When Both Your Parents Have Died
Welcome to the world’s worst club.
A professional portrait of me with my family hung in our house growing up. It was taken outside and is a 1970s-palooza — sideburns, Wallabees, pageboy haircuts and ponchos. I was 8.
Today it sits in a frame in my living room. When I look at it I think, What would I have done differently if I’d known how long I had with my parents?
I would have picked up the phone more. I would have fought with them less. I would have said the things I whispered graveside — I’m grateful for everything you did for me, I forgive you for the things you didn’t. I’ll always love you. I’ll always need you.
My mom was extraordinarily beautiful. She taught me manners, how to present to the world and that little things can make a big difference. She was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer in April 2003, two months after my first son was born, and died in August. She was 61. I was 34.
If life is a balance beam, I lost one of my spotters. It took a while to regain my footing, to stop reaching for her hand and missing it at every milestone.
Luckily, I had an extremely supportive father who was hugely active in my life — a caring, present dad and grandfather who thought everything I did was “terrific!” No one had to wonder whom I came from, people joked. I’m the spitting image. I live in the same town he did, and I saw him often. He never stopped giving me advice, nagging at times, as parents do. He filled the void.
At the end of 2021, my father died of congestive heart failure. He was 89. I was 53.
Poof. I’m in the Dead Parents Club. I’m a card-carrying adult orphan.
I haven’t met many people yet who’ve lost both parents. When I did, I felt sorry for them. No home to go back to for Thanksgiving dinner? No Grandparents’ Day at school? Now I feel for them. I understand the pang of being kicked out of a group of people who can still say, “I’m visiting my parents.”
I know I’m lucky I had them for as long as I did. But losing your mom and dad changes you no matter how old you are. It sets you adrift. Parents ground us to our past. When one dies, you’re still someone’s child, able to time-travel to your youth and hang out. That link was cut when my dad died. I’m full adult now. I lost my first line of defense, my buffers. Oh God, I remember thinking, I’m next.
Seven months later, my siblings and I are still readjusting family roles. Who will be the planner? The one to remember birthdays? The documentarian?
At the same time, a new sensation crept in … freedom? That was unexpected. My parents were supportive but also liberal with their opinions. Now, if I want to do something or buy something, it’s without the stress that could come from sharing the news with them. A recent post-COVID vacation wasn’t tinged with my dad’s well-intentioned but anxiety-inducing “That seems risky,” or “Are you sure you can afford it?” that would invariably echo during the trip. That was liberating.
I also feel — and this is going to sound terrible — relief. I’ve already dealt with the horrible, inevitable loss everyone else will face. I don’t have to worry about them falling or failing. I don’t have to watch them lose their independence, their memories, their dignity. I already did it and I’m on the other side.
Membership to the Dead Parents Club should come with a T-shirt so when people see us, they’ll know: It may look like I’ve moved on, but I never will. I hold a bone-deep sadness. I’m just carrying on.
No one will love us like our mom and dad. And those are the dues we pay — reconciling a life where no matter how much we love the people who are left and how much they love us, it’s just not the same.
But it does get easier, I promise. This club is filled with strong and sympathetic people. You are not alone.