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Losing a Parent and Coping at Any Age

"It's never easy to lose a parent. But I guess it shouldn't be." –Elise C.

The date was April 17, 2012, and I stood anxiously behind my front door, peaking through the curtain for the sixth time. My wife played Legos with our 3-year-old while my infant son was down for a nap. She shot a concerned glance in my direction. I was unhinged, and she was painfully aware of it. Moments later, there was a knock at the door, and two men walked in. I pulled both of them in for a hug and let out a long breath. Three days earlier, I'd found my mother dead of a heart attack at age 59. It shook me to my core. After that grisly discovery, I then communicated my mom's death to her mom, my 83-year-old grandmother, who then suffered a stroke and died as well. That night, as my children lay blissfully unaware in their beds and my wife cradled my dizzied head in her arms, I realized I had to plan a double-funeral—and began what has been at least a three-year process of accepting that my life was altered forever.

"Only people who have been through this can truly empathize."–Lisette

The two men at the door were my cousins, Jorge and Andy, who had lost their mother two years earlier to cancer. And I felt an inexplicable communal feeling just by being in their presence. Finally, I could speak with someone who "got it." Since my mother's death, I've made it a point to connect with people who have lost a parent, making it clear that I was available if they wanted to talk. Not everyone picked up the offer, but those who did seemed to feel the same sense of relief I had when I was in their shoes.

This month, I interviewed 20 Facebook friends about their parents' deaths, looking to compare coping mechanisms and healing strategies. Some had kept both parents into their 50s and some lost at least one parent much earlier. The first question I asked each subject was:

In five words or less, explain how it feels to lose a parent. (I was curious to see what answers I'd get with the word limit.)

Doreen, who'd lost her father when she was 55, answered, "I became a helpless child."

Erin, whose dad died when she was only 25, answered, "Getting punched in the stomach." (Despite a three decade difference in their losses, Doreen and Erin's responses often overlapped in my survey.)

Rob, a high school friend who'd lost both his parents before he'd celebrated his 31st birthday, replied, "I should have done more."

Have you made peace with the loss? Do you consider yourself "recovered" from it?

Clearly, two separate questions. And the responses were markedly different. For starters, only one person out of 20 considered herself "recovered" from the loss. Patty, who lost her father when she was only 4 years old, is by far the furthest removed from the loss time-wise, believes she's finally recovered, albeit 50-plus years later.

Others, however, weren't ready to use that label. Amy F., who was 27 when she lost her mother to cancer, says, "There's a huge hole in my heart from her death. I have learned how to walk around it."

Overall, there was a consistent belief that "making peace" was possible. Recovering, however, was generally unthinkable. To most, it's a wound that never fully heals.

Perhaps the most concerning responses were to the following question: How are you actively dealing with the loss?

Some avoided this question entirely. Others didn't.

"I moved away to a condo by myself; I never really had or wanted any visitors," says Amy L., who lost her father, a New York City police officer, on Sept. 11, 2001, when she was 22.

Others turned to faith. "The evening that he died, I had a dream in which I saw memories of my dad from when I was growing up," Renata said, who said the dream made her believe that there were "angels and guides who help us."

An alarming percentage of the subjects answered this question with some form of "I don't think I've dealt with it yet." Frankly, I think the majority of us simply don't know how to "deal" with losing a parent. Since it only happens twice in your life, many of us are blindsided by it, whether the death was expected or not. And while life goes on around us, we're still collectively stuck in that moment, cowering in a corner mentally, yearning for relief.

What I learned from this series of discussions is that, while we all grieve in our own ways, the feelings we feel are similar, no matter your age. Sue, who lost her 101-year-old father when she was already north of 60, said once she officially had lost both parents, she felt "lost in the woods."

But I feel pretty strongly that, as long as we mourners are lost in the woods together, holding each other up, that we'll be better off than if we wandered through it alone. Lisa B. believes there is "a kinship among us that lose parents (specifically at a younger age) that bonds us all together."

I'd like to sincerely thank the 20 people who contributed so openly to this piece. I hope you found the process as cathartic as I did.

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