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Thoughts on deaths of parents

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Although this entry was partly sparked by the recent deaths of several friends' parents, it's going to be focused specifically on me and my reactions. If that's going to be distressing for you, best to skip this one. (To be clear: I mean that in a friendly and sympathetic tone; I'm trying to avoid the thing where someone who's grieving is bombarded by other people talking about their own feelings.)

Another spark for this entry is that the tenth anniversary of my father's death is going to be this coming Saturday, March 7, and I'm not coping very well.


As I noted in my previous entry, quite a few of my friends' parents have died recently.

I feel weird even putting it in those terms. Aggregating those losses together makes them sound like some kind of a trend, rather than individual loss. Each of those deaths is a hole in someone's heart; each is a cause of grief.

And in some sense my referring to those deaths together is a false pattern. If you look at all humans, I doubt that there've been more deaths of parents in the past month or two than at any other time. Seeing this as a pattern is inherently imposing my own lens on things; the only thing some of the people who've lost parents have in common is that they're Facebook friends of mine.

But although I acknowledge the inherent selection bias of looking only at my own friends, I think that the appearance of patterns or waves can nonetheless have a strong effect, and life events do sometimes appear to come in waves. For example, there was one year a while back when, iIrc, I was invited to weddings on five consecutive weekends. And various of my friends' kids were born within a few months of each other.

Of course, a lot of what's going on in all of these apparent patterns is age. A lot of my friends are within a few years of my age, in either direction; it's thus not surprising that a lot of them would go through similar life stages at roughly the same time.

And it's also the passage of time. If you look at any given group of people over time, the number of them who are alive will inevitably go down.

So, sure, it's not surprising that there would come a time in someone's life when their friends' parents die more often than was once true. As I get older, chances are pretty good that more and more of my friends' parents will die. But even though I don't actually know most of my friends' parents, it still hurts to see my friends hurt.

It feels weird to talk about all this as something that's had an effect on me, because it was my friends who were experiencing the hurt; nothing actually bad has been happening to me. It could be argued, in fact, that my life is objectively ridiculously good in most ways.

But I'm hoping that I can do both: that I can acknowledge that my vicarious sadness is nothing compared to my friends' grief and loss and pain, while also acknowledging that my friends' losses have made me sad.


When my mother died of leukemia, when I was twelve, I don't think I knew any other kids who'd lost a parent. (Aside from my brother, of course.) I've always tended a bit toward the melodramatic in my emotional reactions, and I felt that my mother's death put me in a special category. I was a member of a very exclusive club, and not one that I would've wanted to see anyone else join. When I made new friends, there was eventually always a tricky moment, when they would ask about my parents and I would have to tell them about my mother. And although I mostly didn't want them to make a big fuss about it (saying my mother had died was so unusual that it kinda made it hard to continue whatever conversation we'd been having), part of me also felt that it did merit a big fuss, that this was something terrible and unusual and extraordinarily bad. “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.” It was a huge and awful thing to me, and I wanted some acknowledgment of that, while at the same time not wanting people to go on and on about it or to put me too much in the spotlight.

Over the years after that, I met other people who'd lost parents when they were kids, and other friends of mine lost parents as or after they grew up. The wider my circles grew, of course, the more people I knew whose parents had died.

And by the time I was in my thirties, it was no longer a conversation stopper. Still unusual, but the fact that I was talking about something that happened twenty years earlier took the immediacy off it. I would still get sympathy for it, people acknowledging that it's hard for a kid to lose a parent, but it was harder to convey the hugeness and awfulness of it without kicking up a big fuss. And, too, it had become somewhat less huge and awful for me. Still a tremendous loss, but not overwhelming. Time doesn't heal all wounds, but it does often lessen pain. And sometimes someone's reaction wasn't just “Oh, how awful,” but “Oh, yeah, that's rough, mine died when I was a kid too,” which sometimes was hugely comforting—to know that I was not alone in this experience—but sometimes threw me a little off-stride, because I was expecting that the next part of the conversation would be focused on me and my pain, and suddenly I had to adapt to also expressing sympathy toward someone else. But, but, hey, what about me and my tragedy?! a small pouty part of me would sometimes say, in my head. There is a great tragedy in my life! We should be focusing on that! We have no room to focus on some other person's sadness! But the kinder and less selfish parts of me would overrule that, and sometimes I would get to hear other people's stories, and they would listen to mine, and we would be sympathetic to each other.

And then, in 2005, my father was murdered. And I once again felt myself to have become a member of some special category. Friends of mine had lost parents, yes, but very few had lost parents to violence. This was a ridiculous reaction for me to have; almost all deaths are hard for the dead person's loved ones to take, and almost all deaths of close family members are especially hard on people. Intellectually, I understand that it's silly for me to try to compare the pain of one kind of death to the pain of another kind; pain doesn't work that way. Every death is different, and every death is important. But my gut emotional reaction was nonetheless that this was a particularly awful way to die. Even though he probably died very fast.

And in some ways, my reaction to my father's death was the opposite of my reaction to my mother's. When someone in her thirties dies of leukemia after a long period of illness, leaving behind two young children and a husband, that's pretty widely recognized as tragic, and pretty easy to get unadulterated sympathy for. But when someone in his sixties is murdered by his sort-of wife, who tried to set fire to the house afterward in order to commit suicide, because of depression partly related to financial concerns over a child-support lawsuit and fears of losing their house—that just sounds sordid. It sounds like tabloid news, like the kind of thing where people read the news story and then congratulate themselves for not having lives that messed-up. And so instead of being able to say Woe is me, look at how tragic my life is, and how nobly I have borne this tragedy!, I felt a little ashamed of the manner of my father's death, as well as heartbroken at the fact of it.

...To be clear: please don't tell me whether you did or didn't have that “how sordid!” reaction; I assume most of my friends didn't, but that doesn't matter, because the point isn't about how people actually reacted, it's about my gut reaction regarding how I expected people to react. Partly because I've had that kind of reaction myself when reading news stories about people I don't know. I suspect there's a certain amount of classism built into that reaction—“that isn't one of the socially acceptable ways for our kind of people to die,” an ugly little voice in my head was muttering—but I'm not really up for going into that right now either. Really this whole sordidness issue is a side note, not part of the main thrust of what I want to talk about here.

One other difference between my mother's death and my father's: in 2005, when my father died, I was active in what passed for social media, which for me at the time meant my blog and Livejournal. And so I could post a note about what happened, and could immediately get sympathetic responses from friends far and wide. Telling people in person about important or difficult stuff has always been hard for me (I feel the same way about coming out as bi or poly to someone in person); partly because it means I have to deal with their own emotional responses as well as my own, partly because it's exhausting to tell the same story over and over, partly for other reasons that are less easy to tease apart so I'm not going to bother right now. So being able to tell people en masse, and being able later to tell people by just sending them a link, made things a lot easier. (Although it also meant that there were people who I assumed would know but who for various reasons missed the posts about it.) And it meant that when I wanted to read sympathetic responses, I could, and when I couldn't cope with them, I could just not read them. There was still the danger of people reacting inappropriately, but that's a lot easier to step away from online than in person.


I think that my point in all this, if I have one, may be that each death is different, and each person's reaction to each death is different, and our reactions are embedded in a social matrix—a combination of the actual reactions that others have, the things that others tell us, and the reactions that we imagine others might have. Approval or disapproval, sympathy or silence, remembering or forgetting. Death is hard to deal with; sometimes telling other people about it can be an additional burden; sometimes shared pain is lessened (as Spider Robinson puts it); sometimes the social interactions around death and pain are more complicated and nuanced than that.

And sometimes it can all be too much. Words always seem inadequate to me in a time of loss and grief; all the more so when I find myself writing the same inadequate attempts at sympathy and comfort over and over, when what appears to be a wave of deaths hits and it feels overwhelming, when it feels like nothing you say can do any good. But sometimes it's all we have. Words and hugs and other expressions of sympathy; they're not much, but sometimes it helps, even if only a little; a gathering of little human lives around the campfire, holding off the vast darkness of the night.

2 Comments

Those expressions of sympathy don't have to be clever or original to mean a lot.

*hugs you*


I still remember exactly what I thought when I heard about your dad's murder. I remember thinking how I wished I knew you better so I could know what would be helpful, and also that I was worried for you because it sounded like such a hard road ahead. I really appreciate your posts about your journey through grief, like this one, that help me to better understand you. Big hugs. It was an awful thing and I am proud of you for finding your way through that grief in your own way, with grace.


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