According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale, the death of a close family member is the fourth most stressful life event an adult may experience, after martial separation and tied with personal imprisonment. For “non-adults,” death of a parent is the highest ranked life changer.
I don’t care if your father issues are due to your permanent daddy’s girl status or you haven’t spoken to your mother in 30 years. It doesn’t matter if your mom is June Cleaver. Whether there’s a messy divorce, single parenting, or true martial bliss, when a parent dies, it doesn’t matter. It will change the course of your life.
This is my experience in four parts. It’s heavy, and to the best of my knowledge, it’s true.
Part IV: We’re Getting T-Shirts
Google “Death of a Parent.” You know what comes up first? This article on Livestrong.com. While I hope that link helps some people who stumble upon it, I think it’s cold and impersonal. And I don’t think it should be the first result. I’m not saying silly things like this shouldn’t be, but really? You know what else is bizarre? After some (unknown to me) length of time passes, if you want to see an obituary, you have to pay for it. Blows my mind.
No surprises, my father’s funeral was a pretty awful experience, but not the worst of that first week. A clergy member entered my home to tell us he thought my father may have been schizophrenic or bipolar and at one time, he wanted to get him a trailer to park on the Temple grounds. We had to sort through my father’s second floor home that hadn’t been cleaned in (at least) five years and reeked of cigarette residue and death. For those first few days, every morning I woke up and realized it wasn’t a dream and I’d never see my dad again.
It wasn’t all-bad for me. A woman I didn’t know and who’d never attended a Jewish mourning process (sitting Shiva) came over to me with my mother. Many years before I was born, she was my father’s secretary. She told me that when she saw his name in the obits, she gathered up all her courage and stepped into a totally unfamiliar house with strange rituals to pay her respects because he was “a wonderful man.” That’s an incredible thing to hear when you’re grieving.
I found utter kindness in friends and family. Right after the funeral, I went upstairs and found chocolate, trashy mags, a crossword puzzle book, and a pink teddy bear (AKA the essential Kelsey survival kit) that M had put on my bed. I got two lovely cards full of well wishes from sorority sisters that meant the world. T hauled her ass to Dulles TWICE (ugh!) so I wouldn’t have to face my layovers alone. I couldn’t have ever returned to Italy if it weren’t for a few ladies I knew in Rome who I could count on.
Yet, with all the love I’m so lucky to have had, I felt alone. My mother was so amazing, but at times, I almost resented her. I never ever want anything to happen to my grandparents, but when she said it would all be all right, part of me wanted to shout, “What do you know, Mother?! You don’t know what it feels like when a parent dies!”
And, as much as I hate to admit it, I was right. What did she know? Who was she to say it would get easier? Every day that passed, it got worse. It felt like cow manure was raining on my anxiety and grief.
Within a few hours of hearing of my father’s death, I emailed a sorority sister whose dad passed away right before she was supposed to spend a semester abroad. Here’s what I wrote:
I don’t mean to for this to come out wrong, so here goes.
My dad died yesterday, and I’m leaving Rome and flying home to Cleveland tomorrow morning. I know you went through a similar situation (I know, not similar, and I can only imagine how hard everything must have been), but I was wondering if you could shed some light on anything that may have helped you.
anyway, I love you and hope all is well. and I sent your dog licking the screen on to many people.
What she said back changed my life forever. In addition to being an awesome and wonderful person and offering support, she said:
This is advice I got that helped me through it all — this is the worst day of your life. Tomorrow? It will be the worst day of your life, but a little bit better. The next day with be a little better still… It sucks that someone I love is now a part of the Dead Parent Club. That said? As a member of this devastatingly and surprisingly large club, you’re entitled to all the help you can get from every other member, as much as we can.
So that was it. January 25, 2008, I found out I was already a card carrying member of the Dead Parent Club. It sucks. It sucks that our numbers are growing. I wish people I knew would stop being grandfathered into the group, even if it means a quantity discount on club T-Shirts. The pain that accompanies membership is heartache I don’t wish upon my deepest nemesis. And it feels like there’s no one out there who understands. But, in fact, there’s a huge membership database that I cull for contacts regularly.
Sometimes, I go weeks without thinking about my father or his death. Other times, memories of his funeral eat away at my internal organs. But this year, Father’s Day was just a little bit easier for me than it was last year. And five years from now, I believe his birthday will be easier still. It’ll never be easy. It’ll never be pain free. But the pain won’t be as horrendous or prolonged as those first few days, weeks, and months.
My coping mechanism is humor. The darker the circumstance, the darker I get. For me, the most powerful and the funniest words I’ve ever read concerning the death of a parent come from Ainsley Drew. Check out her amazing blog, Jerk Ethic, and specifically the entries where she chronicles her personal experience with her mother’s death. For another humorous look at death, watch George Carlin’s Complaints and Grievances on Netflix streaming.
Then, before the melancholy sets in and you start listening to Dashboard Confessional, learn more about candy.
Author’s note: This is my experience with my father. You probably have a totally different experience with your parents (or, my father). Regardless, I’d love to hear your feelings, whether it’s your own experience or just reactions, I’m not that hard to track down.