How Losing Both My Parents Affects My Parenting

by Katie C. Reilly
Aiza Photography

Growing up, Grandparents Day was my least favorite day of the school year. On that day at my elementary school in DC, each child in the class’ grandparents would be invited to participate for some portion of the school day celebrations.

I never met any of my grandparents. Three of my grandparents passed before I was born and my paternal grandfather had a heart attack and died on a visit to meet me a couple weeks after my birth. So two of my Dad’s uncles would visit us from Pittsburgh and join my sister and me on Grandparents Day at school.

For the most part, we only saw those two older gentlemen on that day of the year. I barely knew them and they were the oldest people that I had spent time with. I remember staring at their faces, confused by the deep creases that comprised their wrinkles and some of the mysterious moles that covered one of my uncle’s face. It felt weird holding them out as our grandparents, but at a time when fitting in felt critical, I was thankful to not show up to school “grandparent-less.”

Throughout the day, I watched my friends stroll in with their grandparents who had accompanied them throughout their lives. “I wish I had grandparents,” I would sulk to myself and then daydream about being showered in gifts and attention by my imaginary grandparents.

As a mom to a two-year-old girl now, I reflect back on those Grandparents Days as my daughter will never meet her maternal grandparents. My mom died of ALS eight years ago and my dad passed away from cancer four years ago. Becoming a parent has initiated a new round of grieving for me. I mourn the loss of my parents as grandparents to my daughter.

I also mourn the loss of experiencing motherhood with my parents. The day that I found out I was pregnant felt anti-climatic because all I wanted to do was to pick up the phone and call my parents to share the news. I still long to tell my mom, who was a champion of strong women, that we named our daughter Fianna, which means “warrior” in Irish.

I try to imagine my Dad’s chin drop in awe after watching Fianna speak as many words in Spanish as she does in English, thanks to her childcare in Oakland, California. I was notorious in our house for my daredevil antics as a small child. I often would flip onto chairs when I wanted to sit down. I daydream now about calling my parents and explaining how I barely made it to the top of the cement staircase near our house before Fianna lunged herself forward. I can almost hear my dad’s kind support which would cover up the secret grin that he would enjoy for himself.

Rather than Grandparent’s Day at school, I now watch in envy as my friends’ parents goggle over their grandchildren verbally, while their faces ooze with love.

Before my parents’ died, I had no exposure to death and no understanding of mental health issues generally. After they passed, I felt ill-equipped emotionally to cope with the trauma that I experienced through being a caretaker and the aftermath of their parting. I managed my grief by pushing it down and ignoring it as it manifested in other traits — anxiety, sleepless nights and incessant worry. Socially, there was pressure to “move on” and minimal space to discuss the continued pain. I was embarrassed and ashamed of my grief and of how it changed me. So I did my best to keep it all within me.

This new wave of grief that I experienced as a parent scared me. Once Fianna came into my life, the fear that my grief would guide my parenting or negatively affect her in any way overwhelmed me. I had accepted the imprint my grief holds on my life, but it made me feel like a bad mom to think about it negatively affecting her. My grief felt like my achilles’ heel in parenting — a fear which propelled me back into therapy, into writing and rethinking how I live my life.

During a recent visit to my sister Sarah’s house, I stumbled upon a first grader’s drawing of a skull with “Grandpa Jack” written at the top. The drawing was by my nephew, Grady, who is in first grade at a Spanish/English bilingual public school that had recently celebrated Dia de los Muertos. Grady met my dad briefly and was around two when he passed away. He never met my mom.

For a brief moment, it took my breath away to see my dad’s name on his homework assignment and filled me with that old familiar frustration. “Why aren’t my parents here?” Sarah shared that many of the kids in Grady’s class did not have a close family member who had passed, while my nephew brought in pictures and drawings of my parents. The activity ignited a conversation and Grady asked Sarah lots of questions about Granny Sarah and Grandpa Jack, including how they died.

The absence of my parents will always be felt in our house, but I too will try to bring my parents to life through stories. Fianna will know how Grandpa Jack grew up in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania, skipped two grades, started his own company and drove me crazy when he told me to “slow down.” Fianna will know that Granny Sarah was an anomaly in her generation as a female attorney working in Russia, that she drove without a license for many years and demonstrated a level of impatience when waiting in any line that is comparable to (or worse than) most toddlers.

But more importantly, death, grief and the potential implications on mental health will not be conversations to shy away from in our house. When Fianna is old enough, I will vulnerably share my experience as a caretaker to a parent with ALS and cancer with her, and the subsequent grief and trauma that subsumed me in the aftermath. I will try to teach her the importance of taking care of herself and accepting herself, especially in life’s most difficult moments.

I will not underestimate the pain that accompanies losing someone you love, but I will explain that my losses have propelled me to take in every moment with her — for myself, and of course, for Granny Sarah and Grandpa Jack.