The roller coaster.
Learning how to move through the unexpected death of a parent is like riding a roller coaster. Up and down and swerving in all different directions. First you are moving forward and then you find yourself turned upside down. This is because death brings up emotions in ways that often catch you by surprise and ones you thought unimaginable.
In one moment, you might think you have it managed and that you are ok, and then in the blink of an eye you find yourself in another place, transposed by time. It’s like you are living someone else’s life even though you are not. You are living yours. And once again, you are turned upside down.
Memories conjure up unpredictable emotions that flood you. They engulf you and make you feel powerless, helpless, and hopeless. There is no easy antidote for grieving the unexpected loss of a parent. And the proverbial ‘time’ factor doesn’t always make you feel good even though in your rational brain you know that time has a way of helping you heal. Time helps all of us heal.
And make no bones about it, an unexpected death is complicated. Very complicated. No two people will ever experience death the same way. Especially when the death is unexpected and your parent. That complicates things exponentially.
Isabella, age 53.
In June of 2019, Isabella unexpectedly lost her mother. As she described it, ‘she was here and then she was gone.’ Her mother had been ill, but through her voice and texts and emails, she sounded good. She was reassuring to all her children including her. What started off as really bad arthritis and a determination to not get hip surgery, in many ways, was the beginning of the end in Isabella’s mind. Or, at least in hindsight. Her mother was a proud Polish woman. Self-determined and strong. She paved her own way well before it was common for women to pave their own way. But she did. Isabella is a lot like her mother.
Isabella often finds herself ruminating and asking herself the ‘what if’s’ of life. She thinks back and wonders if her mother was fearful of having hip surgery despite being so outwardly strong and determined. Although she was reluctant to admit that in many of their conversations, maybe she was. Or maybe her mother would have to identify as being one of ‘those’ people – elderly (she was just a few months shy of her 80th birthday at her death).
Of course she would like to believe that if she had the surgery, her mother would still be here. She thinks this because when her mother became sick with Pneumonia, she would have possibly thought that she really was sick, not thinking it was because of her arthritis. Isabella discovered with each conversation, her mother would attribute any symptom to her arthritis. Isabella knows these are just wishful thoughts but she reminds herself that this is her process and that no doubt, everyone feels this way when they experience an unexpected death.
One week before her mother died, she was with her. Her mother unexpectedly ended up in the hospital. She flew to California to see her in the hospital. She was shocked to find herself at the hospital but here she was. Her mother looked ok, all things considered. She figured her mother would be there for the weekend and then get discharged to a rehab center before returning home.
Little did Isabella know at the time that her mother would never return home again and that the time she spent with her would be the last time she would see her alive. She and her siblings were busy looking into rehab centers. Yet, three days later her mother was in the ICU after contracting Sepsis. Before she knew it, she and her younger brother had to make the painful decision of putting their mother in hospice.
For Isabella, to see this strong woman now sedated and in ICU was at a minimum, heartbreaking. After all she was just speaking to her. She just saw her. Her mother wanted to go home. She and her siblings felt that their mother had at least ten more years on this earth with many more fun life experiences to be shared and added to their story. But this is not how things turned out for Isabella’s family. The whole process was and continues to be heartbreaking. After being admitted to ICU, within 48 hours her mother was gone.
Surreal. That’s the word that she uses as as way to explain her feelings. The week before and after she died was just that. Surreal. She was heartbroken.
Isabella’s story is all too common. Maybe you see yourself in her story. Maybe you know someone who has experienced the same thing as Isabella. The whole process from hearing the news, to trying to make sense of the unimaginable, to cleaning out her home, going through her personal items, talking to friends and family about her death, to planning her celebration of life, has been just that for Isabella and her siblings. Surreal.
8 Ways to Move Through the Unexpected Death of Parent:
- Breathe. Every breath you take adds up to minutes, moments, days, and weeks and then months. Center yourself and just breathe. It may sound simple and trivial, but truthfully being able to breathe and take in the moment and center yourself, helps you in profound ways.
- Journal. There are remarkable and positive benefits to journaling. Here is a place that you can have a personal conversation with yourself. Share your thoughts, fears, and feelings. Talk to your parent here. Talk about the good times and the sorrow as well to what they will miss. To have the positive feelings we also have to learn how to embrace the negative and sad feelings. It’s what makes us human.
- Build your tribe. Reach out to friends and family and share your memories. Ask them what memories they have of your parent. Maybe you will discover something new about your parent you didn’t know before. Isabella did. After her mother died, so many people came forward to share their memories about her mother. Isabella and her siblings had no idea. There were many things she learned about her mother that she didn’t know. There were so many people who were impacted by her life and death. She helped many people that helped her process her death in more significant and positive ways.
- Ride the roller coaster. Understand and accept that no two days will be the same. You might feel good for a few days and then the next few days completely suck! That’s part of the process. It’s no fun. But trust me if you accept the emotional roller coaster, you will move through your parent’s death sooner and in healthier ways. By feeling ‘bad’ because of your ups and downs just makes you feel worse and keeps you stuck.
- Accept your timeline. The grieving process is not linear. You might find yourself moving through the stages of grief and loss at different times and going back to a stage that you thought you had already gone through. That’s normal. Do not feel ‘bad’ or that something is wrong with you. This is nothing further from the truth. Everyone moves through the grieving process in their own time. However, if you find yourself still grieving in ways that persist as continued yearning, sadness, or thoughts of the person that died, and having feelings like you did in the beginning, this is known as complicated grief. If you find yourself in this place, consider seeking outside professional help.
- Honor their life by honoring yours. Find a special way or ways to honor your parent. It could be through special pictures or traveling to a shared place or honoring an experience (holiday, birthday). After her mother died, she returned to her mother’s home for her birthday because not only did she feel she needed to be there, but felt strongly that her mother would want her to spend her birthday with her even though physically she was not there.
- Embrace their life. Learn how to embrace the life your mother or father lived rather than always focusing on mourning their death. Think about how your parent would want to be remembered. Would they want you to mourn their death or embrace all the good things they have given you? All the things they have passed on to you? Go through pictures and pick out a few that make you feel closer to them and purchase a nice frame. Place the picture in a place that allows you to see them often
- Embrace your life. Set small goals to achieve bigger goals as you move forward in your life. Small steps add up to bigger steps. And in doing this, you will eventually be living your life in a way that resonates with you and at the same time honors your parent. They would want you to move on be happy. It’s ok to do that.
Hours become days. Days become weeks. Weeks become months. Soon, you will find yourself smiling as you once did and are able to reflect fondly on all that they gave you, and embrace their life rather than mourning their death. Doing that will help you learn to live your best life.
However, if you find yourself struggling through a similar experience, the team at illumu can help you move through heartbreak. Check out our Kickstarter campaign to see how we can help you overcome your heartbreak and get back on track. And check out our pre-order opportunities! Simply reach out and connect with us. We are here to help.