As children, our parents guide us through the world, and help shield us from the many hardships therein. As much as they guide us through the world, they also feel like our world. They are our protectors, champions, and are the ground beneath our feet. Our parents often speak our language, and in speaking to us, they can speak for us. Or at least that is what parenting is supposed to be. Parents can fail, make mistakes, and wound us in ways that no one else can, and yet, when our parents leave us, and die, even the ones that have hurt us, we grieve them like none other in our life.
Whether we grieve parents who truly were miraculous, or we grieve parents that were too compromised in their own lives to reach out and love us as we wanted to be loved, we grieve the loss a parent and also grieve the loss of our own childhood. Perhaps the coldest grief then, the one that is the most expected and at the same time most surprising, is the death of one’s parent.
For many, childhood ends when one’s parent dies. As long as a parent is around, at whatever age, we remain a child in their eyes, and a child in our own eyes. We can have someone to look out for us, coach us through heartbreak, shield us from harm, appreciate our personality, advocate for what matters most to us, and love us in the way that we want to be loved.
There are also those individuals who do not have any parents. Their grief is a grieving of the lack; there are no happy moments turned bittersweet, no memories fearfully growing fainter, no comfort given that is now missed, no love displayed that will remain unseen. Their loss is still a loss. Whether our parents were beyond reproach, trusting, respectful, kind, or stilted, mean, cold, or less than our expectations, we grieve what is gone and what should have been.
What do we do with this grief? It is a painful ordeal to lose a parent, and we are so right to cry out for the loss, hurt, loneliness, and even regrets. There can be our unsaid words that turn sour. There can be our actions of appreciation, which were never placed. There can be words of comfort given by others in our grieving. There can be supposedly thoughtful expressions of, “How can I help?” that inflict more hurt in our grief; for in my suffering of losing a parent it is not my duty to instruct others in how to be compassionate.
If we are ever to grieve, we are to grow; part of our painful growth is in outgrowing old roles. The old role of being a child, of being cared for, of being protected, is taken away, because the parent, the one that makes that role real, is taken away. We must now venture forth in a new and scary, uncharted world.
When we do cry out for what we want in our pain, we do so in our smallest and our quietest voice. In our smallest and quietest voices we are still children, calling out for love, care, and to be known. And yet, when we lose a parent, we are most painfully aware that there will be no familiar voice to reassure us that all will be well and everything will be fine. We must become our own parent. We must find our own way in the world, traveling alone, now that the world that we knew is gone and moving further and further away.
[This article is dedicated to three courageous people that I know who have walked this perilous journey and have inspired me to write this article: Tyler Tortamasi, Michelle Zentgraf, and Samuel Eagle]