Grief’s Many Layers

Anyone who has lost a parent will tell you that it doesn’t matter how old they were. Grief is grief and you always wish for more time. A few more years. A last stolen moment. The death of an elderly loved one doesn’t diminish the pain we feel in our hearts in response to loss. The weird thing for me, though, was to find there are some differences, at least in my experience.

My father died almost 23 years ago. He was 63 and I 34. I knew of one other friend only who had lost a parent and my friend was more than ten years older than me. My peers, although sympathetic, could not share or relate to my experience.

When my mother died the end of October, she was 80 years of age and I’d just turned 57. The pain that is grief was no less than when my father died. However, there are some differences.

With my father’s death, I experienced a sense of being ripped off.  He died untimely. Uncalled for. Intolerable. It provoked a shaking of the fist toward the heavens. The loss of my first parent ushered in grief along with anger toward God. Both responses frightened and horrified me. A piece of myself was lost seemingly forever like an amputated limb and a loss of innocence.

With my mother’s death,  I felt a sense of gratefulness.  Mom was out of pain – emotional pain from never getting over my father’s death. Even though I grieved her, at 80, she had a good long run and I knew it. I lost my biggest cheerleader in this life that anyone could want. No longer can I pick up the phone and hear her voice, but even in my frustration, I understand I’ve been lucky to have my mother that long. There is no shaking of the fist at the heavens. Just a whispered prayer of thanks through my tears.

Everyone who walks this earth dies at some point. It’s not an unfair turn of events; it’s a given that we know will happen sooner or later to us all. Yes, we cry and grieve. The reverberating echos bounce off the wide empty spaces in our hearts. Even so, death is as natural as birth and equally miraculous.  A profound sense of the mystical pervades one’s grief as if the grief process itself ties you to the Other Side and keeps you connected to your loved one.

When my father died, it pained me to watch my mother grieve. With my mother, I felt comforted that she had finally reunited with the love of her life.

The remaining parent’s death means there are practical and logistical matters to take care of. You must disburse belongings, clear out the residence and close down the business of that parent’s life.

My father had suffered through chemotherapy with Stage 4 lymphoma. I anticipated his death and had the opportunity to say the things I wanted him to hear. My mother died suddenly, unexpectedly, without prolonged suffering. I thank God for that.

Yet, the suddenness of her death triggered an initial regret that fortunately quickly dissipated as truth replaced mental flogging. Shortly before my mother died, I’d gone back east to my niece’s wedding where my mother lived as well. I stayed with Mom and had a fight with her before I went home. When I arrived back in California, I called her and apologized, but a few weeks later, she died. I berated myself for having that fight with her. I’d become so intolerant in certain ways since cancer. My resources were low, tapped out, and with it a lack of patience, but why oh why did I have to blow up at her the last time I saw her? Why were those my last words?

And that’s when I heard some truth that I believe came from Mom herself. A reminder that the fight was not our last words. Not only did I apologize, but the week before she died, we had a warm, loving telephone conversation. Our last conversation. Our last words — the same last words we had uttered at the end of myriad telephone conversations:

Mom: I love you, honey.

Me: I love you, too, Mom.

And then we said “Goodbye.”


  1. Eileen, It’s hard to compare grief situations I suppose. Since my mother’s death I sometimes wonder if I am now better prepared for my dad’s – which of course will happen sometime down the road. Somehow I doubt it though.

    Near the time of my mother’s death, I remember so clearly her asking her doctor why the heck it was taking her so long to die. She suffered so much… So you can indeed be grateful in some ways that your mother didn’t suffer. On the other hand, when a loved one dies unexpectedly, we sometimes do beat ourselves up about whatever our last words were or were not. I’m glad you had that phone conversation, but even if you hadn’t, the experiences and the love you and your mother shared through the years were what mattered – not just the last exchange the two of you had in person.

    Anyway, this is really a lovely post. It so clearly comes from your heart. I’m sorry you lost your dad all those years ago. I’m sorry your mom is gone too now. Be kind and gentle with yourself this holiday season and beyond. Hope you have many memories – little treasures for your heart – to hold dear. Thinking of you… hugs…Nancy

  2. Nancy, thanks for reminding me that what matters is the overall relationship I had with my mother. Not to mention that my mother would say that none of those spats matter because we’re family and we love each other, regardless.

    You’re right that losing the first parent doesn’t prepare you for the second in terms of making it easier. We grieve those we love, no matter what. I’ve heard some people say that with the second, you have a sense of now being an orphan, despite your adult status. I somewhat relate to that, but at this age, not so much. I leaned on my mother many times, but she also leaned on me. Thanks for your kind words, Nancy, and reminding me to be gentle with myself. I think that’s the best wisdom of all.

  3. dear Eileen,

    I love the title of this beautiful post – grief’s many layers. and what you said about as profound sense of the mystical pervading one’s grief as if the grief process itself ties you to the Other Side and keeps you connected to your loved one.

    in light of that thought of remaining connected- which I believe is so true, how fitting, how perfect, how fitting that your Dear Mom was able to remind you of the real last exchange you had with her before she died – exactly what you and she said to one another time and time again, and the only words that mattered. She knew your loving heart, and sent that truth to comfort you, to leave no doubt that she knew how much you love her, and needed you to know how much she loves you. what a most lovely gift and one that is wrapped in the mystical light from the Other Side. I am wishing you much comfort, and the warmth of that beautiful light to guide and protect you so that you will always know the power of your Mother’s love, and, she, yours.

    and I want to tell you how sorry I am for the loss of your dear Father, both of you so young, and having such suffering with a terrible disease. all the ensuing years of your own grief magnified by that of your Mom’s loss of the love of her life must have been excruciatingly painful.

    I am glad you have been able to have the solace of your parents being reunited – and on their wedding anniversary! hold on tight to that, envision what a celebration could be like on the Other Side…flying to the beautiful moon, guided by magnificent stars, and them in their youthful, crazy-in -love selves, whole and blissful and together.

    much love and thanks for this inspiring and heart-felt piece, my Friend,

    Karen XOXOX

  4. Karen, just reading your beautiful comment made me smile. 🙂 Thank you for that. That’s why you aren’t just any commenter. You are The Commenter. xoxo

  5. This is beautiful. Your mom would be proud.

  6. Thanks, Nancy. I imagine her smiling down at me even now. I know she would be pleased that I’ve put my memories in writing.

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