When You're A Parent Who Has Lost A Parent

by Stephanie Ortiz
Stephanie Ortiz

Today is the day before the eighth anniversary of my father’s death. And as I go through my day of juggling the normal household tasks and the countless demands that raising six children necessitates, there’s a corner of my mind that inevitably sifts through the timeline of this day eight years ago.

When you lose a loved one to cancer, you think the knowing of a terminal diagnosis will help. In theory, it gives you time. You have the time, ideally, to say the things that you’ve always wanted to say. The things you wished you’d already said. You have moments when you think, It’s going to be so hard, but… I KNOW it’s coming. So I have time to prepare for it and deal with it.

But… it’s just not that way.

My father received a terminal cancer diagnosis shortly after I discovered that I was pregnant with my fourth child. He’d been sick for about a year prior, but it still came as a shock to hear the actual diagnosis. My father, dying? Not possible. Not from illness, anyway. He was too strong for that. Too able to beat the odds. Too likely to survive and scrape by where perhaps others hadn’t.

But he didn’t.

Despite three easy pregnancies prior, my fourth pregnancy was a disaster. My mind knew what was happening, and my body suffered for it. Constant morning sickness led to IV treatment and eventually a PIC line. While my mind was grappling with how to process losing my father, my body said, “Nope! Can’t handle that!” The last few months of my father’s life was a balancing act of caring for my three kids, battling rough pregnancy conditions, and shuttling back and forth to my parent’s house to visit my father as often as possible.

He was alive when my daughter was born, thankfully. But he knew his time with her was limited. We both did. The last few photographs of him holding her also show me in the background, gazing somberly at the moment. The night that he died, I was there, in my childhood home, my nursing newborn daughter in tow. And as my father took his last breaths, I became not just the adult wife and mother I’d been for the past seven years. I was still my father’s daughter, only now I was a fatherless daughter.

And when I arrived at my own home in the wee hours of the morning, I collapsed into my husband’s arms and wept like a child. Like the child who used to have a father whom she adored and couldn’t comprehend how being “prepared” for this moment wouldn’t mean a thing when it actually occurred.

I know that I was one of the lucky ones to even have had my father for as long as I did; too many people have lost a parent far younger than I, or have had the misfortune to never even have met theirs. Yet the most challenging aspect of those next few months following my father’s death was the juxtaposition of suffering such a deep, visceral grief, yet still attempting to maintain a sense of normalcy for my young children.

The pain of losing a parent was compounded with the pain of having my children — ages 7, 6, 4 and an infant — suddenly forced to confront and absorb the concept of mortality. I vividly remember a conversation between my son and myself, in which his eyes widened as he said, “Mom, if Grandpa died, that means that one day, you’ll die too.” Even in my faith, I stumbled momentarily over that dilemma. How do you convey to a child who has just witnessed the death of such a close loved one that you don’t have to be afraid of death? Especially when you yourself have forgotten to not be afraid in that moment as well?

Great teaching moment? Of course, especially for the spiritual type. And I did handle it well, with a blend of age-appropriate honesty and plenty of comfort and security. But it confirmed the duality of the role you play as a parent who loses a parent. You’re grieving, yet you’re also modeling what grieving looks like, whether you’re aware of it or not. You’re illustrating for your children what death means and how to handle it; they see in you what grieving looks like. It’s a pretty intense experience because there’s no textbook answer for how to process such a staggering loss “the right way.”

What’s also painful is the process of watching your surviving parent come to terms with the hole that’s been punched into their life. It’s gut-wrenching to see your parent break down, which then reminds you how it must feel for your own children. I’ll be the first to tell you that my mother, despite her endless love for my father, has lived her life courageously since my father’s passing, clinging valiantly to her faith to cope. She is still an amazing mother, grandmother, friend, and worker. But there’s always that subtle sense that something, or more obviously someone, is missing. And as I parent my own children, I’m still the daughter of my mother, whom I hurt for when she is hurting. Even if she hides it well for the sake of others — because let’s face it, that’s often what we moms do!

So, yes, it’s been a hard road. The sting of my father’s loss always lingers. In the happy moments — holidays, birthdays, family gatherings, or new births — there is always the sense that he’s missed it. He’s missed out on meeting the new little ones in our family. His voice isn’t there to narrate our family’s shenanigans in our home movies. His guitars lay dormant in my mom’s basement. At every extended family event, there’s a spark missing, one that only he provided. There’s always a bittersweet side to every occasion, knowing that someone who once had such a vibrant life inside him is no longer here.

But being a parent is precisely what has eased my own grief over time. I’ve learned to truly savor the moments that I have with every member of my family. I’ve cultivated an even deeper appreciation and admiration for my mother. I’ve learned to cherish the ordinary moments with my husband. Although mortality once seemed to loom ominously, it now reminds me that this day, today, is sweet. It is a gift to have this present day.

And as I watch my children grow, I see elements of my father’s personality and physical appearance that have emerged. It’s both amusing and comforting to watch my son perch himself on the couch like my father used to. The smirk that my daughter has is clearly his as well. Even when I look at myself in the mirror, I see his cheekbones and jawline. His jovial spirit and playfulness are still very much a part of our family gatherings.

Being a parent has enabled me to embrace what my father provided for my family and to add to it my own blend of love, personality, and quirks. Though he will be missed, and I know he’ll be on my mind today, it’s the gift of parenthood that helps us to heal by continuing to raise our families in the love we were blessed to have.