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When a Parent Dies

When a Parent Dies

By Mark Liebenow

Losing a parent is never straight forward because the relationship is one that we were born into and not one that we chose. We may not like both of our parents, and one we only tolerate until we’re old enough to get out of the house. When they die, we can experience a wide range of feelings—grief of various intensities, but also love, hate, relief, despair, sadness, anger, and guilt.

Even if our relationships with our parents weren’t the best when we were growing up, they are still family, and in the long run this may mean more to us than we realize at the time. Whether they were good parents or bad, we only have two of them, and when they die, we become orphans. With a good relationship, the death of a parent is hard because they have always been part of our life. They were there when we needed someone to talk to, home was always a place where we could go and be accepted unconditionally, and if we ran into financial problems, parents often helped out. We grieve the loss of their love and our safety net.             * But our grief can also be complicated. If a parent dies when we were in our teens and early twenties, we missed learning what they had to teach us about living and thriving in the adult world. We missed them at our wedding, the birth of our children, and we missed seeing their pride when we become successful in a career. If they seldom sat down, listened to us, and just sat on the porch and talked about life, we may never have connected heart to heart, and feel sad that now this will never happen. If one parent criticized us every time they saw us, we may feel relief that with their death we don’t have to endure this anymore when we go home. If they left the family when we were an infant, we may feel indifferent. Them being dead is the same as them being gone. We’ve already grieved the absence of a father or mother in our life. If they were abusive to us or someone else in the family, we may feel joy and want to dance on the grave of the SOB. If there were any unresolved issues between us, we are still angry about the problem and now we are also angry that there’s nothing we can do about it.             * One of my friends whose dad was abusive to his mother and dismissive of him, was happy when he died. He has moved on and hasn’t looked back. “It was what it was. I can’t change it. Now it’s over and I don’t ever have to think about it again.” Another friend lost her mother when she was in college and misses all the things her mother would have taught and shared with her about being a wife and mother, and how to balance a career. She also misses getting to know her mom as an adult friend. Someone else had been making efforts to open his dad up and get him to share more, to talk about his life and dreams, and what he wanted for his children. They were making progress when the father died, and what might have been ended. He feels regret for not starting this conversation earlier.


Parents do not take a course on how to be parents. Many of them just wing it, and some don’t wing it very well. Some had horrible parents and find themselves treating their own children the same way, much to their dismay. Some people like having a family but are too busy with their careers to actually be a parent to their children. Some people never wanted children, but their spouses did. It’s a wildly mixed bag. For an abusive parent, rather than shut them out completely and forever, we can tell them that we were hurt by what they did, but our door is open if they change their ways. This lets them know what we think the problem is, and it shifts the burden of taking the next step to them. When parents are dying, not all want to reconcile. Some don’t see the need. Those who were terse during life may be terse going to their grave, thinking that actions count more than words, and working two jobs to put food on the table speaks of the depths of their love for the family. So do words, and sometimes the words are more important. If parents never tell their children that they love them and are proud of them, their children may never be sure if they are capable or loveable. Often at the end of someone’s life they want to make amends for the mistakes they made and the misunderstandings. Sometimes it takes them until they are in hospice and have a short time to live before they are ready to set their stubborn pride aside and reconcile relationships. They may also be confused and scared, and need their family around them, even those they haven’t talked to in years.             * What can we do to resolve the unfinished with a parent who has died?  For a parent who died and we didn’t have the chance to say goodbye, or if there was an unresolved conflict, we can find a quiet room and talk to them out loud, or write a letter and say what we wanted to say, and believe that they somehow can hear us. The Japanese have a shrine in the corner of their homes where they continue to talk with those who have died. For a parent who died too young, when we come up against a problem and don’t know what to do, we can think, “What would mom (or dad) do in this situation?” Then listen. Often we can get a sense of what they would say.

By Mark Liebenow Mark Liebenow writes about grief, nature, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, his essays, poems, and reviews have been published in over 40 journals, including in the Huffington Post and Colorado Review. He has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay prizes, and the Sipple Poetry Award. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable by Best American Essays. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. M.A. M.Div.

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