Finding the ‘new normal’ after your parents die

First published in The Age/Sydney Morning Herald/Brisbane Times – January 2018

It used to be so easy to welcome the new year – Auld Lang Syne, champagne and a flimsy resolution or two. But flicking off the past is getting harder as I get older. Probably because there’s so much more to leave behind.

It has been 12 months since my dad died. It was a long, slow farewell as his vocabulary had begun the checkout process years earlier. He soldiered on, scavenging familiar words from the far-flung corners of his brain. He was brave, pressing on through what must have been a torrent of confusion by the final months of his life. When the inevitable came he no doubt saw it was time. Nearly 89, with his wife of 55 years already gone, he was ready.

But I wasn’t. I tried to prepare. I reminded myself of how diminished he was, how painful it must be for his mind and body to gradually be disintegrating. I spent the last few weeks of his life by his bedside, saying everything I could think of, getting it all out before he was gone. I thought I could be grown-up about the damned inevitability, accept it as I had managed to do with my mom two years earlier.

Initially I coped well enough. With my sisters, we assembled his vast community of friends and family to send him off, then signed the papers, divvied up the paintings and serving dishes, and dropped off carloads of American history books, jackets, ties and wool blankets at the Salvos. The following week I flew back to Australia to pick up my life again.

But it wasn’t the same life. I was constantly adjusting to the absence of him, an absence that hung around like a persistent fog. I have lived oceans away from him and my mom for close to 30 years, so I understand physical absence. Yet this was different. Is different. No clever technology can overcome the gaping distance that now separates us.

The word “dreadful” comes into its full meaning for many of us in the context of burying parents – and the detritus of their lives – as it is one of the most dreaded phases of our lives.

And yet, despite the dread and time for preparation, it’s often not as we expect. The American writer Joan Didion reflected on the unexpected nature of loss in The Year of Magical Thinking, a harrowing look at the year following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it,” writes Didion.

I had imagined this loss as one-dimensional and linear, but it has proven to be much messier, more chaotic. I knew I would miss him – his sage advice, his pride and shared delight in my sons, his weekly letters. I hadn’t considered that his voice would disappear, that it would be impossible to conjure it up again in my memory. Or that the rough look and feel of his hands, so familiar, would quickly fade. I didn’t anticipate the running tape of experiences he’s missing. “Dad would have loved to be at Cam’s wedding”, “He would have been thrilled to watch you dunk a basketball”, and “Can you imagine what he would be saying about Trump?”

But I was least prepared for the change in my own status. Dad was the last man standing from his generation. My mom is gone, there are no remaining aunts, uncles, or other venerated relatives to usher to the front of family gatherings or rely on for debated details of family history. My sisters and I are now the keepers of the stories, the ones to represent the family at cousins’ weddings, friends’ funerals, the graduations of the next generation. My parents, together, had known it all – birthdays, immunisation records, grittiest family facts, holiday tales. For months after my mum passed away, I instinctively reached for the phone to confirm a recipe. It feels immature to admit it, but even at 53 I don’t feel old enough to carry everything they did.

Farewelling parents also involves letting go of who we were as children, a role no longer ours to enjoy. With that comes the unavoidable realisation of our own mortality. As if the whole shebang isn’t rotten enough without having to imagine our own passing. Didion sums this up precisely. “We mourn our losses. We also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all.”

In Victorian times it was customary to wear black for a year to mourn the death of a parent. At the end of a year, presumably, the mourners’ clothes changed, but their inner loss kept slowly churning away towards a new normal. It’s now the one-year mark for me. I didn’t wear black and basically just jumped back into my regular life after Dad died, but this anniversary still feels significant. I’ll never forget him or his impact on me – he will always be reflected in the shape of who I am – yet it feels time for a new season.

Thirty years ago my dad must have gone through this anguish himself. I loved my grandparents and remember their passing as a sad time. In retrospect, of course, I now realise how little I understood about the weight of loss my dad may have carried in the months and years that followed. This gives me hope. Dad loved his parents, but was also perfectly content in his “parentless years”, retelling stories and memories of my grandparents with no hint of the raw devastation that initial grief can bring. He poured himself into his family and celebrated the life that was his to live.

Death is so final. I can’t change that. But the cycles of time keep moving on. There are weddings and graduations to attend, babies to be born, baskets to be dunked. It’s a time to see January as a door to the future, as Dad would want, rather than a window to the past.