Losing a Parent in Your Twenties

If you can do this, you can do anything.

Maddie Rose
The Startup
11 min readJun 6, 2019


Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Four years ago, my father (in his early 50s, fit and healthy) was diagnosed with brain cancer. Two years later, after fighting with all his might, he passed away. It has been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, and due to my age, it was often something I felt like I was doing alone.

I was 23 when he was diagnosed, and 25 when he lost his battle. Although I have a beautiful partner, family and wonderful friends, I was the first of my close circle to experience the loss of a parent. Despite everyone’s best intentions, the pain of losing a parent is not something one can properly grasp until they experience it themselves.

Two years on, my heart still aches and I know it always will. But during those years, and still to this day, I’ve found solace in an abundance of articles, novels and movies pertaining to grief.

If my thoughts can appease just one person’s pain, even slightly, writing about it is worth it. Below are some things I’ve learnt from my own experience, as well as all I’ve read.

  1. You learn who your true friends are.

I’m not sure if it was because of my age, or because I was the first of my close friends to experience the loss of a parent, but I experienced a mass exodus of friendships during this period.

It began from the day I found out about my dad’s diagnosis. People who I’d seen almost every day, who I’d confided in for years during high school and prior, those who I’d share hundreds of wonderful memories with, just up and vanished.

They stopped texting, stopped calling.

It was instantaneous.

It was as if they felt my situation was contagious. As soon as I’d said ‘here’s my situation…’ I never heard or saw from them again. My personality hadn’t changed, I was just going through what everyone has nightmares about from the day they’re born. Perhaps my presence was a flashing beacon, reminding everyone their loved ones’ mortalities.

I’ve always believed in quality over quantity when it comes to friendships, and that truly loyal and wonderful friends reveal themselves in times of need. Losing a parent at 25 just meant that this process happened a lot quicker for me.

Friends who I thought would be in my life forever are no longer in my life, and that’s sad. But on the other hand, some of my other friends became even more special to me.

Some colleagues of mine who were no more than acquaintances before this experience are now some of my most incredible friends. Those who saw me struggling almost every day of the week became the best support system I could have asked for, and will always be some of the most special people to me. I’ll always be there for them, and will forever be grateful to them for unburdening some of the sadness.

It sucks to lose your friends, but if they leave you in the lurch during your saddest times, good riddance. It makes room for those who actually deserve to be there — hold onto those ones.

Photo by taylor hernandez on Unsplash

2. People will say the wrong thing.

There’s an abundance of phrases that we are taught to say to people who are grieving. “They’re in a better place”, “Everything happens for a reason” and “At least they’re no longer suffering”. Most of these are frustrating to hear, but I just kept reminding myself that they meant well. It’s much worse when someone says nothing at all.

I also don’t want to hear about the death of your cat and how you understand how I’m feeling (this was said to me more than once). And this one is a bit controversial, but unless your grandparents raised you, I also don’t want to hear that “you know how I feel” because losing a parent, someone who has been with you day in and day out since your birth, is on a whole different level.

Keep reminding yourself that these people mean no harm. I often imagined being in their position — what would I say to me? And still to this day, I struggle with the answer. You know why? Because there’s nothing you can say. All people can do is let you know that they’re there for you, check in on you and understand that your distance isn’t personal.

3. People will turn to you in their times of need.

You’ll find that people will turn to you in their darkest times, because they’ve seen you go through it and come out the other end. I’ve had several messages from people I haven’t spoken to for months (or even years) asking for advice, asking if it gets better, asking how they can heal.

Being able to provide some guidance, or simply comfort to someone who understands that you have ‘been there’ is a really lovely thing to be able to do.

4. It could be worse.

This point could get incredibly deep and philosophical, but I’ll try to keep it concise. My point is, he could have died suddenly, and I might not have been given a chance to say goodbye.

We might not have seized the day and gone on a beautiful family trip to Hawaii. Some would argue this is an easier option; not having to watch a loved one struggle with the horrific beast that is cancer, and each to their own.

He could have been taken from us earlier, I could have been younger (my youngest brother was 11 at the time, and he would have experienced a huge range of emotions and experiences that I will never be privy to).

Even though my time with him was cut short, I am grateful for the time we did have. I know I was lucky enough to have a father who I loved and will always love.

5. But you’ll still be angry.

I’ll say it once, I’ll say it ten times. Losing a parent fucking sucks. Losing a parent before they’ve had a chance to walk you down the aisle, meet your children, witness your brothers’ graduations… sucks. Knowing they’ll miss out on so many Christmases, birthdays and other life events, big and small, really, really sucks.

And you’ll feel anger. You’ll feel damn right furious.

Furious at the world, furious at people who don’t understand.

You’ll feel ripped-off, completely deprived of experiences others take for granted.

You’ll get angry when a friend ignores a call from their dad or complains about their nagging mum.

You’ll be angry come Father’s Day, when you are bombarded with emails and gift lists.

Take that anger, and run, swim, box, write, sing, paint, yell, whatever it takes. Losing a parent sucks, and you have every right to feel mad.

6. It’s okay for people to know you’re in pain.

I am, and always will be, a big advocate for letting the people around you know how much you’re hurting. This especially goes for your boss and colleagues if you happen to work in an office surrounded by people 40 hours + a week.

I’ve been fortunate with my managers and team members, who have all been incredibly supportive. During my dad’s battle with cancer, which was two years of sporadic bursts of heartbreak and pain, I was unable to hide the bags under my eyes from sleepless nights and unable to hold back tears at my desk. But I never felt as though I needed to, because everyone knew what I was going through.

Tell everyone what you’re dealing with. You don’t have to go into detail if that’s not in your nature — top line is enough. Unless they’re an absolute ass, they will understand. People will treat you just a bit more gently. There’s no shame in your grief, and people will actually find comfort and inspiration watching someone go through it unscathed.

7. Treat everyone with kindness.

I was always raised to treat everyone with respect and kindness. No one can go through life escaping hardships, and you will never know when someone is going through one of their hardest times.

I remember when I was feeling at my lowest, I would look around the full, peak-hour train carriage and think ‘none of you know that I could just collapse and cry right now’. To them, I looked like a normal girl going about her day.

Small acts of kindness, like a man holding the door for me or a woman moving their bag so I could sit next to them, were amplified, and I was beyond grateful.

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash

A few days after I’d returned to work from my bereavement leave, I received an urgent, stressful brief from our client. Where I could usually take it in my stride, I felt as though I was at my limit emotionally. I will never forget the two creatives (who knew what I was going through) dropping everything and bumping my work up the list to ensure it was done immediately, no stress for me. I’ll always remember the kindness I received when I needed it the most.

Regardless of whether someone appears okay (but especially if they don’t), never be the person that adds pain or stress to their already burdened shoulders. Take the love you had for your lost loved one, and spread it around. Be the person who helps, calms, warms and brings joy.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle
- Plato

8. You’ll never be the same.

And that’s okay.

I once read an article that described the “golden era” in someone’s life. The era was described as the period of time when everything is ‘fine’ and everything is plodding along as it ‘should be’’. The era ends when something traumatic or completely life altering happens, like the death of a parent, a sibling, a child — whatever happens first. Maybe it’s the divorce of your parents (I experienced that too) — but it personally depends on what shakes your world. Some people are fortunate enough to have their golden era last right through their 30s, 40s. And some people have their world turned upside down when they’re a toddler.

These experiences make us stronger. They can make us kinder, more gentle, more appreciative of life. You’ll be amazed at your strength. You’ve been incredibly hurt and managed to keep going, and that’s something to be amazingly proud of.

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

9. It will take time. A lot of time.

There will always be things you can do, places you can go and people you can talk to to help appease the pain, but nothing will help you adjust to this level of pain quite like time can. The frustrating thing is that we do not have the ability to control time, but we do have the ability to fill it with as much joy, kindness and peacefulness as we can.

The fresh, raw grief that happens in the first day, weeks, months of a diagnosis or a death is an all-consuming pain. But the longer time goes on, the more we learn how to cope. We learn how to live with that pain. The sadness slowly dulls, and our happiness comes back. We slowly begin to feel okay. We begin to smile more, to laugh more, to enjoy life the way our loved one would have wanted us to. With each day, that happiness and that laughter feel more and more genuine.

I don’t think we can ever be cured of our grief — that pain will be part of you forever. And sometimes it will hurt more than usual, and some days it will feel like Day One all over again. With time, though, we learn how to cope. We learn of our strength to continue on. We continue to fill our lives with happy memories, even if no longer with a particular person.

10. You might not get closure.

TV shows and movies provide us with a lot of high and unattainable expectations. When someone in a fictional world has the ability to say good-bye to their loved ones, they appear to always come to terms with their mortality and lay their love and feelings on the line in a meaningful and articulate speech. In reality, not everyone comes to terms with their mortality. Some people stay in denial. They may not be ready to say good-bye, they may not want to. A troubled relationship might not be healed, and we may never get closure. Life is messy, and lots of things will never be wrapped into a neat, tidy bow. Try and let this go, it can’t be changed.

11. Looking after yourself isn’t selfish, it’s a necessity.

Whether you’re struggling with anticipatory grief, or outright grief, it’s sometimes hard to concentrate on yourself and your needs. You may have other loved ones who are struggling just as hard, if not harder, than you, and it’s easy to drop everything for them. But you need to help yourself be as strong and healthy as you can, not just for yourself but your loved ones as well.

Take some time to be alone, or go out with friends, your partner, have baths, binge your favourite TV shows, go to your favourite restaurant. On a larger scale, book that holiday, escape for a bit. Do what is good for you, your soul and your path to healing. You’re going through something horrible, and you deserve to feel a little less shitty, whatever the cost.

Photo by Tim Goedhart on Unsplash

12. You become more aware of special moments, big and small.

When we are reminded that life is fleeting, we learn to appreciate every moment with more poignancy. We are grateful for every moment, we remain present and savour each minute. Every family dinner, every movie night with my mum, every winters night on the couch with my boyfriend watching the football — each warms my heart and fills me with gratitude.

I recently travelled around Tasmania, Australia with my boyfriend in a camper-van for 10 days. We saw the most beautiful things and went on amazing hikes. In between, we listened to music, chatted and simply enjoyed the journey. We fell asleep to the sound of the waves after parking alongside the beach. I can remember nearly every moment. I hardly touched my phone, I constantly took mental pictures and focused on the present moment. I wasn’t thinking anxious thoughts about the future or regretting moments from the past. Both are a waste of time and energy. Learn to live the one life you’ve got.

Photo by Tyler Domingue on Unsplash

13. You’ve got this.

Grieving is a horrible, arduous process. And I’m so sorry if you’re going through it. I’m sorry if you’ve been through it. But it does get easier, despite it not feeling like that at first. You may not see a light at the end of the tunnel but there is one. You’ll always have a hole in your heart, but you have to take comfort in the fact that you had someone that great to love. Grieving like this is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. You will come out the other end of it.

If you can do this, you can do anything.

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Maddie Rose
The Startup

Leaving parties early since 1991. Advertising suit by day.