What happens when your parent dies early

Guest post by Sami
What happens when your parent dies early
Photo by Robyn Icks Photography

A few months ago, my dad died. Nothing particularly unusual in that. It’s something most of us will go through. I was among the youngest of my friends to lose a parent — I’m in my early 30s, and he was 66 — but by no means the youngest.

Dad had long-term health issues, so a lot of people reacted with a sad smile and a nod of the head. He hadn’t been well, after all. But though we knew he was unwell and his, say, five-year survival chances were poor, we had no idea he was ready to go just yet. The doctors didn’t even think so. So we were broken, shocked, and in pieces without the much-loved heart of our family.

Understandably, in the weeks following his death, I turned to the internet for ideas and help to process what I was going through, and, to be honest, I drew a bit of a blank.

Many of the sites assumed the grieving person was paralyzed and hysterical with their loss; I wasn’t. Dying a little inside, yeah, but still able to wash my hair, ring lawyers and banks, and make sure my mum and I ate — I didn’t need frozen meals put in my freezer or my trash taken out for me. Nor, as an agnostic, did I require the services of a minister of any sort or suggestions for meditations upon God’s love for both him and me.

Some guides were strictly practical, but my husband and I work in the medical world and had helped organise the estates of our grandparents, so I didn’t really need a step by step guide to the processes of coroners either.

Some seemed to assume I had unlimited resources and no day job, suggesting pilgrimages to his favourite locations and great charity works in his name. None of which were particularly practical with my regulation five-days bereavement leave from work.

A lot of resources spoke vaguely about inheritance and investments. I’m from a hardworking but proudly working class background, and with lifelong poor health, Dad hardly had access to top tier life insurance. His death left us with more bills to pay than it did cheques to cash.

So, these are a few thoughts on my experience, in the hope that someone else going through a similar slightly “early” loss finds them useful…

When planning the funeral, do what’s best for the immediate family

Aunty Emily doesn’t like cremations? Hard luck. Uncle Luke wants to know why it’s happening in the town you live in, not Dad’s hometown? Not your problem. Aunty Sarah and Aunty Jane haven’t spoken for ten years and neither will come if the other is invited? Tough, invite them both (or neither!) and tell them you expect them to sort it out among themselves.

Funerals, like every other big milestone, seem to bring out the crazy in extended family and friends. Ignore them. The important thing is that the service is true to the deceased and what the immediate family feels comfortable with. Don’t let yourself be bullied by the wider world or, for that matter, funeral directors and ministers.

Photos help

I’d always been mystified why old people’s houses are full of photos of dead family and friends, but I think I understand now. Sometime I just really need, at a core, dumb, under-evolved-monkey level, to see his face. It’ll never even come close to having him here, but sometimes just to see his stupid grin and how much he loved being around us really helps. There’s a sense of relief to look at him at a level I can’t easily explain, and it really helps take the edge off when the panic and uncertainty set in.

Seeing the body was weird, but I’m glad I did it

Definitely a matter for personal preference here. I wasn’t there when he died (about 20 minutes away), but the hospital was very accommodating, and I was able to see him within minutes of arriving. He was still warm, and for all the world looked like he was just asleep and pain free for the first time in years. Even just five minutes to hold his hand and kiss him goodbye really meant a great deal to me, in a way I struggle to articulate. That said, it wasn’t what my brother wanted to do, and I know he’s happy in his decision too.

Go with your gut feeling, but if you even think you might like to, I would counsel to do it. It’s not something you can change your mind on later.

It’s fine not to be fine

When you’ve had your allowed bereavement leave from work, and the special treats and extra cuddles from friends have dried up, it’s okay to still not feel okay. Recovering from grief isn’t a straight line, and good days and bad days (or good weeks and bad weeks) will happen.

I also realised there are very few people in the world (particularly older people) that haven’t lost someone. So just saying, “I’m sorry I’m preoccupied/weepy/snappish, I’m just thinking about Dad a lot today, and it’s been a bit hard going,” has generally been received really positively by everyone from my boss to my friends to my partner. People aren’t psychic, and sometimes they needed reminding I was suffering, but they nearly universally reacted really well when told.

Sometimes it’s odd stuff that gets you

I’d known my dad wasn’t well and unlikely to make old bones, but some things that I had imagined would be massively upsetting to experience after losing him (a new book by our favourite author, the first time my car broke and he wasn’t there to ask for help) were actually okay-ish. But some things I never even thought would be a problem had me reaching for the Kleenex. A shop whose name he’d always made a terrible pun about closed down. I ate something I’d not had before and wanted to tell him about it. I saw his favourite gin on offer and contemplated getting it now to hold on to for a Christmas gift. It’s strange what reminds you.

Even those who lost an elderly parent felt the same

When my grandmothers died — both in their 90s — I knew my mum and dad were upset, but I assumed that what they were feeling was similar to what I felt at the time: sorry to lose them but aware they’d had good lives and it was time for them to let go. But when Dad died, older friends, relatives, colleagues, mentors, and acquaintances opened up to me about losing their parents later in life, and their experiences were still very similar to mine.

If someone’s lost their mum or dad, even if that parent was 70 or 80 or 90 and their child was 40 or 50 or 60, that sense of powerlessness, of abandonment, of losing a really key and defining relationship from your emotional landscape, seems to be very similar.

They really put in to words what I felt and helped normalise my experience, at a moment when few of my close friends had gone through the same thing. I was very grateful for that. If you’re struggling to find someone that understands, look for someone older and don’t assume that they won’t understand how you feel because the loss of their parent was more “timely.”

Comments on What happens when your parent dies early

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m at a similar age, but my dad is nearly 90, so I’ve been feeling the need to Be Prepared for the loss of him, in practical and emotional terms, as much as possible (maybe not much in the grand scheme of things.) Anyway, thanks for your wise words; I wish you easing in your grief.

    • My mother was four months short of her 90th birthday when she died. She had been living with me for five years. I knew she would die in a short time. I don’t think you can ever really be prepared for your parent’s death (I was 57 when she died). When it did happen I had so much to do and so many people to deal with that I felt very little. It took a year for me to begin to grieve. But here’s the thing: grief is a little bit different for every person and a little bit different for every person you grieve. Your relationships are unique and so is your grief.

      I’d also like to add a few words about young children (I worked with grieving children age 3-18 for five years). They do grieve. Even infants grieve. It just doesn’t present itself in the same way as adult grief. And when they have a significant loss before they are 11-12, they simply to do not have all the tools to deal with it yet. Each time they reach a new stage in development, they usually will process that death (and grieve) again.

  2. I also lost my dad young. I was 20 and he was 57. He had also been unwell (he was diagnosed with lung cancer after decades of smoking) but when he broke his hip (degraded from the chemo) he took a sudden turn for the worse. He died four months after we received the initial diagnosis.
    I completely agree with your list but I would add one more: sometimes people need to do normal things in order to feel normal.
    My sisters and I are avid basketballers. We played basketball the same day that our father passed away. I went back to university two days later. Most of my siblings and our mother went back to work in similar time frames. I not only felt like this is what my dad would have wanted (he loved sport and school too) but it helped me process the loss. The last thing that I wanted to do was to go home and think about how great a loss I had just suffered, something that many people in my life seemed to think I should do whenever they reacted to my presence with “why aren’t you at home?” or “what are you doing here? You didn’t have to come”. I NEEDED to be out and about. I needed to be living my life and learning how to have that life without my dad. Everyone has their way of processing grief. Allow them to do it their way.

  3. This. I lost my mom when she was 62 and I was 33. It was both a long time coming and incredibly quick, all at the same time. Two years later, I’m still sometimes not ‘fine’ with it.

    Grief isn’t a straight line, it’s an endless series of waves. Some days I’m just a better surfer.

    Thank you for sharing.

    • My mom was 64 and i was 32 when she died and it was similar. She’d had two strokes but had recovered well when she got a bleed on her brain coupled with a blood clot and died. When people ask if it was sudden or expected, I never know what to answer. It’ll be a year in December and i still feel some days that the only way I function is by outrunning the sadness. I write about it on a blog sometimes just to get the thoughts out and that can help, especially because very few people know about it. Here’s to staying on your board as much as you can (great metaphor)

  4. Thank you for this. My parents are both still living, but this piece gives me some insight into how to be more sensitive and supportive of my friends and family who have lost their parents. And gives me a reminder to be a little kinder and more present with my parents while we are all still here.

    I am so sorry for your loss.

  5. Thank you for sharing your experience.
    My mom was 59 and I was 24 when she died. It was very hard for my younger friends to know how to react to my loss, since most of them had never lost anybody, not a grandparent, nobody. So I was very grateful that I had older friends that could relate to losing such a huge part of their life.
    It’s been 15 years, and I still find myself feeling that grief with the weirdest little things. So, I can say that it never fully goes away. And that is a good thing.

  6. I lost my mom when I was 16, she was 54. And I lost my dad when I was 36, he was 90. I’m in my 40s now. It’s weird. My husband has lost both parents as well but he was well into his 30s and 40s when they passed. But obviously both of us had parents that were older and waited to have kids. It’s very strange for me to meet people older than me that still have parents and even grandparents. I never knew either of my grandfathers as they both died when I was very young. I knew both of my grandmothers but they both died in my 20s. When my mom died I was still a kid but getting back to normal life and being treated normally was the most important thing then. When I lost my dad a few years back, my husband and I had just bought our first home in a new state far from anyone and anything we knew. We loved it and love it still but at the time I was grieving the loss of my childhood home (we sold it to be able to get our own place). And then to lose my dad as well was a lot. Not many people knew us very well so we didn’t have any support system close by. But I took it so much harder a couple years later when my husband lost his mom. She was our last living parent and a super great lady. It seemed so strange for neither of us to have any parental connection anymore. We still catch ourselves thinking about something we want to tell his mom or see a cool thing we’d like to buy her. I think most importantly there is no normal. And each time is different.

  7. this was lovely. And I am sorry for your loss. I have been thinking about grief a bit lately, and how people get so uncomfortable watching someone else grieve. I like your method of explaining why you are out of sorts in such a straightforward manner.

  8. So much all of this.
    I too lost my Dad this year. He was in his mid-sixties and I am in my early forties and it’s hard to decide if I lost him early or not, I’m not a child anymore but I wasn’t ready. My dad also had long term health issues and had had a year of not very good health but nothing that suggested imminent death. It was in fact these issues that masked the cancer that killed him less than two months after he was diagnosed.
    But we did at least get some warning and had a few weeks to spend some time with him and tell him what we each needed to. Strange to say but I also got to spend some really lovely time with my brothers and sisters, I live far away from them and I have seen them more this year than the last few combined and that has been great. But I really really really wasn’t ready to lose him. I thought he’d have longer, that he’d see me finish this study he was so proud of me for doing and see his grandchildren grow up a bit more.
    I agree on so many points, photos help but I still havn’t been able to watch my wedding video made last May, I am terrified of seeing the moving images of him. I’ll do it one day but I’m not ready yet.
    Definitely do what’s right for the immediate family with the funeral, we sent my Dad off in a beautiful willow coffin decorated with spring flowers from peoples gardens and it disappeared (he was cremated) to the sound of birdsong, it was lovely and so so him.
    Seeing the body is useful, I got there about 12 hours after he’d died and saw him at home in his bed. He was cold and stiff and something weird happened with his mouth as his skin and tissues hardened but I needed to see him dead. I didn’t stay long and it wasn’t nice, but I needed it. The whole thing makes little enough sense as it is, if I hadn’t seen him I wouldn’t have believed it.
    Unlike so many other issues I’ve faced in my life this is one almost everyone can relate to. Losing a parent is supposed to happen at some point, shocked and unready as I was I felt some comfort that this was a life stage, albeit one that had come a little earlier than anyone had anticipated. I thanked my lucky stars I’d had him as long as I had and that this hadn’t happened when I was a troubled teenager or a child.
    But once he was gone, once the funeral was over and I was back home trying to pick up my life again it has been and still is hard. At one and the same time I am moving forward as I knew he wanted, confident I have everything inside me that I need to get through this but also I am heartbroken, totally heartbroken.
    The thing that helps above all is company, being with people, enjoying connection and reminding myself why we still love even though we risk this pain.
    What I didn’t find helpful are the five stages of grief. To begin with they were coined by someone working with terminally ill patients not people who had experienced a death of a loved one so they don’t fit (Bargaining?? My dead was already dead!!). It’s not that everyone doesn’t go through them all, it’s that it’s pointless trying to make a pattern for this, trust your instincts (and one or two really good friends) and you’ll work out what you need.

  9. Sami,

    Thanks so much for this. I just lost my Dad in February. He was 63.
    He also had an illness that wasn’t something you come back from. But the Dr’s had given us hope in a transplant. He didn’t make it long enough to receive it.

    I too didn’t have a “deep dark” grief moment. It pops up from time to time when I see silly things. Like the cooler with rolly wheels he thought we would make better use of. Or if I think about him missing my sons 5th birthday and every birthday after that.

    I’m a medium. So I have a different view of death……life is eternal…..love is eternal.
    But nothing makes loosing a dad OK.
    Thank you again for writing the words I have been thinking.

  10. This, a million times this. I unexpectedly lost my dad, too, and I never realized how complicated the grieving process can really get. I was in a similar situation in that I didn’t need people to feed me or take care of my pets, etc. Yet I still felt like a complete zombie, going through the motions of every day life, wondering if I was ever going to adjust to this new normal. It was hard to know how to ask for support sometimes. Thank you for sharing your experiences, and I wish much love and light to you and your family.

  11. Thanks for this- it’s a hard enough to deal with losing a parent but when you don’t quite fit the model the process of grieving just gets exacerbated.
    My mom passed away when I was 17 (she was mid-50’s) and my dad a few years later when I was 24 (he was mid 60’s). I didn’t really fit the brochures either time, so I’m glad to see some advice getting out there for other people who will invariably be in a similar situation.

    I can tell you- (12 and 4 years out respectively)- a lot of those feelings don’t quite go away. It certainly doesn’t hurt as bad every day and you might not think about it constantly, but those occasional moments of “Oh Mum would love one of these”, and “I can’t wait to tell Da about this store” don’t stop. I try to look at them positively now and enjoy those things as I get older and miss the connection more.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this I found it really helpful. I lost my mum when I was 7 and my Dad has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I’m 29 and at the moment struggling to see how things will ever be ok after he passes away and what you said helped.

  12. I lost my father last year to suicide, he was 53 and I was 26, We had a complicated relationship which complicated my grief and suicide complicated others reactions to the news. I didn’t tell many people how he died because they then judged his death and my reaction to it through that lens. Its hard when so many are so against suicide and think its the most selfish thing a person could do. I didn’t ask for my dad to commit suicide, he felt like it was the right call for him and his depression, and so to judge my grief over how he died really really sucked.

    • I lost my mom to suicide last year too (a week before my 29th birthday, she was 50). I debated a bit how open to be with people about how she died. I work in the mental health field, primarily interacting with people who are having suicidal thoughts, so it was important to me to tackle the stigma. In my head, I thought that if I didn’t tell people, then “suicide” won, and I didn’t want it to win. For the most part people didn’t make obvious judgements or negative comments, except for one of her coworkers who kept asking me at the memorial service “What happened?! I mean, we, her coworkers, saw her all the time. What could’ve happened?!” It took all my energy not to yell “F— if I know!” I’m so sorry you had to deal with such negative reactions to your grief, that just adds a layer of stuff to deal with.

  13. I really love this article. Thank you for sharing.

    I went through something similar. I lost my father when I was 15 and he was 66 years old. He had a long term illness since a few months after I was born. He used 24/7 oxygen because he had COPD due to his long years in construction, and also because of smoking. I remember being 4 years old and already having expert knowledge on how to change out his oxygen tanks and turn them on and check to see how much oxygen he had left until he’d need a new one. We were so close because since he was disabled and at home all day, he was really the one who raised me. My mom was there, of course, but she was always working because she had to support us, so I don’t want to make it seem like she wasn’t there. I was told that when my dad was diagnosed with COPD that they had only given him a year to live due to the extent of the damage to his lungs, but he ended up making it 15 more years. I remember it was my freshman year of high school, and in August he went to the hospital because of some breathing problems, and was there a couple of days. He came home feeling better. Fast forward to November 8th, my 15th birthday, and my dad is back in the hospital again. It turns out most of his lungs were now filled with fluid due to his disease. They did the best they could to try to extract most of it. They ended up keeping him in the hospital for 2 weeks, and then said they thought he maybe had about another year left in him due to the fluid in his lungs, so they sent him home for Thanksgiving so he could be with us, and to live out his last days at home, comfortably. We brought him home, we enjoyed another 3 weeks with him until he passed away (strangely enough, on his mothers birthday).

    I took it very badly. He was my everything. I went from a straight A student on the path to Valedictorian to getting my first B’s, C’s…D’s…eventually F’s. I stopped caring, I developed Depression and Anxiety. Honestly, from the time he passed in the middle of my freshman year, up until my senior year, all feels like a blur. It was just a crappy few months after because then my great aunt on my dad’s side passed a month later, and another 2 months later, my uncle (dad’s brother), passed as well. Everyone that I had turned to when I wanted to know more of dad’s childhood and what not were now gone. I can’t remember much at all, except that I didn’t care about anyone or anything. Looking back, it makes me feel so awful knowing that my mother was also feeling so horribly and she had to stay strong for me. At the time, I didn’t see it that way, and I was so awful to her and to anyone else who tried helping me. Now that I’m older, I’ve reflected on those years, and I see that she had no choice but to stay strong, and I respect her, and look up to her so much for that. What’s crazy is that, a year after my dad’s passing, my mother had to be placed on 24/7 oxygen due to secondhand smoke from my father’s smoking. Talk about staying strong. She’s the strongest person I know. My senior year was me trying to pull myself out of the wreckage of the last 3 years. It was hard, but I finally accepted help, from my mother, my family, my amazing friends, a counselor here or there, but I finally broke above the water, and managed to become somewhat functional and “okay”. I still have Major Depressive Disorder, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, but I’ve learned to cope. There are days when everything is okay, and I even have great days, and then I suddenly see something, hear something or remember something that reminds me of my father, and I break down. Sometimes there are just things I would love to tell him, and it feels awful that I can’t. It’s a feeling that certainly will never go away, but I can say that it gets easier to cope with as the years go on. It’ll be 10 years this December that he’s been gone, but some days the pain still feels as fresh as when it happened. As I live my life now, I just try to always move forward, and when things come up, or I come to stand stills, I just try to live a life my father would be proud of. He wouldn’t have wanted me to not be here any longer as I used to wish all the time after his death, and he wouldn’t have wanted me to give up. He always knew my potential, and pushed me to be a better version of myself, and I just try to remember that. That’s all I can really do to stay strong and keep moving forward.

  14. A great article! And so very true.

    I lost my dad a little over a year ago, and for some reason a lot of this stuff is hitting me now. I think I was numb to most of it, and dealing with getting everyone else on an ok level before I allowed myself to really let it sink in. And you mentioning that odd things make you cry, I get that! I feel like these are the hardest moments for me.

  15. Thank you for this. My mom is still living, but my grandmother passed away in May rather unexpectedly. She was 82 and in fairly good health, so while it was a surprise in that was sudden, it wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibility, either, you know?

    The part about grief not being a straight line really hit home. She was one of my best friends and I find that the strangest things make me think of her. Glad to know I’m not the only one!

  16. My dad died at age 56 in 2012; I was 24 at the time. For the most part, I’m able to think about him, and just feel a twinge of sadness, but still joy at his memory, too. But, there are times when I find myself breaking down, and I’m okay with that, too.

    It’s usually when I’m driving. I think it’s because I’m isolated enough and alone that I feel like I can cry without being caught at it? Anyways, I don’t think there’s any one right way to grieve, and if you find something that makes you feel better (without harming yourself or others), then you should own it. My brothers and I cracked some pretty terrible jokes at Dad’s expense after he died, and while my aunt looked at us as if we were horrible people, it was extremely cathartic. And dad would have loved it.

  17. I’ve read that in the therapy world, sixth months is considered a normal time frame for grief to really interrupt your life. It’s absolutely expected that you’ll still have moments of overwhelming grief, but it should become fairly rare. If you or someone close to you feels like your grief is interrupting your life, meet with a therapist. While you may not be struggling to get out of bed or even feel like you’re in a deep, dark pit of mourning, you grief may still be preventing you from being you. While six months may not be everyone’s “right” grieving window, it’s a good place to really evaluate your state. And you need to do two things simultaneously: forgive yourself for still grieving, and forgive yourself for wanting to move on.
    And if you can’t afford to see a therapist? Call in your “how can I help” favours. I see nothing wrong at all with setting up a Paypal/other donation account and letting people know–no obligation–that it’s a way they can help you heal.

  18. I was 26 when my mom passed. I’ll be 46 this November so it’s been a while and now – unfortunately – a lot of my friends have lost a parent. But at the time my mom died I may as well have been a space alien. My normally supportive friends just could not relate to my loss at all to the point where I really didn’t have any kind of a support system. I was really lost for a long time. That was actually the one point in my life where I had to go on anti-depressives. When my Dad passed when I was 36 years old I was much better equipped to deal with the losses my friends understood better and were able to be more supportive (although I’m one of the very few who’ve lost both parents now AND one of my brothers passed away in Feb 2014). It’s hard.

    My condolences to you and your family…

  19. It’s taken me a few days to be able to look at all this, as the OP can i just say thanks so much for your kind words for myself and my family, really pleased at the thought it might help some people. Hope everyone going through similar things finds some peace soon.

  20. Thank you for sharing. My dad is currently in hospice. His heart is giving out. I’ve been finding myself doing an absurd amount of research on the dying process.. hoping he wasn’t showing signs of it progressing. He’s showing all of the signs. I feel like I can’t talk to anyone about it. My family is trying to keep me in the dark about how he’s doing. They don’t want to worry me. Which worries me. I’m the baby of the family. I’m 27 and my older brother is 35. I’ve been so upset with my family. They talk about my dad like he’s already dead. My brother just looks sad and doesn’t say much when we go see dad. I try to keep it light when I’m there. I put in our favorite movie when I was growing up (the labyrinth) and my dad and I go and quote the whole movie and joke and laugh about the fart jokes. Everyone else in the room is silent. I guess I am refusing to grieve quite yet. I don’t know. I just want to be there every step of the way for him. Is that crazy? Thanks for reading this too. It’s been weighing heavy on me. This was a very good piece to read. Covered a lot of bases. Thank you.

    • I think you’re doing brilliantly. Grieving the soon-to-be loss of your dad is perfectly natural, but not at the expense of enjoying his last days with you. Every laugh you share is a gift for both of you.

  21. This is my world right now. In January we lost my mother-in-law after a five month battle with cancer. She was 75. This week we lost my dad following complications after a fall at the hospital. He was 70. Truthfully, I don’t even know which day of the week it is. Neither death was completely a surprise, but still has completely rocked my world. I am relying on my faith, but that is what I want. But in the end you can’t sugar coat the loss or losses in my case, because it sucks!

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