Dear Carol: Both of my parents died in late 2019. My dad had a stroke that completely overwhelmed his body, so he died quickly. Everyone in the family knew that if he’d had a choice between death and being left paralyzed, he’d have chosen to die the way he did. We grieved deeply but remembering this helped most of us cope.
Mom, though, was devastated. I know that it's different when people lose a spouse, but she just couldn’t get a grip. Her health had been pretty decent, but two months after Dad died, her heart gave out. We think she just gave up because she wanted to be with Dad.
Again, my siblings and I moved forward with life, knowing that our parents were together now. The reason I’m writing nearly two years later is that I’ve suddenly been hit with enormous waves of grief over losing them both. What’s up with this? — SN.
Dear SN: You have my sympathy and understanding. I believe that your situation isn't all that rare. I hear about it often from readers, and it happened to me, as well.
My timeframe was similar to yours but I’m not sure that’s relevant. What happened to me was that one ordinary day as I walked down the same hallway at work that I routinely walked, a wave of enormous grief over losing my parents swept over me. The experience was both physical and emotional. This happened exactly two years since the death of my mother, which had occurred five months after my dad died.
That hard wave didn’t last, but the feeling of grief did take time to dissipate. My feelings are that nature — or God — allows us some superficial denial as we process things in our subconscious. When someone dies, we have to get on with dealing with the aftermath. Telling others what happened. Cleaning out homes or nursing home rooms. Juggling the legal work that follows a death. On and on. Then, one day down the road, our defenses allow the reality of what we’ve lost to settle in.
I don’t know your circumstances, but I had become in essence what my sister termed the "family matriarch." Wow! That was eye-opening. Even if you have older adults left in your family, you’ve still lost that layer of a generation above you.
True, you were in the position of protector and caregiver for the last years, but that doesn’t take away the fact that your parents were always your parents. They were still there as the “protective” emotional layer between you and whatever is beyond.
This is your time to truly heal, SN. Likely as not, you’ll experience more waves of grief, but they will lessen with time. If they don’t, going to a grief support group or grief counseling may be in order. Specialists can help you learn to move on with your life.
My condolences to you as you process this enormous double loss that has shifted your place in the universe.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran caregiver and an established columnist. She is also a blogger, and the author of “Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories.” Bradley Bursack hosts a website supporting caregivers and elders at www.mindingourelders.com. She can be reached through the contact form on her website.