Forever Changed

It’s been two weeks since I’ve been on my laptop as I’ve been a little busy. I spent eight days between July 10-18, 2019 going back home (and driving 2000 miles round trip) to my hometown in Iowa to attend my father’s funeral that was held on July 13, 2019. Dad actually died on June 22, 2019, just one month shy of his 96th birthday, and I wrote a eulogy for him on that day on my other blog titled, A Eulogy for Dad.”

Dad had a hand in putting together his own funeral service before he died, and he made new friends before his passing with the people at the funeral home. His mind and sense of humor were sharp right up until he drew his last breath. He even included three songs in his funeral service that tells a story in song of his life. The first song was Unforgettable; the second song was Amazing Grace”; and the last song was Joy to the World/Jeremiah was a Bullfrog by Three Dog Night.

Vintage T-6 Texan from 1944

Dad enlisted in the US Navy in 1943 during WWII, and he received his Gold Wings as a Naval Aviator during the war and remained in the Naval Reserves for a total of 21 years. During that time, he flew 19 different WWII Navy fighter planes up to and including swept wing jets. He loved to fly whenever he could and flew 37 different aircraft (including the T-6 Texan pictured here during WWII), both military and civilian throughout his life. He was extremely proud of his military service and career. (Source here.) More history about Dad is written in his obituary at Resthaven Funeral Home.

Dad’s funeral service was a tribute and celebration of a life well lived. His graveside service included a 21-gun salute, a “fly-over” by a T-6 Texan aircraft that circled the graveside a couple of times, and two sailors in dress uniform–one sailor who presented the flag draped over Dad’s coffin to my niece, and the other sailor who played Taps.” Not many folks make it to almost 96 years of age, and he was one of those who did. We were fortunate to have had him in our lives for so long, but even with him being around for that many years, his death is hard to bear. As my older brother said during his eulogy for Dad during Dad’s funeral service, we thought he would be around forever since he had been around for so long.

But no one lives forever, at least not on this earth. We all die someday, but this is not to be seen as a grim reality. A reality it is, but “grim” is only a choice if we choose to make it so. My two brothers and I lost our mother back in 1983 when she was only 54 (from health issues that started with adult onset diabetes that she was diagnosed with shortly after my parents divorced in the mid-1960’s when I was 12). I was 30 at the time of Mom’s death, and it propelled me into a new direction in life that I had never previously thought about taking. Within five months of her death, I ended up cancelling the wedding I had planned shortly after her death before I made what would have been a huge mistake by marrying that particular guy; and I enrolled at a state university to finish the last two years of my bachelor’s degree that I had started in 1977 when I completed a two-year associate’s degree in 1979. I quit the job I had for several years at a hospital, and I found an editorial secretary job at that state university that worked around my class schedule. Two years later I received my bachelor’s degree, and eventually I went on to earn a master’s degree, and shortly after that I was awarded a one-year doctoral fellowship in the area of higher education administration and adult education.

With Dad’s death, I am now 67–over twice as old as I was when Mom died. There is far less “future” at this age for me then there was at 30, but no one knows how long they will live (not even those who are young). Since Dad’s funeral was just eight days ago as of this writing, I am still in the process of getting my equilibrium back as to what the future will hold now that both of my parents have died (and also my very significant stepmother who died in 2011). It’s an odd feeling to no longer have a parent around, even at a distance. Parents–whether good, bad, or indifferent or any combination of the three (or any other combination to add) are our “anchors” in life. If it were not for them, we would not exist.

In a January 19, 2018 article in the LA Times titled, What the death of a parent can teach us, if we’re willing to learn,” by Alene Dawson, freelance writer and journalist, and LA Times contributor, she writes:

“We tend to think of ourselves as ‘children’ until we lose our parents. It is only then that we are on the front line of mortality,” said Debra J. Umberson, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the bookDeath of a Parent: Transition to a New Adult Identity.” “This gives us a very different perspective on our own lifespans and where we fit in terms of generations.”

David Kesslerfounder of grief.com and co-author with Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross of the influential bookOn Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss,” said many adults — regardless of age — struggle with feeling like an orphan after a parent dies. “I try to remind them that you still stay connected with that person even in death.”

An era gone by

“Our parents are our first relationship… So when a parent dies, it is your anchor being taken away,” Kessler said. Los Angeles resident Abbe Andersen took care of her mother, who had Alzheimer’s, and when she died at 88, Andersen felt her point of life reference had died, too. “It’s a lost feeling,” she said. But it also allowed her to rethink and reshift personal priorities: “What’s important are your connections… dear friends and family.”

Rituals can help

“Having a place that reminds the child of the parent and going to that place to talk things through with the parent can be very comforting,” Umberson said. Planting a tree, or assembling a special photo album or scrapbook can also help.

Grieving what never was

Some are perplexed to find themselves mourning a parent with whom they’ve had a bad relationship. “We believe we only grieve people we love but that actually isn’t true,” Kessler said. “My definition of grief is a reflection of a connection we have lost… Sometimes we have to grieve for what never was, for that ideal parent we never had.”

For some, a new freedom

Jeanne Safer, author ofDeath Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life – for the Better— the book cover is a birdcage with an open door — says that after a parent dies, many people feel more free to marry outside their religion or ethnicity, “people come out [as gay], people leave religion, people come to religion, people get divorces – all kinds of things – it’s fascinating.” And it’s nothing to feel ashamed of.

Kessler pointed to an example of a client who was grieving his abusive father’s death. But as time passed, the man felt a safety in the world he hadn’t felt before. “We think a parent ideally will enrich us but some people do have parents that diminish them,” Kessler said.

Take a psychological inventory

Safer advised taking some time to think about your parent’s legacy, and your own: “Four questions to ask yourself about your parent’s character are: ‘What did I get from my parent that I want to keep? What do I regret not getting? What did I get that I want to discard? What did I need that my parent couldn’t provide?’

“What you didn’t get but needed, go out and get from other people or yourself,” Safer added.

The first two weeks… then a lifetime

When you lose your parent as an adult, there’s often much to do, such as contacting relatives, planning the memorial and funeral and sorting through possessions. “The reality is you are swept up in the busy-ness and then in about three months to a year it really hits… And it’s usually about that time where their support has moved on,” Kessler said. Then family traditions change as first holidays and birthdays without them pass. “The second year is the year we realize they’re never coming back, we’re never seeing them again–this is us now.”

Reach out for support

“Time does not heal all wounds but the pain of loss does lessen with time. My main advice is to not expect yourself to quickly recover and to not feel there is anything abnormal about intense feelings of grief,” Umberson said, adding that it can be comforting spending time with others who’ve gone through a similar loss, whether it’s friends or strangers in a support group. “Seeking this kind of contact is a concrete thing people can do to help them move forward.”

Kessler says sharing your grief online can also help. “Posting a photo of your mother on the anniversary of her death can connect you with friends and family who are also grieving. You can also find a closed Facebook group where people unite on the type of grief they have,” Kessler said. “We have a primal need for our grief to be witnessed. Our psyche doesn’t want us to be an island of grief. We need each other and grief is a universal connector.”

To read this article in Spanish, click here. (Quote source here.)

In another article titled When a Parent Dies,” by Le Anne Schreiber on Oprah.com, she writes:

It’s always a shock. But grieving grown-up children may be surprised to find that despite the sorrow, the life changes following loss are often positive….

…What I have learned from my friends is that a single death can transform your life, especially if the death is that of your mother or father. And it doesn’t matter whether that parent was beloved or resented, whether the relationship was close or distant, warm or cold, harmonious or hotly conflictual. It doesn’t even matter how old you are, or how old your parent was at the time of death. For most people, the death of a parent, particularly when the parent is of the same sex, is life altering.

Anyone who has lost a mother or father knows this, and yet there is little social recognition of parental death as a milestone of adult life. Even more remarkable is the near total vacuum of professional research on this subject. There is an enormous, burgeoning field of psychology called bereavement studies, but in the 814 pages of the Handbook of Bereavement Research, the bible of the field, only four are devoted to the subject of an adult child’s loss of a parent.

Miriam Moss, one of the few researchers who have studied the impact of parental death, suspects that ageism is largely responsible for this neglect. “Old people are not valued in this culture,” says Moss, senior research scientist at the School of Public Health at Drexel University. “The loss of an elderly parent is not seen as particularly important.” What reinforces that ageism, Moss adds, is the fact that “it’s normative, expected. The attitude is, Oh well, she was old. How old was she? Seventy-eight? Oh, I’m sorry. What else is new?”

Disenfranchised grief is the term for mourning whose death is not socially recognized, and it has a silencing effect on the griever. It also, says Miriam Moss, has distorted and trivialized our understanding of the loss of a parent. “A parent’s death,” she says, “has a very strong impact, and it’s not just emotional. The whole meaning of who you are is very much attached to this person.”

Most of Moss’s research has looked at the effect of parental loss within the first six months to a year after the death, when grief is keenest. But it is often in the following years, when a new emotional equilibrium has been achieved, that many people register the deeper, more lasting consequences of being motherless or fatherless. And about these unfolding long-term changes, there is virtually no professional research. There is, however, a growing body of anecdotal evidence, written and oral, arising from Baby Boomers, myself included, who have never been prone to silence about anything on their collective mind.

With the goal of further opening up this subject, I conducted interviews with a small sample of women, ages 46 to 66, about how their lives had been affected by the death of a parent. Although the stories they told, and the parent-child relationships they described, were highly individual, a remarkable consistency began to emerge. Without exception these women described profound changes, both internal and external, which they directly attributed to their parents’ deaths. Most surprisingly, they characterized the changes as positive. That, in fact, is why they seldom, if ever, had talked in detail about their reactions to becoming motherless or fatherless. They were afraid that speaking of the good that had followed would be unseemly, disrespectful, too easily misunderstood as being glad that a parent had died. And that indeed would be a misunderstanding.

“I wish my mother could see me now” was a commonly expressed sentiment—paired with the complex irony that “if she could see me, I wouldn’t be anything like I now am.” (Quote source and the rest of the lengthy article is available at this link.)

David wrote in Psalm 68:5-6 that God is A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, and he leads out the prisoners with singing”…. For those who believe in God, he is the source of the greatest strength and comfort and guidance in hard times and times of grief for anyone who genuinely seeks Him. He is the God of all comfort (2 Corinthians 1:3-5). He makes crooked paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6), and Psalm 34:18 states, The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” And he is always there when no one else is around (see Hebrews 13:5-6).

I’ll end this post with these words from Father to the Fatherless: A Call to Worship from Psalm 68

This is God . . .

Father to the fatherless . . .

Defender of the desolate . . .

YouTube Video: “Amazing Grace” (Live) by Il Divo:

Photo #1 credit here
Photo #2 credit–family photo
Photo #3 credit here
Photo #4 credit here

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