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.”