Coping with parent loss during the holidays

They live forever in your broken heart….And you come through. Its like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” — Anne Lamott

I‘m on holiday break for the next week, so I’ll continue to repost seasonal pieces. This one was published on Nov. 26, 2006 in my Daily Tribune “Life Lines” column. — CL


No matter how old you are, losing a parent is a difficult rite of passage. Like childbirth, it is such a complex, emotional experience that it’s never easy to explain to anyone who hasn’t walked through it.

My own father died suddenly at 65. I was 38 and had a family of my own, yet I still felt unmoored and abandoned. Even though my mother was alive and in good health then, it seemed as though Id been exiled to a strange frontier without a map. And in some ways, I had.

At that point, none of my closest friends had lost a parent. They couldnt comprehend the depth of such a loss — or why my sorrow turned to anger or resentment during the holidays. And I couldnt begin to articulate the unexpected waves of grief.

Writing about the loss of her own beloved father in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott said it best: “Sometimes, when Ive done something fabulous, I feel like a gymnast who has performed a flawless routine in an empty auditorium.”

Before my dad died, I avoided most funeral homes and memorial services. On the rare occasions when I did attend, I struggled to find the right words for the bereaved. I found it awkward to view a casket, open or closed. In retrospect, I hadn’t found a direction for my own life yet — so how could I look death in the eye and make any sort of peace with it?

But a lot of things changed when my father died — and so did I.

I looked long and hard at the self-centered goals Id been striving for in my twenties and thirties. In the weeks and months after Dad was buried, I listed everything that had been important to him: home, family, hard work, honesty, and kindness. In his honor, I decided to recommit myself to the values hed hoped to pass along. And, most important of all, I stopped taking for granted the people I loved. The road back to normal was long, but I regained my footing and felt whole again.

In retrospect, I hadn’t found a direction for my own life yet — so how could I look death in the eye and make any sort of peace with it?

To be released this month, Always Too Soon by Allison Gilbert offers words of reassurance to anyone who is struggling with the loss of one or both parents. Gilbert, who was parentless by age 31, discusses the stages of her grief in the books introduction.

“My first parentless Thanksgiving came two months after my father died,” Gilbert recalls. “I didnt feel old enough to be responsible for Thanksgiving…. I was no longer somebodys child going home for the holidays. I felt overwhelmed, and despite my husband and brothers support, utterly alone. I was also filled with self-centered anger.”

Always Too Soon features conversations with more than a dozen celebrities who were willing to share their own experiences with parent loss, including Rosanne Cash, Yogi Berra, Mariel Hemingway, Dennis Franz, and Rosanna Arquette. It also includes moving insights from not-so-famous people who lost parents in the Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Its a book Id recommend highly to friends in need of comfort — and these days there are quite a few.

Within the past year and a half, two of my former college roommates watched their mothers lose their long battles with Parkinsons disease. Another friend recently answered a late-night call announcing that her father had died unexpectedly of a heart attack.

Lately, visits to funeral homes and memorial services have become routine. I dont always know the “right” things to say, but I do understand that my presence is important. I try to be the kind of friend I needed when my father died 14 years ago. I try to be honest. I remind my grieving friends that recovery from such a huge loss takes its own bittersweet time.

I also remind them that grief is a remarkable guide, if were willing to stay with it through the darkest places on our journey. We learn from our losses and grow stronger. Then we return to help each other heal.  — Cindy La Ferle

9 thoughts on “Coping with parent loss during the holidays

  1. So true, Cindy, and you really did (and still do) help me navigate through my grief after losing my dad. You told me, “There’s no getting around it – you have to get through it,” and it is so true. I faced my fear of grief, kept moving – difficult as that was – and I feel no shame in my tears. I have shared your words with others, who have also appreciated the guidance. Thank you. xo

  2. For me, I have yet to be able to properly grieve for my father’s death last year.
    Christmas Eve 2011 was spent springing Tim for the hospital after 11 days into what was originally scheduled for a 3-day stay…and not being able to take my mom to church or have the nice Christmas Eve meal we’d planned…we all were able to spend the evening together, though.
    This year, we completed a complex business sale at the end of November, and we’re still looking at closing on my mom’s house sale by the end of the year. I’ve spent much of the year running the business, moving my mom out of her house and into a new apartment and sheparding Tim through chemo.
    The end of the year is bringing an incredible sense of relief, but an uncertainty about where I’m headed next.
    Holidays have been pretty low-key from necessity this past 1-1/2 years.

  3. Dominique, I am so sorry to learn of your trials in the past year. I can relate in many ways, though I can’t imagine having to watch a husband go through chemo. (I have friends who’ve had it, and I hear it’s very hard.) We will be selling my mom’s condo next spring, and I am not looking forward to it. I’ve already begun the tough, emotional work of clearing some heirlooms out. It will be hard to know what to do with the rest, and to say goodbye to what’s left of my mother’s “home” …

    As for the holidays, we are reinventing them as we go. This year, we brought my mom to our house for Christmas Eve. My son and his new wife had dinner with us, as well as my husband’s sister, Nate’s favorite aunt. We had a lovely time, and I hope we can expand on it next year.

  4. My mom made the decision herself to basically sell everything prior to moving out of the house. We rented a smallish storage unit to keep photos, a few small momentos and clothes after holding an estate sale. We’d been after her to look at an apartment we found we thought she’d like…but she insisted she’d live in the house, sleeping on a love seat and watching a small TV in a room with the grandfather clock destined for my house (this, and a set of chairs that went with a built-in kitchen table, was really all the furniture left after the sale). One (yes, one) day after the sale, she called me and asked when we’d take her to see the apartment…and rented it on the spot when we took her there a few days later. Good thing because that was back in May, and the closing on her house sale is just coming up now. Meanwhile, we’ve spent a bit of time refurnishing her apartment.
    This was Tim’s second time through chemo. His side effects (beyond general fatique and hair loss) were minimal, for which we’re grateful. He’s kept busy helping me help my mom and writing the essay that was recently published in a War of 1812 book put out by the Detroit Historical Society. Sometimes I think the emotional side of chemo can be more difficult on those of us who have to stand by and watch loved ones go through it, but I don’t much care for the alternative, either.
    Tim’s feeling pretty well these days, and mom seems qute relieved to get these sales done. Selling the business definitely took a huge weight off of my shoulders 🙂

  5. Wow, Dominique — what a journey you’ve been on lately! Not sure if you’ve been following my column in Michigan Senior Living (a supplement to the Sunday News and Freep), but my mom has progressive vascular dementia and refused to consider assisted living until a 2nd major health issue — and two big hospital visits — forced the issue. She still thinks she perfectly fine and ought to go back to her condo soon! Sadly, she is getting worse, and we have no choice but to keep her in senior housing and sell the condo this spring. Clearing it out will be the topic of another column in the future, I am sure 😉

    Glad Tim is doing better and feeling well! Hope things continue to look up for you.

  6. The pain and void of not having my mother to share Xhristmas with was just too raw (even 12 years after her death in August 2000) to reply. I would have been a mess of tears.

    Getting back to myself now, I can tell you how much this post meant to me. The depth of your own loss of your father sat close to my aching heart and comforted me over the holidays.

    Thank you Cindy, for share your experience and how you have been and are continuing to cope and encourage others who are living with the loss of parents.

  7. I shudder and shrink inside at the thought of losing either of my parents. I feel acutely aware of the emptiness and how much I value their support. It brings me to tears just to consider it. Thanks for addressing it so articulately Cindy… Missing you guys in blogland.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.