When I went to sleep on January 2nd, 2006, I was "the girl whose mom has cancer".
When I woke up on January 3rd, 2006, I was "the girl whose mom died".
I woke up with the same brown hair, hazel eyes, fair skin, and freckles, but suddenly the entire world saw me as a different person.
When my mom died, I saw that when someone loses a parent, it is difficult for everyone involved.
For the other parent, who has to learn to parent alone while grieving.
For other family members or close friends, who aren’t quite sure what role to take in the child’s life, also while grieving.
For the child’s friends and other adults in her life, who have no idea what to say to someone who is facing real mortality for the first time. The people who are grieving on a minimal level, and with the best of intentions, often offer a suffocating level of support when combined.
And lastly, for the child herself, who recognizes what happened, but doesn’t yet understand all of the ways in which her life will change. Who doesn't yet realize that for the rest of her life, when she comes home from school, she will only get to say “Dad, I’m home!”, when she used to call for both parents. Who is forced to go shopping on January 4th, and is only allowed to buy things that are black. Who feels a twinge of uncomfortable guilt on January 7th, when she puts on a black skirt and silently admires how it looks on her, knowing her mind should be somewhere else. Who, in that skirt, has to stand in a line next to her father and grandmother and pretend to remember people she’s never met before. And most importantly, who doesn’t understand why everyone looks at her with the same pitiful eyes that she’s never seen before, but unknowingly will see for the rest of her life.
I think that people who have never lost a parent (understandably) have a lot of misconceptions about how it feels or how to act. I think that most of these misconceptions come from a fear of talking about the death, and an implied agreement to broach the subject minimally.
So here is the truth about losing a parent, from someone who has to those fortunate enough to have not.
Everyone is Different.
When your parent dies, you’re not handed a manual on how to grieve. Everyone grieves differently: some jump right back into their normal routine, some take some time to themselves; some want to talk about it, others would rather not. There’s no one right thing to say to a child when this happens. However, something along the lines of “I know that you’re going through a tough situation right now, and I am here for you if you’d like to talk”, was my favorite, because it showed support gave me and gave me an option, but didn’t force it.
It Doesn’t Hit You All at Once.
When you lose a parent, the second they stop breathing is not the moment you fall apart. You don’t immediately realize what losing them means. Whether it’s three weeks, five months, or two years later, you eventually have this moment when you realize that this huge part of your life is gone. And it hurts. Mine happened about four months later. I was falling asleep one night and thinking about a test I had the next day. I was excited, because after school on days that I had tests, my mom and I would get slushies and drive around in her car. She called it a “necessary silver lining," because even if the test was hard, a blue raspberry slushy and Matchbox Twenty could fix anything. Because I was so tired that I momentarily forgot that she was gone, but quickly remembered. I realized that there would be no more “necessary silver linings." It was such a small part of my life, but it was gone forever. And that tore me in two. Before I knew it I was crying so hard that I couldn’t breathe. Those moments come and go, but as time goes on they become fewer and further between. You learn how to cope.
You Can’t Predict The Hard Days.
Many assume that birthdays or Christmases are the hardest days after you lose a parent. While everyone is different, most people I know would disagree. The first Christmas and birthday are difficult, yes, but it tends to hit you more when you don’t see it coming. It happens on a summery Tuesday morning before work when you’re making coffee, and a Sheryl Crow song comes on the radio. You hear the song and you remember wearing pajamas and dancing around in a bright yellow kitchen holding hands when you were eight. It’s impossible to see coming, but you give yourself a few minutes, grab your keys and go, because you’re going to be late. And that whole day at work, it’s a hard day. And no one knows it but you. Because no one could see it coming.
I Will Not Cry If You Talk About Your Mom.
While my mom is no longer with me, most of my friends still have theirs, and I’m so happy that they are so fortunate. A lot of them are hesitant to talk about their moms with me, and I wish that they weren’t. I am not fragile, and the word “mom” will not reduce me to a puddle of tears. I actually enjoy hearing about their mothers, because it reminds me of all the amazing times I had with mine.
You Feel The Need To Reach Out When Someone Else Loses A Parent.
Every time someone I went to school with or work with loses a parent, I reach out to them, even if I don't know them well. I usually just let them know I'm sorry and here to talk if they want to, and also tell them I understand first-hand exactly what they're going through. You know that the next year is going to be difficult for the girl in your 8th-grade English class, and you'd do anything to help her even a little bit. So you reach out. It's almost instinct.
Sometimes There’s Longing, Followed by Guilt.
When you’ve been without a parent for a long time (I’m approaching ten years), you learn to adjust to your life without the parts of it they held. But sometimes you miss it, and that longing can make you feel guilty. Last October, I went out to dinner with a friend and her family. As we were leaving the restaurant, her mom brushed a piece of hair off of my shoulder, and put a hand on my back. For a split second, I wished she were my mother, because I missed that kind of maternal affection. And after that, I felt so much guilt because I know my mom would have done anything to be here today. Those feelings are sporadic, but I’ve learned to accept them as normal.
I AM STILL THE SAME PERSON.
The most important thing to remember (hence the capital letters), is that I’m still the exact same person I was before I lost my parent. I’m still bubbly and social. I still love horses. I still get moody when I’m tired. I still hate hot dogs. A lot of people have this idea that after you lose a parent, you change completely. When they treat you like you have, it makes you feel like damaged goods—forever crippled by loss. That’s just not true. While losing a parent is hard, it soon becomes just a part of your life. It’s not something that impairs you. While I'd do anything to have my mother with me today, losing her eventually made me stronger, more independent, and truly appreciative of every second I have on this earth.
“Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses.”
While losing a parent is heartbreaking, I'm thankful for every minute I had with my beautiful, loving mother. Sometimes, you’re lucky enough to have a support system that help fill the void your parent left behind. My best friend's mom taught me how to put on makeup. My aunt took me prom-dress shopping. My cousin helped me get into college. So to everyone who has taken a special place in my life and been a mother to me in some way or another—thank you. I love you all.