What Happens When You Lose a Parent in Your 20s
I have learned many incredibly painful lessons from losing my dad at the age of 22. His death was sudden and unexpected- I will never forget the phone call that would forever change my life. Before losing my father, I was fortunate enough to have not experienced many losses that were close to me or significantly impacted my life. To say this was a shock would be putting it lightly. Here are just a few of the things I have learned as a young adult processing the death of a parent.
Grief is complicated.
I had no idea how the grieving process would go. In the first week, I stayed pretty rational and level-headed as I was next of kin and had to handle his arrangements. Aside from the random breakdowns, I kept up a good front, so much so that I had almost tricked even myself into believing that everything was fine. My father being gone still doesn’t feel real at times and I fully believe going through the stages of grief is an incredibly fluid process. I find myself going from anger, to denial, to complete isolation, to a deep depression, and back to anger. And that is normal. I’m learning to accept feeling irrational and/or out of control with my emotions.
Grieving can become even more complicated. My dad and I had a very strange relationship — he was in and out of my life when I was younger. He had many demons of his own that he tried to battle throughout my whole life. I am so angry with him for some of the decisions he made, and yet I am so angry at the universe because now he’s no longer with me. I’m learning that I’m allowed to hold both of these incredibly opposing emotions. It’s okay to be mad about some of his choices, and it’s okay to be completely heartbroken that he is no longer here. My dad was one of a kind, and an incredible human being at heart, and I’m learning that more and more as people he interacted with share their stories of him with me.
It’s okay to not be okay.
This has probably been the biggest, and hardest, lesson I have learned up to this point. Up until now, I have lived my life feeling the need to portray that I am always okay, even through many of life’s obstacles. However, that just isn’t real or honest and I could no longer keep up the front. Concealing my emotions has only led me to feeling completely alone. There is a suffocating heaviness in my chest that comes out of nowhere. I took about two weeks off work to grieve and to travel to where he was living to handle his arrangements, but even two weeks didn’t feel long enough. I remember constantly thinking I wanted to get back to my “normal” life — back to a life where I didn’t feel so much pain all. the. time. I felt as though there was a gaping hole in my heart and in my life. Yet as I got back into my life, I realized just how prevalent this gaping hole would be. I think week three was the hardest. I couldn’t just pick up where things left off right before I found out he had died, no matter how hard I tried to.
Everybody else’s life goes on.
Sometimes people completely forget that you are still grieving and going through a very challenging process. Humans are flawed, and yet when you are hurting so much, those flaws hit you a lot harder, and sting a bit more. Everybody is most supportive in the first handful of days, and yet that wasn’t when I needed it. I was in shock then; I needed it most when the dust started to settle, and I had to figure out how to build a new normal. More days than not, I have wanted to just stay in bed ignore the world and my responsibilities. I have had so many days of randomly bursting into tears at work and wanting to just go hide under my covers because everything reminds me of him. And yet, the world keeps going on, bills rack up, and my apartment is not getting any cleaner. As I sit exactly 4 weeks out from his death, I ache so deeply for just one more of everything: one more conversation with him, one more sushi date, one more round of Yahtzee, one more history lesson, one more night of carnival rides, one more night hearing him telling stories like the events had happened just yesterday.
You learn who your tribe consists of.
And you learn to hold them tight and not let them go. Some people might surprise you. I have been very surprised by some of the people that have shown up for me in this, and equally as surprised by some of the people who have not shown up for me through this. I had friends drive over 7 hours to go to his memorial service. I have a friend who basically hasn’t left my side for weeks. For those that do show up, you develop a fierce love and appreciation for them. I have realized just how lucky I am with a couple of my people. They allow me to be wherever I’m at and remind me of the reasons I must keep going. They give me the biggest reason to keep living, even when it all feels like too much. I am forever grateful for this cleansing of my friend groups, even though it’s incredibly painful. I have decided that if people can’t show up for me during one of the hardest times in my life, then I don’t want them there for the good times, either. You deserve to have the kind of people that will be with you, rubbing your back and holding your hand when you are uncontrollably sobbing in the middle of the night. You deserve for people to show up every day. Unfortunately, I had a lot of people that were unable to show up for me and be there for me, through this.
“I’d rather have four quarters than one hundred pennies.” -Al Capone
There is no right or wrong thing to say.
To those who are afraid of saying the wrong thing: you can’t. Unless you are just being completely arrogant and dismissive… you can’t say the wrong thing. Whenever I had friends lose people in their lives, I never quite knew what to say. I didn’t know if I should ask them about it or pretend things are okay, or if I should just hold them and let them cry. I will be the first one to admit that now that I am on the opposite side of things, there is not a “right” thing to say. For the first few days after my dad died, I kept waiting for somebody to say something that made it feel better, or less painful. That “thing” never came. No matter how many people texted, called, commented on my Facebook, sent me messages.. none of it changed the excruciatingly painful fact that my father was dead. I found myself getting frustrated and angry at people’s lack of response and lack of support when I sought it out, but then I realized a lot of them just had no idea what to say. People in their 20s typically haven’t experienced the death of someone close, especially a parent. Sometimes they need to be told specifically how best to support you. It’s okay to tell them that and to seek out support. And as a support person, please don’t do nothing just because you don’t know what to do. Ask how you can best love them.
I’m learning to move forward rather than move on.
We live in a society where intense emotions are rarely acceptable. A lot of people have the mindset of just hunkering down and handling whatever is going on and then moving past it. I’ll be the first to admit that I am one of those people. I am learning through this process that it is okay to not be okay. Moving on often means shoving things under the rug. Moving forward means finding my new normal. My life will never be the same, and now I just have to figure out how I go on with a big hole in my life and in my heart. I am coming to accept that I’m going to have more bad days then good for a while. And my acceptance; may just look like moments where the pain doesn’t feel as crippling.
I find myself thinking of something new every day: whether it be a story about him, or mourning what I won’t be able to experience with him. I think about how he won’t be able to walk me down the aisle on my wedding day, and that he won’t be able to get down on the floor and play with his grandchildren, or that he won’t be able to give them history lessons about everything under the sun. I’m sure people are right when they say things will get easier with time. But I know I will also have days where the pain of losing him knocks the wind out of me just as it did when I first received that phone call.
And that is okay.