Try going through your entire childhood without hearing, “Oh, just wait until you become a parent.” If it’s leveled as a threat, it probably means you’re being insufferable and your mom/dad is hoping for some next generation retribution. But we also understand this statement to have a more sentimental undertone; a specific type of understanding of how parents uniquely function and feel, shield and sacrifice on behalf of their kids.
This notion took on deeper meaning for me when my dad was dying.
There are a number of factors that determine how you personally grieve the loss of a parent, such as the circumstances of the death and your relationship with them. But how about WHEN it takes place? On the grand spectrum of “When it sucks the most to lose a parent,” a number of arguments could be made. Is it “better” when you’re really young and can’t really feel the loss? Or is it “better” as a grown, fully realized person?
Losing a parent as an adult can invite a common impulse from others to offer condolences that emphasize relative longevity: “At least you had XX years together.” Perhaps we even say it to ourselves to emotionally recalibrate after a loss, trying desperately to scrape the sky for silver linings. But beyond my adulthood and the (37) years I had with my dad, it has actually been my motherhood that has emerged more powerfully as comfort.
When my dad died last year, my daughters were 6 and 3. A common reflection among adults whose parents die is how it forces them to more acutely perceive of their own mortality. There’s an increased urgency to get busy with the memory making and legacy building for their own kids. I was certainly in that camp, but there was a more significant takeaway for me.
While I certainly never conceived of an “ideal” time to lose my dad, having it happen when it did — when I was a parent to my own kids — has actually helped me heal. Experiencing parental loss through the lens of my own parenthood has been invaluable.
In a number of ways, there were striking parallels and lessons between losing my dad while parenting my children.
Just wait until you understand the parental impulse to protect
When my dad was dying, he didn’t make it easy for me. I was hurt and angered by a trio of his major decisions: initially refusing to share the extent of his illness, declining to relocate from his home in California to live with me in Missouri, and then deciding to move to his native Korea to live out the rest of his days. I initially took all of these decisions very personally, fearful it reflected my failures or that his love had diminished with disease.
I learned later how each decision was made expressly to protect me: his denial of the worst and believing he would still pull through was to spare me from the emotional pain; his refusal to live with me was to protect me from the indignities of illness; and his final decision to move away was most affecting — to languish out of sight and to preserve my memories of him.
I understood the protective impulse. I was similarly operating from a place of denial and optimism when I talked to my daughters about my dad. I measured my words, spoke in the abstract, and operated on omission. They knew he was sick, but not dying. I fell apart often, but always out of their sight. While I felt like I was drowning in my grief, my girls only knew when it ebbed.
Just wait until you understand that parenting never ends
Despite his deteriorating health, my dad never settled comfortably into a reversal of roles between us. He ensured we didn’t venture too far from the space of just father and daughter. During his first chemo session, he didn’t let a labyrinth of IVs stop him from worrying about my own comfort as I sat beside him. Another time, he made my favorite Korean soup, starting the cooking process at 4 a.m. to attend to the time-intensive process. How effortlessly he put his own needs above mine, his own precarious well-being an afterthought.
I also understood this instinctual notion of parenting in even the direst circumstances. While I was in Korea during my dad’s last days, there were other challenges to contend with: a language barrier, and physical exhaustion coupled with the emotionally heavy work of saying goodbye and wishing for a different outcome. In the midst of this, I still tried to oversee the logistics of activities and carpools back home, parenting by FaceTime 14 hours away. My dad’s care and cooking for me, my choreography of schedules for them — we both understood thatdoing something for our children gives us singular meaning, particularly during a time when all else is out of our control.
It’s not that parenting is a distraction. It’s a commitment defined by its constancy.
Just wait until you realize how children make you want to live
One evening after receiving the latest round of bad news from the oncologist, my dad made a rare and candid admission. He said he wished for ten more years; to die at 72 rather than 62. Throughout his 15-month battle, I witnessed such fight in him, which was both affirming and heartbreaking to see. It’s hard to accept he was never really at peace with what was happening. And I knew what he desperately wanted to live for.
I realize that now. Because I want to live for my daughters. The loss of my dad has been tempered by the presence of my children, his grandchildren. The simple joy and even the tedium of parenting have been healing and restorative. Sometimes we need our children far more than they need us. My dad wanted me to go on; to mourn his death, but to also celebrate the life he helped give me.
So I go on.
These are insights I certainly would have preferred to wait on to learn if it meant he could still be here. But to know how the full measure of a parent’s love can be expressed in death — well, that’s just something I needed to wait until I became a mother to truly understand.