Bad Things Happen, And You Can Still Live

We saw the movie Super 8 tonight, and it was an appropriate movie to see on Father’s Day eve, especially for someone who experienced the loss of a parent during childhood. The lead character, the protagonist, is Joe Lamb, a young boy, about 14 or 15 years old, whose mother has recently died. He carries around a silver locket that belonged to his late mother. Inside the locket is a baby picture of himself with her. And, without giving away too much of the movie, Joe is also is the one who most relates to the “bad guys” because of his experience of losing his mother, something none of his friends has been through. (The “bad guys”, in this case, are of another world, and they are trying to retaliate against humans who have wronged them.)

And it is this mother-less boy Joe who draws on his own experience from his short young life and says to the big bad guy (a large, angry alien who is trying to kill him) at a pivotal part in the movie: “It’s okay, you don’t have to do this. Bad things happen, and you can still live.”  I found it very moving that of all the people in the movie, this is the character who ultimately saves the day by relating to the anger felt by the evil bad guy. Because of the bad things he’d experienced in his life, Joe is able to make a connection with the anger that is motivating the alien to lash out.

Moviemakers love to romanticize the scenario of young people who’ve lost a parent, particularly girls who lose their dads and boys who lose their moms. It makes for a great tragic back-story for characters – the heart-broken girl who must grow up without fatherly love, or the troubled boy who’s heart is hardened by the lack of motherly affection. It adds depth, another dimension and level of sensitivity to the characters.

But this was one of the first movies I remember in which the character’s parent’s death was such a key part of the movie, not just something mentioned in the backstory. The movie did a good job of illustrating the often rocky relationship between the surviving parent and the child or children left behind when a parent dies. Ideally you’d think that the experience of losing a parent (and spouse) would bring the surviving parent and children closer together. But often the surviving parent is so wrapped up in his or her own grief, the child is often left to process grief on their own as well. I really liked how one of the main components of the plot involved the relationship between the boy and his dad, how they grieved separately at first, and initially grew apart from each other. Then by the end of the movie, they came together and finally realized how they needed to lean on one another, support each other, and more openly express their love and affection for each other.

While it made for a great story, it doesn’t usually happen that way in real life, unfortunately. At least, I know it didn’t happen that way for me personally. Then again, we don’t go to movies like Super 8 for reality, we see these types of movies to escape reality. Speaking of reality, the movie also captured life in the 1970s spot on (the movie is set in 1979). It reminded me of a time when I could still be a kid. My dad was alive in 1979, and life was still carefree in my very small world. So, for me, the movie was also a really fun trip back to a happy childhood, before I knew what it was like when your dad dies.

How did your relationship with your surviving parent evolve over time after the death of your parent? Did the event ultimately bring you closer together, or drive you further apart?



Surviving Grief: an Anti-depressant?

Please bear with me – the title of this post is not to say that I’m some sort of death-obsessed “emo” or “goth” person who takes pleasure in all things morbid and morose. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. And I think I am largely that way because of the experiences I’ve had, including the deaths of my parents.

Depression runs in my family. After my dad died, my mom became severely depressed, or at least I think her condition would have qualified as severe, but I don’t know for certain. We think that my grandmother (mom’s mom) also suffered from depression, and some other people in our family as well. I’m sure I was (and maybe still am) prone to depression. By the time I was ten years old I’d already experienced the death of my only two remaining grandparents (when I was 5 and 7), and then my dad, at ten. All those funerals made me pretty paranoid that lots of bad things were going to keep on happening.

My motto in life from age ten on was to “expect the worst”. It probably didn’t help that I was the one who had found my dad on the floor, in the middle of the massive heart attack that took his life within minutes. It was a tough thing to see as a little girl. So, I became the kid who, when we learned about fire safety at school, for example, would come home convinced our house was going to burn to the ground that night. I definitely felt like there was a dark cloud overhead, following me around, which is not a good way to feel as a young person. I can remember being at school and overhearing kids making plans for sleepovers and parties. Meanwhile, I was wondering and worrying about which of my loved ones might die next. Surprisingly, my frame of mind did not make me the popular kid at school. Sleepover anyone? 

Dealing with mom’s depression and my dad’s death eventually led to my own depression which pretty much lasted from middle school age until I don’t know when, but it lasted for years. I lost motivation, my grades started to drop, I hated school, I had trouble sleeping due to nightmares and “anxiety dreams”, and just wanted to be someone else, or at least somewhere else. Depression was a vicious cycle. It caused me to develop cystic acne which consisted of large, painful, deep purple cysts on my face that made me look as if I had literally been punched in the face. It was so bad at times, if I didn’t have make-up on to cover it up, that strangers would stop me on the street and ask me about it, and even tell me to get help if someone was beating me up, or just ask if I was ok. Walking around with that loveliness all over my face, at a time in life (junior high) when appearance means everything, caused me to feel even worse, and added to the depression. In tenth grade, I really thought I couldn’t stand myself or my life as it was, any more.

I had lost my dad, and now essentially lost my mom too, to depression. In addition to trying to run a business, Mom was also consumed with some major issues, including guilt over my dad’s death, and I think she was realizing she wasn’t happy with her second husband, a former neighbor from Indiana, who’d reconnected with her after his wife died and my dad died. Mom’s second husband was quite a bit older and was developing dementia – his short term memory was failing fast. Plus, he had brought two of his “kids” (who were basically young adults) to live with us and it was a stressful situation all around. There was just a lot of sadness, anger, depression, manipulation, guilt, and blame being passed all around the house, among everyone, all of the time. One depressed widow + one widower with early stage dementia + three young people who’ve all recently lost a parent = HOT MESS, just so you know, in case you’re thinking of trying this for fun. (It’s not!)

However, after some counseling and major changes in my life, like switching to a new high school, my state of mind started to improve. However, I think I still battled varying degrees of depression off and on into my 30s.

After my mom died, a lot of unresolved, stressful, and painful situations went away with her, including my step-family. (More on that at a later date.) Once I emerged out of my grief over her death, it was as if I’d been given a clean slate. I felt like my life was starting over – it really was like the first day of the rest of my life – my life without parents, established 2004. After grieving the loss of my mom, I finally decided that, as long as no one is dying around me, I think I can be happy. And I want to be. So I choose to be, and so far, it’s working for me.

That’s how, at least in my weird and backwards world, dealing with the death of my parents served as an excellent (but very slow-acting) anti-depressant. It took many many years, but dealing with their deaths really put everything else into perspective. As long as no one close to me is dying, I am copacetic. Of course, it’s not that simple, and staying 100% positive isn’t always possible. So whenever I start to feel myself get down in the dumps, or start feeling sorry for myself for any reason, I just remember my mom, as she lay there dying, and it makes me want to race to live as much as I can – and quick…before anyone else dies!

Like the scars on my face, the scars on my soul have faded with time, but they’re definitely still there. When I look in the mirror and see those pitted scars, especially the quarter-sized one in my cheek, I have very mixed emotions. Part of me aches for my lost parents, and for the lost years of carefree childhood, but another part of me is proud that I survived it all, and pulled out of it (relatively) unscathed.

*This post is dedicated to my sister Cathy. Without her, I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t have survived.

What unexpected changes did you experience after your parent(s) died? Was there a change in your outlook or some other life change that resulted from your parents’ deaths?


How Far is Heaven?

“Cause I know there’s a better place
Than this place I’m livin’, how far is heaven
So I just got to show some faith
And just keep on giving, how far is heaven”

What is it that “gets you every time”? This song, “Heaven” brings me right back to summer of 2004, which is when mom died. Every time I’d hear it that summer leading up to her death, I’d imagine her saying the words, because she was so ill in those last few weeks and was in so much pain, she just had to be wondering “how far….”.

Even years after parents are gone (my mom and dad have been gone 7 years and 29 years respectively) there are certain things that, no matter what, will bring you right back to a moment in time with your parents. Your emotional trigger may be a song, a memento, a food, a sound, or a scent. But whatever it is, it can transport you instantly back in time. Some memories may be good, others not so much. Even the best memories are bittersweet, because they’re only memories, and every day they get a bit further away from reality.

My emotional “triggers” have seriously decreased over time. It takes a lot to make me cry about my mom or dad these days. I used to cry at the drop of a hat. But now, honestly, it sometimes seems like that little girl who had a dad was not me, it was someone else. Not because I don’t still love him, but thirty years is a long time not to see someone. Plus, at ten years old, I didn’t have as many years of memories with him. Little kid memories are often fuzzy at best, at least in my brain.

One thing that always triggers memories of my dad is vintage cartoons, like Warner Brothers’ Looney Toons. That probably sounds weird, but at the age I was when my father died, that’s what we did every Saturday morning, was watch those cartoons together. He loved them; my mom hated them! He would get up early every Saturday morning and go to the German bakery around the corner and buy a box of glazed donuts, then he and I would share a couple in front of the TV. Keep in mind, this is before the days of cable TV – so watching Saturday morning cartoons was a special event!

He also used to watch the Muppets with me, so I also have a soft spot for all things Muppets. Anything related to Charlie Brown reminds me of dad too, because the summer my dad died, he starred in the church theatre’s version of “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown” and he played the lead role of Charlie Brown himself. That was only a few weeks before he passed. 

My dad was Hungarian, and his parents (who passed before I was born) were immigrants who spoke no English. So any time I see any reference to Hungarian food or culture, or language (which isn’t very often, as you can imagine!), I think of him too. He loved cigars and beer, so ditto for them.

Years ago there was a commercial on TV, I think it was for Hallmark or something like that, of a little girl dancing on her dad’s toes and then they flash foward in time to her wedding day and they’re dancing the father-daughter dance. That used to get me teary every time, without fail, but I don’t think it would have that same effect today. However, I can still have a good cry in certain movies – pretty much any scenes in movies where little kids’ parents die, make me weepy.

Regarding memories of my mom, those are different, because I had so many more years of memories with her. Also, losing a parent as a child is so much different than losing one as an adult. Any time I hear “How Great Thou Art” I get a lump in my throat because that’s what played as we processed into the church with her casket for her funeral mass. My mom loved music so there are a lot of musical things that make me think of her. She was a piano teacher, so if I hear solo piano music, I think of her. (I wish I had stuck with those lessons in 4th grade!) There are lots of other songs that remind me of her too. Norah Jones’ “I don’t know why”, because I played it in the car once when I was driving Mom somewhere, and she actually said she really liked the song. That may not seem like a big deal, but Mom hardly ever said she liked a song that wasn’t from the 1940s or 1950s. Well except anything by MCHammer – she loved his songs!  Random, but true. That’s what was so fun about Mom – she was so predictable and set in her ways most of the time, but then she’d surprise everyone with something totally contradictory and unexpected, such as her affinity for Furbies, Silly Putty, MCHammer, or singing hamsters.

Those are just a few of the many things I see and hear that to this day are powerful reminders of my parents.

What are some of the things that bring back vivid memories of your parents?



When You Miss Them the Most… and the Least

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the most surprising aspects about life without parents is that there may actually be times when you feel that not having parents can admittedly be a bit of a relief in some ways. For example, whenever my friends complain to me about the fights, tension, and disagreements they have with their spouses over various issues with their parents and inlaws, it makes me a little glad I don’t have to worry about that with my parents. Then I feel guilty for feeling that way. Then I feel glad and relieved again.

However, more often are those times when you just wish you had a parent to call. Parents make great advice-givers because often they’re the only ones on the whole planet who unconditionally have your best interests at heart. Therefore you know you can get great input on where to buy a house, should you take the job…. should you start your own business?  Whenever I’m trying to make a big decision, I find myself wishing I had a parent I could run it by, which is odd, because when mom was alive I rarely liked or heeded what she had to say. But maybe that’s because on some level I knew she usually had a point in there somewhere.

The other times I really wish I had parents are during life’s extremes – whenever something really good happens, or really bad. Events like getting that new job or promotion, getting married, buying a new home, or any major milestones in life always seem more exciting when shared with parents. My sister is planning her oldest daughter’s wedding right now, and said that she really wishes our Mom were here to help guide her through the overwhelming process, especially since our mom worked in the wedding business… but I know Mom’s probably guiding some of the wedding planning and decisions from ‘up there’ somewhere! 

When are the times you miss your parent(s) the most in life? When, if ever, do you feel a bit relieved that they’re no longer around?

From Phobias to Freedom

The oddest thing happened to me on the way home from mom’s funeral. It hit me: it’s just me now. No parents. I’m in my early thirties, and the two people who brought me into this world are both gone. How strange. None of my other friends are in this situation. Many have never experienced the loss of one parent, much less both of them. No one could possibly understand this bizarre state of existence I’ve found myself in. Your parents are the ones who provide unconditional love, or so it goes. And both of mine were gone. Forever.

“What’s next?” I wondered. “What now?”  Well, I’m going to die, of course. It’s as simple as that. Once your parents go, you’re next – the next generation is up on deck… right?

Waking up in the middle of the night, unable to breathe, with an elephant standing on my chest, all I could see was my dad gasping for air after his massive heart attack. And my mom gurgling her last labored breaths the night before her death…. and I felt like it was happening to me. Night after night. Not every night, but many those first few months after mom died.

Fortunately, the panic attacks subsided. I’m free and clear of those. But some phobias still remain, the most inconvenient of which is my fear of flying. I don’t know why, but my fear of death manifested itself in a fear of flying, even though I know that the odds of dying in a car crash are much worse than the odds of dying in a plane crash… 

I’m learning to live with it though, and when I’m ready, I’ll try some sort of therapy for it. I’m fortunate to have friends, family-members, and an employer who are understanding of my anti-flight plight.

But something kind of amazing happened after my mom died: there was a sense of relief, believe it or not. It was very unexpected, and sometimes I’d feel horribly guilty for feeling the sense of relief, but then I’d remember the other pain I’d endured, and then I wouldn’t feel so badly anymore.

The feeling of relief started as a tiny twinge that I would repress every time it tried to appear. But finally I let the feeling in, and it has grown with time. The feeling evolved from slight relief to full-fledged freedom. Freedom to be who I want to be, without my mother’s controlling opinions and jaded critiques. Even though I was married, and owned a home, and had a career, when she was alive, mom had viewed me as someone who had fallen very short in life, and needed lots of improvement as I would never live up to my full potential, whatever that was. But, now that she’s gone, I could do whatever I wanted, without answering to her, for the first time in my thirty-plus year life!

It took me a while to understand that this feeling of freedom was not at all the same as being glad that my mother is gone. But once I was able to understand that, I was finally able to live my life to its fullest, in some ways even more so than when my parents were alive.

What were your most surprising emotions after the death of your parent?





No easier the second time around.

I always thought that losing my second parent (my mom) would be so much easier than losing my dad had been. Looking back on it now, I realize what an odd sentiment it was. But there were several reasons behind the thought process. For one thing, I had been through the death of a parent before – I had practice. I knew what to expect (or did I?).  What I didn’t realize was that, when my dad died, I had been spared some of the gory details. I got a free pass, because I was only ten years old.

Plus, as a ten year old girl, I idolized my dad. He was like a superhero to me at that time. I hadn’t reached my rebellious teenage years yet. I always wanted to be around my dad. He was the funny one, the encourager, the parent who recognized and praised my talents as opposed to looking for things to criticize or improve. My mother on the other hand, was not the easiest person to have as a mom. She was super critical. She was clinically depressed. She was an expert at guilt trips, manipulation, and control. I had to fight to get out from under her thumb. I had to fight for a lot of things with her – things my friends took for granted, like simply being able to make decisions for myself after graduating from college: where to live, who to date, what to wear, where to work. Since we’re not that “close” (in the South especially, every girl’s mom is her “best friend” – a very foreign concept to me), saying good bye to her would be somewhat less traumatic, so I thought.

But already, I was starting to realize that losing her was not going to be that easy. As my mom lay in the hospice bed, unable to speak or eat, her extremities turning a deep purple hue, I already missed her. She was, for all intents and purposes, already gone. My sisters and I had spent the past Sunday afternoon trying to talk to her about all the frivoulous things she used to love to discuss – the latest awards show, celebrity scandal, or neighborhood gossip, but mom’s silence was heartbreaking. We knew the end was near. And now as her death was imminent, staring me in the face, I was just now realizing how difficult this would be, even though we had been dealing with her illness for almost a year.

As we walked out of the hospice to our cars, my sisters and I asked each other how much longer we thought it would be, until, you know. How could she possibly live much longer in that condition? As we talked, an odd sound echoed into the night from the front door behind us. Standing beside our cars, we turned to see what it was. It was a man dressed head to toe in white – white pants and shirt, with a black bow tie. He was pushing a gurney with a body on it, also covered head to toe in white – a sheet. The contrast of his white uniform and the white sheet pierced the darkness as he rolled the creaky gurney past us.

I couldn’t help wondering why there wasn’t some other exit the coroner could use to remove the dead? Was it really necessary to parade the body out the front door, into the main parking lot with another family facing the near death of a loved one? It seemed very insensitive for a hospice, a place that supposedly specializes in providing “death with dignity”. But that was just one of many anomalies we experienced with the hospice.

Our conversation abruptly cut short, we got in our cars and drove home. Unbeknownst to us at the time, that was our mom’s last night alive. And as I now realized, it was going to be much more difficult to process than I had always thought it would be.

One very important difference between the loss of the first parent and the second parent: when the first parent dies, you have the other parent to lean on and help you get through it, help process it. You still have a parent.

When the second parent dies, you are parent-less. There are no more parents to turn to. It’s just you now, and your siblings if you have any. It’s a very strange feeling, and takes some time to get used to.

Did you think it would be less traumatic the second time around? How did the loss of your first parent compare to the loss of a second parent?