heart attack. He was only 34 years old and his death was shocking to me, even at such a young age. Standing at his grave 35 years later, his death seemed like a lifetime ago. The older I had gotten, the less I had seemed to think of him (even though I did occasionally) and at times, I still really missed him. So many years had passed though that for the most part, my memories of him had faded deeply.

My mom had remarried when I was 15 to a wonderful man who I have considered my dad for the three decades. My stepdad walked me down the aisle, was grandpa to my children, and loved my mom to no end. He had been there for me, through thick and thin, throughout most of my life whereas the man buried at my feet had only been there for the first few years. Yet, I shouldn’t have forgotten. Even though he had been gone for so long, my dad had loved me deeply, that I had known from early on.  As time had passed I had taken those memories and tucked them away. Maybe it was to protect myself from the hurt, maybe I really had forgotten, or maybe it was a little of both. I wasn’t really sure. All of these things quickly raced through my mind and suddenly, I found myself sobbing. With guilt-laden grief, I quickly dropped to my knees and began to clear away his stone.

As I drove home, the tears kept coming. I had just been thrust into an unexpected, adult-sized mourning of his death at the same time I was mourning the new loss of my mom. I found myself grieving a lifetime of memories lost as well as grieving the collective loss of my parents, something that I hadn’t considered would happen. Reality hit me like a ton of bricks. The two people that had loved me and cared for me from the very beginning of my life were now gone. If it was possible to feel orphaned as a forty-something adult, this had to be what it felt like.

Over the next few days, I found myself in tears quite often as I kept thinking a lot about the early years of my life, especially those days and weeks surrounding the time of my dad’s death. Even though those memories had been dormant for what seemed like forever, my grief-stricken brain easily–albeit painfully–recalled them. Saying goodbye the morning of his death, being taken out of school knowing that something was gravely wrong, going with my mom to pick out his casket, sitting with her at his funeral, as well as the sorrowful days that ensued— these memories were now incredibly fresh in my mind. As they flooded in, I found myself reliving the pain of that time, not through the eyes of my eight-year old self, but instead, through the eyes of an adult. As a child I knew the loss of my father was tremendous, but as an adult, I was able to realize fully the magnitude of his loss and it hurt– big time. Even though I thought I had completely grieved his loss years ago, I found out that really wasn’t true at all. Now, as an adult, I was able to give my eight-year old self the space and permission to hurt and then to heal. I had discovered quite out of the blue that grief is funny like that. It sneaks up on us and can send us reeling into some dark places when we least expect it to. We can either run from that darkness or through it to the light. I chose to move towards the light.

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My dad and I!

It has been just over a year since that grief-ridden, heavy-hearted day in the cemetery. Since that day, I have been able to heal from the childhood loss of my father in a deeper and more meaningful way than I ever thought possible, even while grieving the recent death of my mom.

The biggest lesson that I have learned throughout this time is that grief and healing are constant and fluid, ever changing as time passes. I know that I will always be grieving my parent’s deaths, both individually and collectively, in some way or another, and I am completely okay with that. I know that with every resurgence of grief, the opportunity comes to heal and grow, and to reconcile and release the pain of their losses. I know that it is okay to give myself permission to grieve and to create space in my life for healing, whether it’s from something that happened years ago or just yesterday. This new understanding of grief and healing has created a newfound peace in me–despite the pain— and I know that with each new level of healing that I reach, I will be able to stand in that cemetery. . . my heavy heart a little lighter than the last.

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