When A Parent Dies

1961 - Jim, Lena, Jerry, Margie, Gertie, Steve, February
My parents on their wedding day.  My dad was 20 years old and my mom was 16.

When A Parent Dies

Sometimes we avoid things we don’t want to accept or acknowledge as true, a futile attempt to hold onto the bliss of unknowing.  Days after my mom passed away last year, I sat down and wrote about what I was feeling.  Previously the content of that article was only available to friends and family.  I have decided to share it publicly and had to edit it to change the tense from present to past, but it remains as equally powerful and heart wrenching.  Additionally, I have included a reflection on what the year and a half since her passing has been like for me.

My decision to release to the public this glimpse into the very personal pain I experienced in losing my mom was based on the number of people I’ve noticed who have lost a parent this year.  Experiencing the holidays for the first time after losing a parent is especially difficult.  I just want people to know that what they are feeling is not selfish or inappropriate, but rather a part of the long road of coming to terms with loss.

A couple times when people asked me how I was doing immediately following the death of my mom, I told them that it was surreal, that it just didn’t feel real.  It was a whirlwind, so much planning to do with family, decisions to be made.  In that rush it was hard to collect my thoughts, but the moments when things slowed down I could, and they filled me with grief and pain.

Many of my close friends and coworkers had known that my mom was sick for a long time.  But for those who did not know, she had faced many health problems for at least the last eight years before her death.

From common problems including blood pressure issues, low iron, to more serious things such as blood clots in her heart, lungs and leg, and the inevitable stent surgeries that are required to hold the vessels open.  She also had a heart attack, had a lung disease that caused a hardening of her lungs, another disease called pulmonary hypertension that affected both her heart and lungs, she had fluid retention, and finally kidney disease of which she reached stage four at the time of her passing.

My mom had been in and out of hospitals frequently over that span of eight years.  Much of what she had been through was due to smoking cigarettes from the time she was 15 years old up until she was about 64.  She also grew up with a very southern diet that included generous amounts of salt, trans fats, and saturated fats.

If you smoke, please stop, if not for your sake, for the sake of the ones you love.  When I was a kid I begged my mom to stop many times, but she kept saying that she needed them.  Nicotine addiction is real, and so are the consequences to your health.  She did finally realize what the cigarettes were doing to her and she quit with the help of medication, but by that time the damage was already done.

I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about her medical history, but back in January 2016 she was told that she had a few months to live.  She was in pretty bad shape and was in a hospital in St. Louis at the time.  I was not surprised by the news, but it was still hard to hear.  She took it hard crying that she was not ready to die yet, and none of us were ready for her to go either.

Eventually she was released from the hospital and came back home, by late February and early March she was feeling better, even able to walk around the house with a walker, crochet, color and even cook some.  By the end of March things began taking a turn for the worst.  Towards the end, she spent most of her time sleeping in bed, dealing with fatigue and the pain from her health conditions.  She was just so tired.

I’ve never known anyone personally who has fought so hard for so long against such painful and devastating health problems.  I never knew my mom was so strong and brave, until she was forced to fight.  And she did fight, so astoundingly, until it just became too much.  I think her love for family is what carried her for so long, it inspired her to keep going against the odds.

In April of 2016, I lost my friend Colin Madsen.  His passing forced me to think about the terminal illness my mom was facing and even though I had no idea a month later my mom would pass as well, I still found myself breaking down and crying about her health.

I had been trying to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for the future day of her passing since we first learned of her prognosis, but after Colin passed, death was all too real.

On May 20, 2016, when mom passed in the hospital, it didn’t feel real.  Even though I saw her lifeless body afterwards, it still didn’t feel real.  I mean I knew it was, but my subconscious mind did not want to accept it.

When I was finally alone on that Friday night, it really hit me and I collapsed on my dining room floor and just broke down and cried.  Later I broke down again in the shower and again when I got in bed.

I’m not the type of person who likes to show emotion in front of other people, I try to be strong.  I hold it in until I’m alone and then I let it out.  So again when alone the next night following her death, my composure broke and I cried even more for even longer, until I fell asleep.  I’ve not accepted the belief in souls and consciousness after death for several years now, but one night shortly after her death, I begged my mom to let me know she was still around, I hung my hand out of my bed and begged her to touch it.  I pleaded with her to come back to us.

Some of the things that really triggered me emotionally after her death were objects that reminded me of her.  Personal things that she gave me or made for me.  So when I saw things in my apartment that reminded me of her I cried because they had such a profound new meaning.  When I moved two years ago, she crocheted some pot holders for me.  The night after she passed, I took one to bed with me, just to feel close to her.  I never thought a pot holder could ever hold such meaning.

The weekend following her passing, I was at my parents’ house again and went into her bedroom a few times, just to smell her perfume bottle, because it made me feel close to her again.  May sound silly to some, but when you lose someone you were close to, you want nothing more than to feel close to them again, to feel their presence.

Another thing that was an emotional trigger for me was thinking about baking.  Mom taught me everything I know about it, it’s something she and I would do together up until I moved out, especially when I was a kid because I was interested in it.  It’s one activity I have always directly associated with her.  The thought that I’d never again be able to call her and ask for help with a cake was gut wrenching.

She was the first person I went to when I had a problem that didn’t involve my car or plumbing.  Especially sewing up my clothes.  Knowing that when I called home she would never again answer the phone, that I would never again hear her voice was beyond words to describe.  That I wouldn’t walk into their house and see her sitting at the table ever again was bizarre, unacceptable and crushing.

I wanted so badly to look into her eyes again, hear her voice again.  I could not begin to explain how that new reality truly felt.  If you have lost your mom then you know, but if you haven’t I wish on all the stars in the sky that you never do.  I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.  When I wrote the first version of this article immediately following her death more than a year ago, I had cried six times before finishing it.

Going to my parents’ house and seeing her belongings was so difficult, it still is difficult.  Sometimes I had to walk outside because it was just too much those first few weeks.  Sometimes being outside was just as bad as it was summer time and she loved hummingbirds and flowers and they were all around the house and reminded me of her too.

I subconsciously kept thinking she was just still in the hospital and that she was going to get released and come back and I’d see her alive again.  But she was not and I would not see her ever again.  In the past when our family would have get-togethers at the home of my parents, I would often be somewhere in the house next to mom.  Even though I take after my dad a lot, I was very much a momma’s boy and always will be.

Selfishly I wanted her back, needed her back.  But she suffered so much for so long, I could have never asked her to stay nor blame her for letting go.  She was the first person to ever love me, before I even came into this world.  I will miss her immensely and my life will never be the same with her absence.

A year and a half after her death, the raw pain and grief that I felt back then has subsided to some degree.  There is still this subtle nagging of absence, particularly at times when a mother’s presence is either expected or needed.  I suspect that this feeling will never go away.

I would like to give advice on how to deal with the loss of a parent, but I believe that everyone has to find their own way through.  What works for one person may not work for another.  What I will advise is that you don’t try to shut out the grief or their memory in fear of the pain that follows loss.  You really do have to face it head on and work your way through it.

In my article I stated that I don’t believe in souls or an existence after death.  This remains true even after the loss of my mother.  For most people, this is a rather dire belief, as they want to believe that their deceased loved ones are still out there somewhere watching over them through some kind of metaphysical consciousness that retains all the memories, desires, and love the physical personhood once knew.  However dire it sounds, there is simply no evidence to suggest that life after death exists in such a way that the deceased is keeping tabs on our lives, or even that a soul exists.  For all we factually know, the brain within the body is the only piece of us that perceives itself as a person.  Beyond that we are just atoms, energy, and subatomic particles.

While most people think that a scientific view of life and death is depressing, the only thing it is actually lacking is magical thinking and fantasy.  There are many profound things that science can teach us about life and death that are based on the indisputable measurements of mathematics, that can leave you in awe and wonder about how we live and how we die.  Instead of searching for comfort or reassurance in the stories and fables taught in the world’s religions I sought these things from physics and neuroscience after my mom’s death.

The American astronomer Michelle Thaller in remembering a statement she made to her husband when they were dating proclaimed, “When the Universe began I was holding your hand and when the Universe ends I’ll still be holding your hand.”  She was referring to how all points in space and time all exist at once and that everything that happens exists for eternity.

I touched on this topic briefly in my article “The Passenger,” where I challenged the question of what it means to be consciously human, what it means to be a self.  I also challenged our perception of anything being separate from everything else in my article on the “Diamond Sutra.”  Physicist Lawrence Krauss famously stated, “Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded, and the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than the atoms in your right hand.  It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics.”

Understanding that the things we are made of existed long before we ever did and will exist long after we are gone, challenges our perspective of self and of loss.  How can you lose something that came into being before your own life and will exist long after you?  How can you lose something that you are a part of?  How can events that have occurred suddenly no longer exist merely because the body that set them into motion has forever changed?

Too often we think of life and death as two opposing events separate from one another.  That we are somehow either alive or dead.  We should instead see life and death as the same thing, both part of the same process.  Time and space are fundamental properties of the Universe, like mass and electric charge.  When you travel through space you also travel through time.  To travel one hundred light years in space away from the Earth, is to travel one hundred years back in time at the speed of light.  In my article “The Macrocosm Perspective” I wrote, “To see into the Universe is to look into space and time, to travel through the Universe is to travel through space and time.”

It is fundamentally correct to state that what once occurred or existed is still occurring or existing, just elsewhere in space and time.  If I could travel at the speed of light away from the Earth to a distance of two light-years, that would be about 11.8 trillion miles from Earth, and I could look back at Earth with a powerful enough telescope that I could see inside my childhood home, I would not see things as they are now.  Instead, I would see things as they were two years ago.

The distance of space is so vast that when we look through it, we are looking through time.  The farther something is from you, the further back in time it appears.  Therefore, if I could see into that house from that distance in space and time, my mother would still be alive.  She still is alive and always will be, just from somewhere else in space and time.

When we look at things on a micro scale, all the way down to subatomic particles and quarks, there is no such thing as death, only change.  Changes of matter and energy, things becoming yet other things.  The tiny particles that we are made of were here before we came into being as humans and will be here long after we are no longer walking around as humans.  No matter how we break down, whether that be by natural decomposition, cremation by fire, or alkaline hydrolysis, the tiny particles that collectively make us what we are will change, but not cease.

I don’t need to believe in souls or stories of heaven and hell.  I get the spirituality I need from from what can be discerned from mathematics, the true language of the Universe.  This is enough to comfort me in the loss of the people I love, perhaps too it is enough for you to find comfort in.

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