Wednesday, June 8, 2016

When a parent dies...

The life cycle of a yellow rose. 
Sometimes, life kicks you in the ass, makes you re-evaluate and re-assess, see things, people and places differently...

My father-in-law, Del, took his last breath just after midnight east coast time. My partner Forrest was there, along with other members of the family. Del was diagnosed with throat and lung cancer earlier this spring, but didn't share that news because he was caring for his long-time partner, Dotty, who had Alzheimer's and preceded him in death by just a few weeks.

Del and Forrest's mom Okay divorced when Forrest was just four-years-old. While he and his siblings spent their summers with their dad in the north Georgia mountains, as an adult, Forrest wasn't close to him, despite a solid resemblance, a shared countenance and caustic wit. Del wasn't much of a 'dad' to his first family, never really taking responsibility. When still married to their mom, they moved a lot, as Del was a prospector looking for gold from the deep southeast to northern Alaska. The family story goes: he finally found it in the tourists who pass through Helen, Georgia, the country's first gold rush town. There he opened Duke's Creek Mines, a gold and precious gem panning business, along with the adjacent Heidi Hotel. I met him on two occasions, one of which was a long weekend visit many years ago with several shared meals and conversations. It was clear he was a man of few words, significant intellect, strong opinions, good humor, and a resilience about him that makes his death at 71 seem implausible.

Death is a funny thing no matter who it is that passes from this mortal coil. Funny in that it's the only real constant other than change (even taxes can be evaded...) but yet, it's something most of us don't plan for, don't really talk about, nor even actually expect, for ourselves or others. The death of a parent is often, but not always, devastating. Yet no matter the circumstances, it's one of the more significant changes each of us will experience in our lives; with it comes a different level of complexity, especially if the relationship was complicated or after a lengthy illness.

I'm not presumptuous enough to think I understand someone else's experience, and I certainly can't know what Del's family will go through. But I do know the death of a parent changes us, even if the relationship is strained. We are different. It has the capacity to bring families closer together or sever ties. It can shift our priorities and show us what's important. Mostly, it tends to bring us up-close and personal with our own mortality, our own shortcomings, our own unmet desires and regrets. It can show us, and those close to us, parts of ourselves and each other that weren't previously visible -- like the tenderness Del showed Dot, and unfamiliar or long-denied or hidden feelings that bubble from below the surface.

When my mom died, time stopped. I felt like I had a tattoo that read "mom died" on my forehead, as if this was a rite of passage that had to be marked. In between waves of grief, there's shock (at least, for a death unexpected), which is a useful thing as there are immediate decisions to be made and a laundry list of things to do. It's after all the 'things that must be done' are behind us that the reality sets in and processing begins.

Unless you're firmly in denial and prone to stuffing feelings, that's where introspection really kicks in. I went through many of the grief stages (although I find the traditional definitions of each stage lacking): anger, denial, remorse, sadness, and finally came to acceptance, despite a lingering void. But what often isn't among those official stages about grieving is relief. With her death, my mom was released from her suffering and sadness.

Grief and the time it takes to move through it -- and we do move through -- is different for all of us, but it's something we'll all experience. And from the other side of loss, I know it's worth the journey. Painful experiences can suck beyond comprehension, and many of us try to avoid them, or at least, the feelings that accompany them.

Dive in...  

Without these challenging times, we'd never experience nor understand the full spectrum of love and joy, gain empathy, nor even enjoy those quiet moments of contentment. And I believe those who left their imprint -- good and bad -- are with us always, whether from a spiritual, soul connection or a practical, in-our-DNA perspective; they help us become our best selves, even if it's "don't do as I did".

Our parents give us life, and while the best of them give us tools for living and help us become healthy, functional adults, some of us get there despite our families. And that's OK. By the time we reach a certain age, no matter our upbringing, we can be grateful, thank them and even acknowledge them for their own shortcomings. We can embrace ourselves and cherish our relationships from a place of compassion, connection and love that we may not have been able to before, even as we pine for what might have been had those relationships been different. And with their transition from this earthly plane, we can take deeper meaning from the lessons they proffered, perhaps unwittingly, and honor them by living our own lives fully, and being present to our daily experience.

Del never knew what great kids he had. Every one of them is a talented, creative, funny and extremely capable adult. I don't know if he had the depth of understanding to feel that loss. That might be the saddest thing of all.