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The Loss of Parents

Lessons learned after becoming an adult orphan

/Thomas Hegewald

My parents passed away in the early days of this year - my mom from cancer and six weeks later, my dad from a (broken) heart condition. They had just celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary days before my mom’s death, living for the majority of their married life in the house that they built and in which they raised my sisters and me.

The last time I visited with my parents, the three of us in the same room, was Christmas Day (2020). We talked, opened presents and ate some fresh-baked, homemade cookies.  My mom was declining rapidly from the cancer though - she had been physically sick before our time together and had to excuse herself early to go back to bed.  She became bed-ridden a few days later.

In the wake of my parents’ passing there has been much grief to process and the realization that the grief will always be there, even as I move through it and create a new life for myself.  That latter concept is only part of what I have learned since saying good-bye to them.

Take Pictures. I have a lot of pictures of the three of us - no surprise as I am a photographer by trade. My parents would come to the opening of regional art shows when I’d have a piece featured and I would often ask someone nearby to take a picture of the three of us. So, not only do I have many pictures with them, but there is also the memory of their supportive presence in my various accomplishments and undertakings. The last photo I took with my parents was last Thanksgiving - which also features the last meal we had together, including a couple of my mom’s homemade pies. I can’t recommend strongly enough to find or make opportunities to take photos of yourself with your parents - on holidays, birthdays, special occasions, and visits. It will be a visual record to help you keep the memories alive.

Visit often. When my mom fell shortly before Thanksgiving in 2016 and fractured her pelvic bone, she said it was a wake-up call. I saw it as the beginning of the end. My sisters and I each took a day or two of the week to help out around the house and to visit with our parents. My day and time was Sunday afternoons - only illness, bad weather or travel plans kept me away. It was a time commitment that I knew I would never regret.  In fact, it was a blessing to sit with my parents for 2-3 hours a week sharing stories of the previous week’s activities. Sharing a laugh with them over one of my misadventures makes me smile even now. Quite often, the visits would start with a list of tasks for me to do - simple for me to handle, but beyond their physical capacity in their slowly declining health. How I enjoyed helping them. It gave me a sense of purpose - anything to help the two that had given me life. Take the time to visit with your parents and make memories with them in each stage of life.

No regrets. Even before my mom’s terminal cancer was diagnosed, I had been advised to tell my parents whatever I needed to tell them. While visiting with my dad, the day of my mom’s death, one of my sisters and I were talking to him about leaving Germany in the years following the end of WWII and moving here to the U.S. Although dementia was robbing my dad of his short-term memories, he could still recount with clarity some memories of Germany that took place 75+ years ago. I told him then how much courage I felt he had in starting completely over like that. It was something I had long admired about him, but never expressed before. Our parents have gained much wisdom over the years, having gone through many more years of the “school” of life than we, their children. If needed and possible, make peace with your parents however you can, so there are no regrets when they are gone. But especially, express the love you have for them, tell them what you’ve learned from them, admire about them and what memories will stay with you.

Cherish memories. There were things - furniture, knick-knacks, books, dishes, etc - that my sisters and I specifically wanted, because of the memories associated with that object. Whether the item was large or small, old or new - when we saw it, touched it, used it, wore it, it reminded us of our parents, our childhood, our grandparents - our heritage.  The day our father died we became adult orphans and like it or not, we also became the oldest generation for our family grouping. Our history feels obliterated without our parents around as guides to our childhood. For some years now, we had been having those “conversations” with our parents about some of the objects in their house - asking to inherit a cherished piece, having sibling meetings to discuss as well - not out of greed, but to prepare ourselves for when the time came and hard choices had to be made. By bringing the objects to our own home, we brought the memories with them, becoming caretakers of the memory-ladened object and infusing them now with new memories for the next generation. Ask about items that your parents cherish - where and why they got something - they may be delighted to tell you. Ask if you can inherit an item of your parents that you cherish, because it is part of the tapestry of collected memories from your childhood.

Plan ahead. My parents had planned and paid for their funeral expenses decades ago, so there was very little to finalize when the time came. What an unexpected gift to us, their children, that we didn’t have that added burden of deciding on a funeral home, casket, burial plot etc. when in the midst of overwhelming grief. Their services were very low key, just like they envisioned them - filled not with accomplishments but with Bible passages that had been quoted often and lived by, and hymns which had been their favorites. Most of the funeral arrangements my dad had organized in a 3-ring binder which he informed us of a number of times over the years. Life is short - we aren’t promised tomorrow. Make your plans now so it’s one less (major) thing for your loved ones to think about, especially when they’re dealing with debilitating grief.

New identity. It’s inevitable that grief changes us. As painful as it sounds, you have to make a new life for yourself without that loved one in it. I’ve taken classes, volunteered and done some traveling throughout this past year. You can do a number of things to honor your loved one - volunteer, plant a tree or make a memory quilt. Also “honor” the courage that it takes to continue on without them in creating a new life for yourself. Try new hobbies, attend concerts, go on trips, or take classes on topics that interest you to find and develop that new life. It will increase your capacity to handle the grief and move through it.

Christmas is going to look and feel very different this year - as did all the other holidays, birthdays, and special occasions throughout the course of this year. I’ve had grief counseling, participated in classes about grief, watched videos and read a number of books on the subject. I still have to live through it and all the other days of my life without my parents. They’ll be alive in my memories and family videos but never here again physically with me. When I do something that takes courage - I’ll think of my dad, when I make specific desserts - I’ll think of my mom. And when I have a comedic misadventure I’ll smile, thinking of my parents and how they would have loved to have heard about it - my mom often responding with, “I can’t wait to hear how it all turns out.” 

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