top of page

Things You Only Know When You Lose a Parent

by Kellie Whitehead

My Mother would have been 60 this week. She wasn’t here for her 50th either, she died 6 months before. My husband's parents are healthy but in their mid ‘80’s. Discussing my Mum’s upcoming anniversary, we went on to the subject of his family and a discussion about losing loved ones. I’ve had my share over the past decade, but he has not, and I do wonder how he will react in the face of the death of one of them when the time comes. Without prompt, he mentioned that at their age, he was obviously resigned to the inevitable, but when it does happen, he would not see it as a tragedy. Easy to say of course, because if there is one thing my unfortunate book of life experiences has taught me, is that we never know how we will react to a situation until it happens. I was always regarded as emotional, the kind of person who would lose themselves in dramatic, uncontrollable grief, or be helpless in a crisis situation. I learned the hard way that in fact, the total opposite was true.

Stoic, rational, collected – relatively emotion– less - on the outside at least. And I’ve had a lot of practice. I can also tell you that in fact, it does not get any easier the more funerals you attend or bad news you have to bear. A bit like childbirth to be honest. Yes, you at least know what to expect which could be a blessing, but no, it does not get any easier, in fact – it's worse, exactly *because* you know what to expect.

We all have parents, or those who play a parental role in our lives, and like sunrise and sunset, there will come a day when we have to say goodbye – if we are lucky enough to.

If I can pass on any of my experience to you upon the loss of a parent as an adult, then this would be it.

I’m not sure it ever sinks in

The loss of someone you do not live with or see daily even is very strange. It’s because of these circumstances that the reality of their passing doesn’t seem to quite feel real. It hits, of course at those times and situations you would speak to them, or see them. If this isn’t super constantly, then it never quite seems to feel real. You’ll probably go to their house, may even be responsible for the removal of their belongings, you might even, to be frank, be there at the very moment they take their last breath, or see them afterwards, before a funeral ceremony. And no. Still you cannot quite believe it. That body is not them, that house is no longer their home. Some people do this deliberately, they do not want to accept the loss and will try anything to mask the reality. In my case, there is just something ethereally unreal about the whole thing, if even after a decade, she was to call or walk through the door, I’m not sure I’d blink.

You will feel guilty

Even with absolutely nothing to feel it for, you will find it in some shape or form. Should you have been there? Could you have done more? Why did you throw that party when you were 15 or not ask them for dinner that Christmas because you were spending it with the in-laws. You will find it and you will feel it. Know that it’s pointless, and unless you directly contributed to their death, you have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. You are not a time traveler or a mind reader. Channel memories of less than great times and situations into reminiscing of the good. And that will be easy because...

They become saints, and that’s no bad thing

I fully understand that people are not perfect and many, many of us have less than desirable relationships with our parents, but when they pass? It’s like a switch. Unless in extreme circumstances, a wave of positive sentimentality will wash over you. You will really only remember the good times. My mother was far from perfect, but as with most things in our family, we deal in humour, and as she was such a character, it is rare a day goes by without her being mentioned.

You do not need to ‘visit’ to remember them

My mum always wanted to be buried, so that she is. Actually, against the practical observations of my Brother and I, but it was her wishes. This means she is in a graveyard that I cannot visit as often as I should – and again, the guilt. I knew this would happen, and I made peace with it. I genuinely think about her multiple times a day, she is referenced in the house constantly by her grandchildren and she is ‘always with us’ - that for me is enough, and far more authentic than standing in a cemetery. Ironically, a close family friend died a few months before her. Her daughters have created a shrine and post on social media about their visits, weekly, which doesn’t help me on the guilt front, even after a decade, but they do always place flowers on my mum's grave, so that’s nice.

Do make sure they are covered...

One of the biggest stressors on an already grieving family is finances. I’ve seen it every which way, but I implore you – please make sure your parents have plans in place for their funeral. My mum always made a song and dance about it, to the point where when we shared the terrible news to close relatives, one of the first things they said was ‘ You’ll be burying her then?’ as she’d tell anyone who’d listen that she did not want to be cremated. It wasn’t practical, and it sure was expensive, but it’s what she wanted, and luckily the expense was covered. By contradiction, when my Aunt died, just a few weeks before mum coincidentally, and also suddenly, there were no funds for a funeral, and her children did not have either. My Grandad had to foot the bill from his meagre savings and pension.

Nobody will care as much as you

Now, if you have siblings, of course their feelings are as valid as yours, but everyone has different ways of dealing with things. Our household will talk about her all day long, good and bad and it does not upset us. My Brother is the total opposite. I am neither maudlin nor morbid, but I can’t get on with the fact that she should never be mentioned. For us, she was divorced from my Father, so whilst he was shocked and devastated also, he didn’t need our support, we had each other and our respective families.

The milestones will hit you – and how.

There will be that first holiday, that first birthday, that first Christmas, and inevitably the once-a-year anniversaries. You will find your own way to mark them, and anyway is a valid as the next persons. I have seen elderly people well up at the thought of their own parents, half a century after they have passed – and why not, they were here, and they were loved. Our lives go on, as they should, but their legacies live on, through you and your family. The memories do not fade, but the pain does, I promise, and you find yourself almost celebrating them at these milestones. You can raise a toast at the weddings they miss or the births, they are still part of the family and always will be.

You will be unexpectedly reminded – and that’s okay.

In the spirit of our unique family – just last month a Sunday afternoon film came on – Beaches with Bette Midler. I sobbed like a baby, possibly more than I did when my mum died a decade ago. It was her favourite film, we played ‘Wind beneath my Wings’ at her funeral. And then I laughed, because we remembered what an awful singer she was and her talent for mangling lyrics, and her serenade of ‘ Wings beneath my sails’ was enough to stop anyone in their sadness. To be honest we could have sold tickets and put her on the student circuit. Then I got a text from my Brother - ‘ you watching Beaches?’ it said. And it was enough.


bottom of page