Imagine being on the cusp of adulthood. You’re 18; the world is in front of you waiting to be discovered. However, instead of crossing the imaginary line into adulthood and ascending stair by stair at your leisure, you’re instead shoved downward and quickly tumble to the bottom, unaware of how or why it happened. This is a micro-sized example of what it’s like to lose a parent at the cusp of adulthood. More honestly, you would probably multiple that feeling times 1000. In my case maybe 2000.
My sister and I lost our parents in August 2005 when I was 18 and she was 16 years old. My sister had just started her junior year in high school, and it was my very first day of college at the University of Hawaii Manoa. I was over 4,000 miles away when my sister answered the door at our house in Illinois to find out my parents were in a car accident. Shortly after traveling from South Korea to D.C. to live with my uncle, my grandfather had been diagnosed with pneumonia that turned out to actually be lung cancer.
My parents were on their way to see him as he was expected to pass within the next few weeks, which he did. According to the Ohio State Police, my mother had fallen asleep at the wheel while driving at night through Youngstown, Ohio, which ironically was my mother’s name, Young. My father was killed immediately as a semi truck hit his side of their Saab and my mother died on the ER operating table hours later. While initially in conversations with the hospital my sister was told my mom may survive, our world soon collapsed with one phone call. It is near impossible to convey what it feels like to not be near family when getting news about the death of a loved one. I was quite literally on an island by myself.
Since that time, 10 years have passed, and this is the first time I have written anything about their death. After planning our parents’ funeral and weeks later after attending our grandfather’s funeral, we slowly picked up the pieces and began the long process of living while grieving. Milestones came and went without them physically present. My sister graduated high school, and after taking a semester off to try to grieve alone and sort through our parents’ estate, I went back to college and obtained my degree. More time passed, and I got married, my sister had a baby, I went to graduate school, our grandmother unexpectedly died 10 days before my due date, and I had my baby, all the while without parents present.
If you are someone who has lost one or both parents, either as a child or as an adult, you too know what it’s like to celebrate a life milestone, trying to smile, but all the while wishing your parent(s) was there. Even the most resilient person probably finds the joys of certain life events are never truly the same, and though it’s difficult every time, it’s important to feel this and grieve this loss.
As someone who has had to navigate adulthood without my parents present, here are some major takeaways on life that I know some may relate to and that I hope those with their parents will understand:
– You never get over the loss of a parent; however, in time, you do get used to the lack of physical presence. Although they are not physically able to attend your major life events, you reserve a spot for them in your mind or heart, and this is a way of keeping them close. It doesn’t necessarily get easier, you just learn ways to cope and include them in your routine as your life progresses.
– Grief is a process. After the initial shock of your loss fades a bit, you will grieve all throughout your life, mourning the loss of his or her presence on this earth. Honestly, it doesn’t end. You can’t power-grieve through the feelings, and you’ll likely cry at times you didn’t think were possible. I can’t tell you how many nights my husband had to wake me up from my sleep-crying. Yes, it’s a thing for some. Your body will mourn your loss even if you try to avoid it. It’s imperative to let it all out, and in time, you find you get used to your mourning cycle. If you haven’t experienced this but are supporting someone else who is going through it, please know there is no technical end time for grief. I believe it runs the course of your life.
– The inability to express gratitude toward a parent for all they had done for you in your life can be very difficult to manage. Since becoming a parent, I can’t tell you how many times I have wanted to look my parents in the eye and say, “Now I get it. Thank you for everything you sacrificed for me.” If you have the ability to say thank you today to your parent, please do so. It’s worth the time to exchange those meaningful words.
– The loss of their grandparenthood hurts. The lack of their grandparent presence makes you feel very robbed. My strongest feelings of envy in my life stem from this. I would sacrifice my ability to have a relationship with my parents as long as it meant they could see my daughter and niece in some capacity. If you have your parents around and they’re able to experience this, please give thanks and soak up every moment possible. It is worth so, so, much.
– Lastly, even the most difficult of parental relationships is worth saving and contributing to. As we all have heard repeatedly, life is way, way too short and you truly don’t know what you have until it is gone. If you have a strained parental relationship, I would urge you to look within and consider mending it.
Although part of me is still that wide-eyed 18-year-old girl who unexpectedly plummeted down the stairs of adulthood, I am also a changed woman. The 10 years that have passed between then and now have allowed me to become acutely aware of my grieving process and realize that although time doesn’t heal all, it does add pressure to the open wound that is loss. Supportive friends and family also continually help to fill the void my parents’ absence has left. While each day brings something new and some days are a struggle, for me, memories serve as the glue that binds together the pieces of what my loved ones have left behind.