What I’ve Learned from 13 Motherless, Childless Mother’s Days

Mother’s Day Survival Tips for the Motherless and Non-moms, and Those Who Love Them

If Mother’s Day is not a joyful time of celebration for you, you are not alone. The weeks leading up to Mother’s Day entail a seemingly endless, all-consuming barrage of Mother’s Day messages from every angle – “Treat your mom!” … “Spoil your mom!” … “Flowers for your Mom!” “Moms are everything!”

Mother’s Day is an extremely important day, and moms should be honored ideally every day of the year, not just one day. For most people, Mother’s Day is a wonderful day, or at least a benign day, unless you happen to be a motherless, and/or childless person coping with painful reminders of loss or unrealized dreams of motherhood. Society, and the media, can make women feel so much “less than” if we haven’t reproduced, and it’s most pronounced during this time of year. The countless Mother’s Day reminders coming at you for weeks before the big day can make it feel almost as if it’s no longer just a day, it’s an entire season.

After weeks of being flooded with media about moms, surviving Mother’s Day can feel like trying to drag yourself across the finish line of a marathon, while everyone around you celebrates being a mom, or having a mom. Not to mention the ensuing social media explosion of photos of all of all your contacts, with an infinite stream of picture-perfect moms and kids having fun and looking so happy together. In fact, Mother’s Day can even be a tough day for some people who do still have a mom, but who may be estranged or have a strained or difficult relationship.

I’ve spent the past 13 motherless Mother’s Days in 13 different ways. As the 14th approaches, I’m here to say, there is no one perfect way to spend it, nor is there an easy fix for getting through this day. Each year, it depends on where you are with the grieving process, and with life in general.

I’m sharing this not to be a downer about Mother’s Day, but just to try to help others who may be dreading Mother’s Day this year, for any reason, or who feel they don’t have much to celebrate on this day. The past 13 years have taught me about surviving Mother’s Day as a motherless, childless (or child-free) adult. These are suggestions you may want to try in combination, or not at all. They may work for one Mother’s Day, and not for the next – let your own personal mindset, emotions and feelings leading up to Mother’s Day guide you.

1. Take a break from social media. Especially if this is one of your first motherless Mother’s Days, you may want to take a bit of a break on social media before and/or during the holiday. You may not have to cut it out completely, but maybe avoid social media at times when you’re not feeling your best. If you are feeling the slightest bit down or depressed about the loss of your mom, you may want to just avoid social media until you are having a better day. And even then, be sure to brace yourself for the many possible triggers you may encounter online.

2. If you are a mom, focus on YOU, your kids, and the joy of your motherhood, if possible. You are lucky that you still have someone to celebrate (yourself!) on Mother’s Day, so enjoy your day and let your kids spoil you! Perhaps this could include an activity that you enjoyed with your own mom, or something that will help carry on memories of her to your kids. Some moms say they have a hard time enjoying Mother’s Day because they feel such grief about the loss of their own mom, or they feel guilt that their mom is not there. That’s common and okay too. Hopefully you can try to enjoy some time with your kids, if you have it.

3. Celebrate the other women, moms, and motherly figures in your family, if you feel up to it. If not, don’t feel forced or required to do so. Depending on your mood and where you are in your life journey as a motherless or childless adult, celebrating with others may or may not be the best idea. Sometimes it can actually make you feel more alone, ironically. You may feel like you’re a tag along, or like you are on the outside looking in. Only you can decide what you need on this day. If you do feel like being around others and celebrating other moms, this could be grandma, aunts, a sister, step-mom, or a mother-in-law, for example. Spend quality time with them before or on Mother’s Day, if possible. You will brighten their day, and yours too! Also, if you have a dad, don’t forget about him! If you’re mourning the death or loss of your mom, your dad may also be hurting or grieving on Mother’s Day.

4. Honor your mom’s legacy with an activity you enjoyed together. You can do this on your own or with friends or family. If you are a mom, you could share this activity, whatever it may be, with your kids too! Did you love baking with your mom? Going to church? Shopping? Was there a special way you always celebrated Mother’s Day with your mom? You can still enjoy that with your kids or other family members on Mother’s Day. If you are not a mom, you can still honor your mom’s legacy by sharing this activity with friends, other family members, or just on your own!

5. Visit your mom’s grave site. This is not something I am always in the mood for, but some years, over the past 12-13 years, I enjoyed the peaceful solitude and serenity of a quiet visit to the cemetery. Sometimes it’s just reassuring to see the tangible, permanent reminder of her earthly existence. Sometimes it makes me feel close to her by going there and freshening up the flowers and tidying up around her headstone. Other years, this is the last thing I want to do! Some people don’t “do” cemeteries, which is understandable. I enjoy the meditative aspect of it. In fact, meditation and prayer can also be a great way to boost your mental and emotional status, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be at a cemetery. You can reflect, pray, or meditate at church, or at home, if it’s helpful.

6. Volunteer in the community. There are many moms and grandmothers in nursing homes, hospitals, and homeless shelters who have no one to share Mother’s Day with them. Many of these women are or were mothers who outlived their children, or their kids are too far away to visit. I volunteered at a local nursing home on one recent Mother’s Day, and it was a great experience, visiting with the women there and helping give a party for them. It was a fun, rewarding day and this is something I would do again. The sweet ladies were so appreciative and excited to have visitors, it was a very special way to spend Mother’s Day. This is also a great activity to do with your own family, if you’re looking for a way to make an impact in the community on Mother’s Day. It’s very difficult to find volunteers on Mother’s Day, because the majority of people are celebrating with their kids / parents / spouse, and are too busy on this day.

7. Spend time with other motherless and/or childless/child-free women. This is always a great way to have fun on day that can be a tough one for those of us with no kids and no parents. Plan a fun day with friends and celebrate YOU.

8. If you know and love someone who is motherless and/or childless, let them know you are there for them on Mother’s Day, but also give them space to feel how they want to feel, and do what they want to do. Invite them to join your Mother’s Day festivities, if you want to, but don’t feel offended if she declines. Mother’s Day without kids and a mom can make you feel lonely, invisible and isolated. Just knowing someone is thinking of you and cares goes a long way, so even just sending a note saying as much can really help a friend on this day.

The bottom line is, there is no one right or wrong way to spend a motherless, and/or childless Mother’s Day. Only you know what you will feel like doing on that day – you may feel like ignoring the holiday altogether, and treating it as just another day. Then again, it can be difficult to ignore the holiday completely when everyone is celebrating around you, all the mother/child relationships you are missing in your life.

I’ve been there, 13 times, and have felt differently about the holiday each year. As the years go on, emotions ebb and flow and evolve over time. Time has helped ease the grief over losing my own mom, but age has brought a different type of grieving for missed motherhood and the children I now know I’ll never have. Letting go of that “some day” vision of “one day” becoming a mom has been a tough process, but it has also given my heart room to seek some other purpose and driving force in my life, which I’m working on growing and building into reality.

To those of you hurting this Mother’s Day, regardless of the cause of your pain, or which way you choose to spend Mother’s Day this year, I hope it brings you peace, comfort, and some joy, on a difficult day.

Beautiful Bouquet of Flowers


Better Off Dead? Or Better Off Divorced?

In the aftermath of my dad’s untimely sudden death, I know that my mom meant well. She really tried to help me to put this tragedy into some sort of useful perspective. I’m sure she was completely at a loss herself, trying to deal with the loss of her dear husband, and learning how to be a single parent.

I do think she wished there were a few magic words she could say, or something she could do that would make me just get over it, once and for all…. Get over the fact that I watched my dad die. Get over the fact that I’d never see him again. Get over the fact that there was no one else around to balance out her depression and anger. …Get over the fact that my Dad would never see me graduate elementary school, high school, or college, or walk me down the aisle when I get married….

But I couldn’t just get over it. Not yet. Not that simply.

So, Mom persistently suggested new ways for me to think about Dad being gone, because feeling sad or sorry for myself was certainly not an option. After Dad had been gone about a year, when I still hadn’t “bounced back” or “gotten over” my dad dying, Mom tried a new angle. In fact, this was a spin she tried more than once:

“Just think — It could be much worse…” she said. “Look at the bright side.”

“Really?” I asked, intrigued. I wondered how it could be worse, and wondered what the “bright side” of a dead parent looks like.

“Your dad and I could be divorced!” Mom emphatically proclaimed, “Imagine how much worse that would be. That would really be awful!”

[Insert my confused silence here, as I tried to wrap my 11-year-old brain around that concept.]

Was she actually trying to convince me my situation would be worse, and that I would feel more pain, if my dad were still alive, but divorced from her?

“Think of your friend, Laura, dealing with her parents’ divorce…how tough it has been since the split, the fighting, the going back and forth between houses, the dad’s new girlfriend, how sad Laura must be and how hard that must be on her.” Mom explained, as if she were making perfect sense, “Compared to her, you are lucky. At least your parents aren’t divorced, so you don’t have to deal with… all that.”

My thoughts turned to my friend, Laura, the one with the divorced parents. True, she was naturally very distraught when her parents divorced. But, at the very least, my friend gets to HAVE two parents in her life – she has a mom, AND she has a dad. She also has two Christmases, two birthdays, and two people fighting for her love and attention, showering her with gifts and affection, to out-do the other parent…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to minimize the impact of divorce on children in any way whatsoever.  But, to my eleven-year-old self, divorced parents sounded like a pretty sweet deal, like a dreamworld compared to my reality, and the finality of having no dad at all.

If both my parents were alive, and divorced, at least I could see my dad. I could hear his voice, his laugh. I could even hug him. He could still read me stories and take me to the movies, play games and watch cartoons with me and do all the other kid things mom didn’t like to do. He could do still do all the Dad things he used to do, at least whenever I was with him.

The more I thought about it, no matter how I imagined it, I could not, for the life of me, see it any other way. To me it seemed perfectly clear that it’s far easier to have quality time with your dad when he is divorced, living, and breathing, as opposed to a having a dad who is pushing up daisies at the Eternal Gardens on Highway 29.

I tried so hard to see it the other way, because Mom seemed so convinced that I should be able to. And, my mom had this way of making you feel that, if you couldn’t see things her way, there must be something wrong with you, that you are just not thinking right. But, as persuasive and overbearing as she was, I just couldn’t get it. At the time, I couldn’t tell my mom that I didn’t agree with her, because I wasn’t really allowed to have my own feelings or opinions about most things until I was about 33 (which was, incidentally, after she passed away)…. but, today, I can unequivocally say that, at age ten, given the choice of “divorced dad”, or “dead dad”, I would have gladly picked option #1: Divorced Dad.

Of course, there was no choice to  make, or option in my life. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose when people die, so it was “dead dad” for me. But, to quote one of the most annoying cliches of our time, “it is what it is.” Or, it was what it was. We all dealt with it, as best we could at the time.

Meanwhile, I was relieved from this uncomfortable and confusing conversation with my misguided, but well-meaning mother, when there was a knock at the door. My ride was here, it was time to go!  I grabbed my overnight bag. “I’m going over to Laura’s house to spend the night,” I said. Then I walked out the door and hopped in the car with Laura, and her living, breathing, divorced dad.


Cause of Death: It’s Complicated


“How did your mom die?”

It’s a simple question…. If only I had a simple answer.

What I wish I could say: “Well, first she stopped breathing I guess, then her heart stopped, then she was dead.”

But I know that’s not the type of information people are seeking, when they ask how my mom died. They are inquiring about the cause of death, which is a natural curiosity I suppose. The question still makes me a bit uneasy.

For eight years after my mom passed away, I had tried to answer that question diplomatically. It usually ends up sounding something like this:

“She had diabetes, and she didn’t take care of herself. The doctor said she had many ‘co-morbidities’ in addition to the diabetes, such as obesity, high blood pressure, and other various issues…she didn’t watch her diet, or blood sugar, or exercise… and finally her body just couldn’t function anymore.”

The above is true, but as my mother herself would have said, it is technically a “lie of omission”, not the whole truth.

And so I continued, for eight years or more, to tell various versions of the truth, in hopes of avoiding judgment, the awkwardness, and the humiliation of stating a simple fact, as basic as how my mother died.

How much am I required to tell about her manner of death, to be considered truthful? Is it really anyone else’s business, after all? Probably not. However, it’s almost more uncomfortable to try to avoid the question, than to just answer it. How long should I try to protect my mom’s legacy, when she wouldn’t even protect her own legacy, or even her own life?

I don’t blame people for asking how my mom died. I know, that when people ask, most are just trying to help, to empathize, relate, commiserate, even offer support. I know, because I ask the same question of others too, not meaning any harm or hurt by inquiring.

When people ask, they expect me to reply by naming a clear-cut, unavoidable condition that claimed my mom as its victim, after which the inquirer can sympathize, or empathize, and then relate a personal story about a loved one whose life was also tragically extinguished by cancer, Alzheimer’s, stroke, or, like my dad, a sudden heart attack. But Mom was not a victim of any of those things.

In revealing to others how my mom died, I’m also revealing how she lived — or existed — in her final years.

She, of course, is no longer here to feel the humiliation, the shame, or the guilt about her condition. She left us behind, to feel all of those things, on her behalf.

My mom did, in fact, die of an actual, clinical disease. It says so on her death certificate, and an M.D. signed off on it.

But it feels as though my mom died of bad habits and poor choices. Choices she made over her own spouse, her son, three daughters, seven grandchildren, and countless friends and relatives.

I’m sure there are people who saw Mom in her final years, who figured out what was happening, even though no one discussed it openly.

For those who only saw our mom periodically, her problem may have initially been well hidden by her twinkling blue eyes, her broad, dimpled smile, her infectious, boisterous laugh, sparkling jewelry, and bright dresses.

Later, as the twinkle in her eyes gave way to a watery haze, her distinctive laugh became a gravelly grumble, and her brisk pace was replaced by a wobbly stagger, people could surely see the truth with their own eyes.

A few weeks before Mom died, we were sitting in the neighborhood restaurant where she was a “regular”. She was trying to eat dinner, but really couldn’t stomach much food anymore. Her weight had plummeted. All the parts of her body that used to be plump and puffy, were now gaunt, bony, and sunken, except for her stomach. Her abdomen was greatly distended and bloated. Like some grotesque freak of nature, my once beautiful mother now resembled how one might imagine a very frail, elderly, pregnant woman would look, if there were such a person.

A family friend passed by our table on her way out the door of the restaurant, and gasped at the sight of Mom, as she was clearly very ill. The friend, “Joan”, didn’t try to hide her shock or curiosity. In her demonstrative, Southern way, she draped her arms dramatically around mom’s shoulders as she tried to make sense of mom’s appearance. Joan leaned over and put her face right up to mom’s and asked her: what “on Earth” is wrong?

Mom said “I’m sick….it’s not good. And I’m not getting better.”

Joan, the wife of a physician, said “Well, I mean, Sue, what is it? Is it cancer? Good heavens! Can’t the doctors do ANYTHING?”

“No, it’s not cancer…”, mom said. And I don’t really remember what Mom said after that. I think she said the doctors weren’t sure what it was. And then she changed the subject. Joan graciously went along with the new topic of conversation.

Sometimes, I too have tried to change the subject when asked how Mom died. But changing the subject can never change what is printed on her death certificate.

“The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”  James A. Garfield

I will never forget the first time I saw those words, the cause of death, typed so matter-of-factly in seemingly huge bold letters. There was no more denying it. It was as if, from the grave, Mom was finally owning up to her illness, like a defiant child, caught red-handed, and forced to own up to her behavior. I could almost hear her angrily shouting the words out loud to me as my eyes scanned them on the paper:


It hurt my eyes to read those words, and it hurt my heart to reflect on the past few months, and years. The very thing that my mom had tried desperately to conceal, was now emblazoned on an official and public government document for all posterity.

By refusing to say those three words, “alcoholic liver disease”, out loud to anyone else for all these years, I thought I could pretend they didn’t exist on that paper, and perhaps even spare myself some embarrassment. But keeping the secret doesn’t make it go away. In fact, I think I gave it more power. I’ve been weighed down, nearly paralyzed at times by its gravity.

With the truth, and hopefully acceptance, maybe I can free myself from the grip of secrecy and shame.

Until one day, something shifted, at last. A friend asked me how my mom died. Once again, I started into my standard spiel about co-morbidities, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity. My friend looked at me, confused by my ramblings. So I took a deep breath, and then said,  “…the bottom line is, her death certificate says ‘alcoholic liver disease’.”

And with that, the conversation ended. Not surprisingly, my friend picks a new topic. Instead of confusion, my truthful answer prompts that awkwardness I’ve been trying to avoid, but it’s fleeting. And the brief moment of awkwardness was actually not as bad as it has felt to deceptively dance around the truth all these years.

Suddenly, I feel lighter.

One burden lifted, even as my heart still breaks. The denial is gone, but guilt remains. Now I’m just left to wonder: what could I have done differently? How could I have created a less ugly outcome to a beautiful life of an admittedly flawed, but very gifted and loved woman? If only somehow we could have helped her realize, and appreciate, that she had so many reasons not to die of Alcoholic Liver Disease.


For part 2, please see Sober Truth, Secret Salvation, for the continuation.


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Three Words

How do you put the “fun” in funeral planning?

We didn’t do so intentionally, but the day after my mom died, we probably seemed to be having a bit too much fun. Oddly enough, the day after Mom died, my three siblings and I got a serious case of the giggles as we soldiered through the sobering process of planning our mother’s funeral. I’m sure the funeral director probably thought we had completely and collectively lost our minds.

On this first full day of life without parents, my sisters, brother and I were naturally in shock, and grieving. But also I think we felt relieved to not be watching our mother die anymore. We were thankful to be making decisions about music, flowers, and a casket, as opposed to making decisions about life and death, water, food, last rites, estate matters, and hospice care.

Our last stop of the long and busy day after Mom died was the cemetery. We had to pick out the headstone and order it for Mom. She had a plot next to Dad’s, so that was one less decision that had to be made for our last surviving parent.

The cemetery director asked us about fonts, borders, wording, dates, and symbols we wanted on her plaque.

We made some initial selections. We picked out a rosary as one of the symbols, to signify her Catholic faith that was so important to Mom throughout her life. When asked how we wanted her name displayed, we weren’t sure about that. Did we have to put her (second) married name on there? I remember thinking it would look weird to have Susan Fisher buried next to Andrew Clement – would anyone know they are husband and wife? (As if anyone was going to be visiting them anyway….). I cannot explain why I was so concerned about Mom not having the same last name as Dad for eternity. Mom was married to her second husband almost as long as she was married to my Dad.

The cemetery director helped us stay focused and advised us not to leave her last name off. He could see we were getting off track as we tried to process and decide everything. So we settled on including our family name (her first married name) on the plaque as her middle name. The “Clement” in the middle of her name would match the surname on our Dad’s plaque, and they would look more like husband and wife as opposed to two strangers who happen to buried next to each other.

To help us make the final decision about the second symbol we wanted on the plaque (we couldn’t decide between the praying hands and the cross), and how we wanted everything positioned on the headstone, the cemetery director drove us out to see Dad’s plaque. It had been a while since we’d looked at it, and none of us could remember which symbols were on his plaque. We at least wanted Mom’s and Dad’s plaques to coordinate as a pair.

When we got to Dad’s plot, we looked at his plaque and couldn’t help but to laugh with each other. We had just picked out the exact same symbols, same border, and style for our Mom’s headstone that she had picked out for Dad’s plaque more than 20 years prior. I guess on some level, we had committed his plaque to memory more so than we had thought.

We went back to the cemetery office to sign off on everything. Then the director told us we have one more decision, if we so choose. “You get three free words to inscribe on the plaque, if you’d like,” he told us, sounding very happy to offer us this huge windfall. Three free words!? Who were we to pass up such a great deal?

You’d have thought we’d won the lottery: THREE words, FREE, to sum up Mom’s life for eternity. The pressure of deciding on those eternal words hit us, but we were glad to be making the last decision of a long day. We were pretty exhausted, and were pretty out of it after a very tough week. Hilarity ensued.

We tossed out as many three-word phrases as we can think of. Everything from “Live, Love, Laugh,” and “Here Lies Sue,” to “Eat at Joe’s”, and “It’s 5:00 Somewhere.” It was as if we just could not handle one more serious decision – we had reached our limit. We couldn’t think of three words meaningful and significant enough to put on Mom’s plaque for perpetuity.

Suddenly, three words popped into my head. These three words were simple enough, yet might even address the matter of the mismatched names. I was still stuck on that issue, and couldn’t let go of it in my head. I really wanted Mom and Dad to look like a couple in their eternal resting place, not a pair of strangers who happen to be next to one another.

I told the family my idea for the three words. We laughed some more. They liked it. Mom would like it. She had a good sense of humor. Plus, the words could also have a dual meaning – this phrase could also be in reference to God, and eternity, not just the one meaning that we would also know the words conveyed.

We all agreed on this final decision. We had made it! It was all over but the crying. To coordinate with the words we’d selected, we chose the symbol of the praying hands, and strategically moved them to the other side of her plaque, so that they sort of slanted in the general direction of my Dad’s plot, almost as if pointing to it. And just under Mom’s name for eternity are those three powerful words: “I’m with Him.”





Who the Other Me Would Be

I used to dread anniversaries such as this, the anniversary of that stormy, frantic, gray day that dad died. Each anniversary reminded me of everything I lost when he left. A piece of me went with him, and it’s one I would never get back. That day, my ten-year-old life was forever changed, my childhood cut short by this tragedy and it transformed me as a girl, and continues to affect me as an adult. I know that, without my dad’s influence, and had I not experienced that loss, I am not even the same person that I would have been if my dad had lived into my adulthood.

I try not to get lost wondering who that other me would be.

I notice that when I talk to people who’ve also lost a parent as a young age, many describe it as a hole in your heart that will never completely heal. As a daughter losing her father, I also lost the one person who could provide unconditional love, or at least it felt that way.

Robert Frost said “You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular.” If this quote had been written by a woman, I think it would have said the exact opposite. Daughters don’t have to deserve their fathers’ love, but they do have to deserve their mothers’. Fathers dote on their daughters and love them unconditionally, whereas mothers are often tougher on their daughters. Frost also said “The father is always a Republican toward his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.” If Frost had written that same quote about daughters, I think it too would have been reversed.

My father, like many fathers of daughters, was the one who would build me up. If I scribbled a doodle on a piece of paper, he would tell me I could be a famous artist or cartoonist…. (after mom told me I should have colored within the lines.) When I read him a poem I wrote at school, he would tell me to keep it for the book I’d write one day when I’m a famous author. (Mom was sure to point out the words I misspelled.)  When I swam the length of the pool for the first time without touching the bottom, he was waiting there with open arms and a dry towel, and would take me for ice cream afterwards to celebrate the beginning of my Olympic swimming career. (While mom was sure to remind me that I wasn’t the first one to reach the wall and therefore needed to practice harder and swim faster next time.) As a couple, mom and dad were probably as close as could be to the perfect balance, a yin and yang of parenting. After Dad died, however, there was a lot of “down” and not a lot of “up”.

Every anniversary, (and on just about every other day of the year) I used to think about all the ways my life may have been different if my dad had lived longer. I would have had more self-confidence. I would have accomplished more with him there to encourage me that I could be anyone or do anything. I’d have someone there to lift me up, to protect me, to guide me through situations that no one else could. He could have kept my boyfriends in line. He might have even bought me a pony!  I may have gone to Harvard and been a doctor!  Who knows all the wonderful things that could have happened had he not been taken so soon, in the rain, with a gasp, in 1982. The possibilities are endless! …which is exactly why I had to stop thinking about them.

It wasn’t until many many years later that I was able to realize it, but focusing on what could have been was paralyzing me, and keeping me from finding out what could be with what I did have. Sure, my life was different because my dad died, and would have been a lot better in many ways if he had lived. But my life also would have been different if I’d had childhood cancer, or if I was born into poverty, or if I didn’t have any brothers and sisters. Not all my circumstances were bad; I was still very fortunate in many ways.

“When we can no longer change our circumstances, we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Victor Frankl

On anniversaries such as today, I now try to think about what I gained by having my dad, even if it was just for a short time. I even started thinking “for” him, and not “of” him. “What would Dad tell me to do in this situation?” He would tell me to GO FOR IT. So I did!  And a lot of exciting things started to happen when I finally was able to think this way.

It’s not easy. And it’s not fun losing a parent. But it is just another (very bad) circumstance to work around and overcome. If I hadn’t lost my father, I wouldn’t be who I am today. A few years ago I thought that was a bad thing. Who would that other me be, if my dad had lived?  I don’t know, and I never will, and that’s okay. But I do know she wouldn’t be nearly as strong as I am, and she may not even be any happier or better off than me. Who knows, she may even be in a worse place than me. If everything was given to her too easily, perhaps she would never have been able to be truly happy. Not having experienced real loss early in life, and surviving it, maybe she wouldn’t really appreciate the good, simple things in her life.

Whether you are dealing with the loss of one parent, or both parents, or some other tough situation, you can grow above it if you can stop asking yourself “What if?” and start asking yourself “What now!?

“If nothing ever changed…there’d be no butterflies.”Unknown


Who My Father Was


“It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was.”

 — Anne Sexton

I came across the above quote by a Pulitzer Prize-winning American writer and poet, and I beg to differ, with all due respect, if I may, as a non-Pulitzer Prize-winning writer.

It does matter who my father was. I’ve spent many years wondering who he was. Since my dad didn’t live to see my 11th birthday, my memories of him are limited. I didn’t know who he was as a person, as most people typically get to know their parents from an adult perspective. Not many ten year old girls see their father as anything other than a superhero. I remember my dad as cheerleader, back-scratcher, breakfast cooker, bug squisher. He was bedtime story-reading, tune-whistling, bow-tie wearing, cartoon-watching dad. He was surprise-puppy-hiding, firefly-catching, funny-voice-talking goofy dad. Riddle-telling, cartoon-watching, church-going, Hungarian-speaking, clock-collecting, silly song-singing dad.

That’s about the extent of my memories of my Dad. And for many years I was content to remember him that way, through the eyes of a very young girl. But as I grew older, I longed to know more about him as a person, especially because so many people have told me over the years what a good man he was. Usually described as the “life of the party”, his sense of humor is often recalled as people talk about him, as well as his genuine kindness and caring for other people, and his steadfast Catholic faith. Older family members often tell me about his love for me, that I was the apple of his eye, the youngest of his four kids.

I don’t know how true the things are that people have told me over the years about my father. But I hope that they are mostly the truth, because it is comforting to hear that the man I naturally idolized and viewed as one of the greatest people in the world, was also special to other people in his life, such as friends, colleagues, and fellow parishioners.

Hopefully people haven’t just said nice things to me about my dad out of pity or sympathy. I’d like to think that their sentiments are sincere, and their memories are real. Unfortunately, because he’s been gone for so long, it’s not very often I’m around people who knew my dad at all. But, occasionally when I run into an old neighbor, or someone from our church, they’ll share a memory about my dad and how he touched their lives in some way. And I can’t even describe in words how much I appreciate it. Not because it’s a compliment, but because it’s a glimpse into an important part of me that was abruptly taken away and has been missing for almost 30 years.

If you lose a parent when you are still a child, it leaves a lot of unanswered questions about not only who your parent was, but also who you are and where you came from. When people can help fill in some of those blank spaces, it really helps you to feel closer to your parent even if many years have passed.

So I would have to add one more caveat to Ms. Sexton’s statement, that especially applies to those of us who lost a parent when we were children:

“It doesn’t matter who my father was; it matters who I remember he was…and who others remember he was.” — A.S.


A Lifetime of Lessons in Ten Years

Who the Other Me Would Be

‘Death Benefits’ – When Tears of Grief Give Way to Sighs of Relief

“The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you.”

But you didn’t hear that from me.

Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist and author of “Death Benefits,” arrives at this unexpected conclusion in her autobiographical book about becoming an adult orphan at age 57.

I became an adult orphan at 32. Had I read Safer’s findings more than eight years ago, before I was “orphaned,” myself I’d have probably thought her sentiment to be preposterous, unimaginable, and even cold. But today, having been an adult orphan for more than eight years, not only am I unfazed by her sentiment, I can relate to it.

Do I miss my parents? I do…so much, it hurts at times.

Do I wish they were still alive? Absolutely.

Has my life improved in some ways since I became parent-less? In some ways, yes.

“Death benefits” happened to me.

Many of the thoughts and feelings I experienced after losing my last surviving parent were overwhelmingly confusing. Some of the feelings concerned me so much, I was afraid to voice them at all, even to my own siblings. In search of answers, I recently turned to the all-knowing omnipotence of Google, searched “adult orphan” and this LA Times article appeared on my screen. Much of the article read like the story of my past eight years of life, since becoming an ‘adult orphan’.

I even wondered if perhaps my own parents had somehow sent the article to me from beyond, as if to say “it’s okay to feel this way.” As soon as I could I downloaded the book and eagerly read account after account of people who have experienced parent-less-ness.

From tears of grief, to sigh of relief…

Thanks to Safer, her book, and this article, I no longer have to feel guilty and isolated about the thoughts and feelings I’ve been ashamed to admit:

Becoming parent-less was incredibly terrifying, traumatizing, and amazingly liberating, all at the same time.

After my mom died in 2004, intense, painful grief consumed me for several years. However, after a few more years, some very unexpected feelings began to surface. For years I struggled with the mixed emotions. There must be something severely wrong with me…  How can it possibly be normal to feel anything but sorrow and grief after your parents die?  How can you actually feel better in some ways, after your beloved parents are gone?

I wondered if I was having these feelings only because of the unique, imperfect, sometimes conflicted relationship I had with my mother. It was not easy to be the daughter of a devout Catholic, clinically depressed, widow with alcoholic tendencies. Safer, the author of Death Benefits, also admits to a conflicted relationship with her mother. However, her book also includes interviews with nearly 100 other adult orphans, each of whom describes a variety of ways his or her life improved after being orphaned.

Like all of us flawed humans, my parents weren’t perfect; they had their issues and faults. But they were basically good people who sacrificed a lot for their kids. And, they’re the only parents I’ve ever had. They brought me into this world. I owe them my very existence.

There is no reason for me to be glad they are gone. (And I’m not.) So why can’t I shake this feeling, that in some ways, my life is a little better somehow, without any parents?

Could it be that the absolute worst thing that ever happened to me, could also be one of the best things to happen to me? Not only were my emotions and my experience normal, apparently they are perfectly natural, according to the book’s author and other experts interviewed for the LA Times:.

“Adult children, having seemingly established their independence, were long thought to absorb the expected blow [of losing their parents] and move on to tend to relationships with the living. Safer’s book, however, comes amid an evolving view of this adult milestone. Increasingly, research psychologists and those in clinical practice see the loss of elderly parents as an event that not only touches off an emotional reaction that is real and long-lasting…” “The death of a parent — any parent — can set us free. It offers us our last, best chance to become our truest, deepest selves. Nothing else in adult life has so much unrecognized potential to help us become more fulfilled human beings — wiser, more mature, more open, less afraid.”  — Jeanne Safer

Maybe I’m not such a horrible person, after all. Maybe I really don’t have a heart made of cold hard stone. Maybe I’m just a “normal” adult orphan.

Seven year itch.

For me, a shift in my attitude and emotions happened about seven years after becoming parentless, which is a common time frame, according to studies cited in the LA Times article. It was then when I truly started to feel differently about everything, almost overnight. After seven years of grieving my mother’s passing, and after what seemed like a lifetime trying to make sense of my dad’s death during my childhood, I just wanted to live my life, for once. For the first time ever, at age 40, I felt like my life was my own. Not my mom’s, not my dad’s, not my brother’s or sisters’. I just wanted to move on, hold on, and live, as much as possible, like never before.

In contrast, those first several years after losing a parent, especially the last surviving parent, are extremely trying. Some studies have shown that during those initial years, it’s common for adult survivors of a parent’s passing to be very depressed and adopt bad, destructive behaviors such as excessive drinking, overeating, and other recklessness. But then, the self-destructive emotions gradually turn into productive thoughts:

“…With their parents gone, many adults keenly sense that they are ‘next in line’ for decline, disability and demise. That often concentrates the mind on what’s right, and wrong, in their lives — what traits and behaviors have served them well and which would better be abandoned.”

“I’m next.” 

Certainly, with my parents now gone, I’m the next to go,” I’d fear. So why not take that extra drink, or eat that extra dessert? Why bother exercising? Why bother with anything, really? What does it matter?

“I’m next.”

For years, the thought continued to gnaw at me. I wasn’t getting any younger. But eventually, after the passage of much time, the same fear that made me give up, later made me want to take better care. I finally decided it was time to make some drastic changes, so I did.

Today, eight years into orphan-hood, it’s not about being next in line to die. I now realize I’m next in line to live. It’s my turn, at last. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. I don’t have time to wonder what my life would be like if my parents were alive today … I have my own life to live, after all.

Is losing your parents the “best thing that ever happens to you,” as Safer concluded? I don’t know that I’d go that far in describing the upside of becoming parent-less. However, depending on your circumstances, there are some aspects of life as an adult orphan that will improve more than you’ll ever want to admit, until long after you experience it yourself.  I hope you don’t become parent-less any time soon, as the ‘death benefits’ of being an adult orphan certainly do not make up for the void that exists where your parents once lived.