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How to Lose a Parent

We know it is hard everyday when you’ve lost a parent, but especially difficult on days like Father’s Day when you feel their absence more. Olivia, who recently lost her father, shared her story with us for those also hurting today. Read on to see how she’s coped with her loss and what she recommends to others going through something similar.

When my dad passed away, my cousin, who was going through her own loss, told me it was like  becoming a member of a club you never wanted to join. I had no idea how true that statement would become.

My relationship with my dad had been a strained one, as we grew apart when my parents got divorced in middle school and he got remarried. While we still stayed in touch and saw each other regularly, our relationship was never the same. I was envious of those whose fathers had positive influences in their lives, envious of those close to their dads, envious of a world I hadn’t really been apart of since the 8th grade, the year of the last father-daughter dance. Life can get in the way of relationships and it did in ours. He had his own struggles and his health declined just as I was finding my footing as an adult, post-college, in a new city. There was a new kind of responsibility on my end, taking care of a parent, an interesting transition from the previous 22 years of my life.

My dad had been in the hospital for a couple weeks when my mom called me. I returned home to admit my dad into hospice, where I watched him as he struggled through his last few weeks. His early death wasn’t entirely unexpected, but it did allow us to come back together and gave us a chance for both to forgive. We could be present with each other in the final moments we had left, sharing the memories and love that had always remained. When he passed away, the sadness wasn’t any less than if he had been the dad I sometimes had wished he’d been. In fact, there were other deeply felt emotions; bitterness, guilt, anger, all tied to the sadness that made it all that much more difficult to know how to mourn his loss.

When someone close to you is dying you’re kind of doing everything in a fog, going through your day with an exhaustion that you feel deep down to your bones. For me, my dad’s service was a marker for the end of this period, and I was eager to get back to my daily routine back in NYC to shake this feeling. However, getting back into the swing of things at work and with my friends was much harder than I anticipated. Once the dust settles you are left with your own thoughts, which god, can really be our own worst enemy, can’t they? For me, the hardest times were on the subway when I saw an ad that reminded of when I hit our car window with a golf ball and he didn’t even get mad, or heard a song he loved playing at Whole Foods while buying almond milk, or, when I was picking out a Mother’s Day card and saw the Father’s Day section and realized I wouldn’t be buying a Father’s Day card this year (this one was particularly tough).

I am fortunate to be blessed with an incredible family and group of friends and they were my rock during this time. But like I mentioned, no one truly knows how you’re feeling, because grief is personal. Everybody is different and we all feel things differently. All of a sudden it felt like I was carrying a new weight. Not a burdensome weight, per se, but the weight of a loss so profound that you feel very alone in carrying it. People will reach out to you and express their condolences in many different forms and they will ask how you are doing and they will hug you and sit with you, but the only person who truly knows how you’re feeling is you. Sadness, anger, anxiety, loneliness, confusion, all shades of dealing with death.

I am no expert in coping, as there is not an hour that goes by that I don’t think of my dad. I’m not sure there are any experts out there. A tremendous lost can only be dealt with by feeling it and wading through it until the water gets more shallow, although I think you’ll always be standing in it. I have, however, learned some things that would have been helpful to know before my dad’s death. I don’t know if they would have made it any easier, but I hope they lighten the weight for someone else.

In the beginning, just focus on breathing:

Whether you are slowly losing someone or they are ripped from you (which I am so sorry for, I can’t possibly imagine that pain), remember you are a human being and you are allowed to feel everything you’re feeling. Have those feelings, feel them deeply, and name them. Identifying them can help you deal with the turmoil inside and focus on what’s most important at the time. Take care of the rest later.

Give your body what it needs:

I consider myself very active, and working out and eating well are big parts of my self care routine. But when I was home dealing with everything that was going on, spending time with my dad, dealing with friends and family, paper work, etc, I was absolutely exhausted. I was on an island and the thought of swimming was overwhelming. So I didn’t. I went on walks with my mom and had my morning matcha but not much more than that. I have never watched so much TV in my life, but I don’t remember a single moment of it. I bought books and tried to work, but for the most part just sat by my dad’s side and held his hand. And that was ok. That was what I needed. Tune into what your body is asking you for. If it’s screaming, ‘take me on a 10 mile run,’ go for it. If it’s telling you to put on HGTV and zone out for an hour, do it. You don’t even realize what your mind and heart are dealing with while you’re on autopilot, the least you can do is give yourself the time and space to heal. And when you’re ready to get back on the horse, do it!

Say no:

If people want to see you or call you and you can’t possibly imagine entertaining the thought, it’s ok to say no. It’s ok to say no to family members and friends and people you haven’t seen in years, all whom seem to want a little piece of you. They just want to support you, but it’s ok to not want their support all the time.

Ask for anything:

Some people are afraid to reach out and some people don’t know how to. If you are feeling alone or overwhelmed, ask for a hand or a hug, odds are they’ve been waiting there all along to give it to you.

Talk:

As I mentioned, I am lucky to have a remarkable support system in my friends and family, but I am not the best at discussing my feelings with them. I tend to keep things very private and close to me, especially during difficult times. I know how important it is to talk about what you’re going through however, so I see a therapist regularly. There is no shame in not being able to share with those closest to you and there is no shame in seeing someone to talk about what you’re carrying. A therapist knows your history and how you cope, and talking to mine has allowed me to unpack everything surrounding my dad’s death and beyond that. Regardless of who it is, find someone you feel comfortable opening up to, they will be happy to share a little of the weight.

Celebrate:

Remember who you’ve lost, even in the smallest ways. Take a moment on their birthday. Go through pictures with family. Tell friends stories they might not have ever heard. Sing the song that they loved when it comes on the radio. All of these things help slowly peel back the layers of grief.

And for those of you who have someone in your life who are going through losing a parent (or losing anyone), here are some things I would suggest to help, now having been on the other side:

Reach out:

No matter how close or if you’ve had a falling out or a break up, reach out. I can’t tell you how much it means when people extend even the smallest of gestures during this kind of time. A message, a letter, a phone call, flowers, they all have a great impact. If there is any doubt in your mind, send it, say it, give it. If they want to receive it that is up to them, but chances are, they will be more grateful than you will even know.

Distract them:

One of my best friends went to an NBA playoff game with me right after my dad’s memorial. I asked her if she wanted to go, knowing basketball wasn’t really her thing and she immediately said yes. She probably didn’t even realize how much I needed to have a fun night out with a friend and it was so nice getting out of the bubble I had been in for the last three weeks to do something normal. Ask your friend to do something you know they’ll enjoy, something easy where you can talk if they want or just be there for a bit of a much needed distraction if they don’t.

Follow up:

This has been a big one for me. Grief doesn’t just go away, it sits with you. It’s there everyday looking you in the mirror when you’re applying your serums. Even if its been a month, or a year, or five years, check in on them. Ask them how they’re doing, or if they want to talk, or just tell them you are thinking of them, especially on holidays or birthdays.

My dad’s loss has given me a new understanding of adulthood and has created a softness in me, a softness that wasn’t there before. I am still sewing up the wound, but I know it will eventually close and heal. The scar will always be there, but that’s life, and as overwhelming as it can get sometimes, it provides us with the most amazing experiences, experiences which you really do become exponentially more grateful for after a death (as clichéd as that sounds). If you have been through a loss or are going through a loss, I am so sorry, but keep this in mind: the moments where you are so sad you almost can’t breath will grow fewer and farther between and in between those moments will be happiness. Revel in that.