How To Survive The Loss Of A Parent

For quite a while now I have wanted to write about how I’ve survived the loss of my mother, a loss that seemed inconceivable to me even a year before she died.  I struggle each time I sit down to write, but I still feel like it’s important to share something of my experience because, well, it literally happens to everyone.  However, American culture refuses to accept death.  It’s a dirty secret. We fight against it. We celebrate longevity and cling to youth.  As a result, grieving people live in even quieter desperation.   Losing a parent is an identity crisis. I will never go back to who I was before she died.   It’s been a year and 7 months and I have somehow survived…but how? If I were to give advice on what to do after the loss of a parent (because that’s all I know), I would say the following:

1. Give Yourself Permission To Be a Rude Weirdo – Best to stop talking to people (at least in the beginning).  Why? Because people are terrible.  They complain about their jobs and car problems and the discord will make you want to scream, “WHO CARES? WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE ANYWAY!” at the top of your lungs.  Also, nobody wants to hear about your boring depressing grief.   How are you?  Oh, my mother died so it’s really a personal apocalypse and I kind of move through a gelatinous murky substance…how are you?  Death and grief is a serious bummer topic in our culture. Talk to dogs and cats, and butterflies and flowers…and maybe another person who also lost someone close.    Find a select group of people and let everyone else know that you’ve taken a vow of silence.

For a while, I lost my ability to engage in small talk.  I walked away from several painful conversations at a family holiday party by making myself seem heavily invested in the Manchego and Brie. “I can’t do this,” I told my friend and left her at my own family party. (She was having fun).  I could barely muster up a  “I’m fine, forget about talking about someone’s kids, work, house.   Gradually, my ability to talk about boring things came back.   Now I am almost back to normal in my ability to have meaningless conversations about nothing, but which satisfy some weird social contract.  But for a time, I had to give myself permission to be a rude weirdo.

2. Sure, Why Not Go To Therapy? – I joined a grief support group and I have to say it did provide some comfort. It might have helped that the people were my age and had also lost a parent.  We talked a lot about our loss, but we also talked about how far away we felt from our community and our friends.   It can be really lonely dealing with grief in this world.

3. Watch Shows About Grief – TV shows tend to belong to a category of personal tastes.   However, I love the world of The Walking Dead, in part, because people die every day.  Characters I love die.  Fucking Tyrese died!  The producers don’t care how much you love their characters.  As of right now, nobody knows who died at the end of Season 6 (GLENN?!), but I am prepared to see an episode about inconsolable grief come October 23.    I also really loved The Leftovers, which really depicted the weirdness and shock of the experience of having someone in your life just disappear.

4. Dress Up – I have so many dresses. I love dresses, but  never have an occasion to pull out the big guns.  But who cares?  Sometimes I just put on my dress and go out to have drinks or even Target.  Celebrate today or tonight with something that seems too fancy. (Who cares? We are all going to die, anyway).

5. Write in Your Journal – I have always written in my journal but now I am hardcore.  Sometimes I write about my dreams and they really help me understand what’s going on in my head and heart.   Sometimes I dream about my mom.   My aunt tried to help me differentiate whether she was alive or dead in my dream.  I’m not sure it matters, but I do think that my dreams can bring wisdom and healing.

6. Treat Yourself Awesome – If you’re anything like me, you have regrets about your relationship with the deceased.  I think everyone does.   I try to be extra kind to myself to counter the impulse to feel guilt, remorse or self-hate.  Sometimes I spend too much money on shoes or clothes, but mostly I try to prepare healthy meals, take my time to go to yoga or exercise, get my hair styled, go for a long  walk, and just enjoy the fact that I am here.

7. Take Musical Improv Or Just Listen To Music – I signed up for a musical improv course on an impulse to do anything to experience something other than grief.  I loved it.     Ok, so it’s also scary and a little stressful, so maybe it’s not for everyone, so maybe just listen to music and sing.   Listen to whatever you want.  Sometimes I (ahem) listen to musicals on Pandora.  Other times, it’s Adele, or Sam Smith or Ed Sheeran.  Corny, or cheezy, it doesn’t matter.

8. Dance, Dance, Dance! – One Wednesday afternoon, I sat at home sweating in my hot apartment, and tempted to feel sorry for myself, when something told me to look at the classes offered at Santa Monica College dance program.   It was the last day that they would still accept enrollment and about twenty minutes before a jazz dance class started.  I jumped in my car and drove and got there fifteen minutes late, but in time to sign up.  That class got me through the fall and winter.  I often came out of it sweaty and as happy I’ve ever been.   Everyone was 18-22, but I didn’t care (and nobody else did).  That class made that period of time, months after my mom died, bearable and gave me something to look forward to each week.

9. Leave an Abusive Job  –  Seriously!  Take this job and shove it! I know sometimes we need a job to pay our bills, but if you can, say, “Adios!” to the co-worker who makes life a nightmare.  Ideally, we all leave abusive job situations, anyway. But definitely after your mom dies.  For some reason right after my mom died I lost two of my sources of income and then ended up in a couple of bad work situations.   I stayed for two months in one place where I counted the minutes till I could leave.  That’s the last full time office job I have had.   (thank you, God! Mom?)

10. Open Your Mind About The After Life – I wrote a blog about the flickering lights in my apartment, despite the fear that I would appear like Kristin Wiig’s character in Ghostbusters (she’s an academic who wants to be taken seriously despite her belief in ghosts).    The truth is I feel my mom’s presence in my life. And sometimes my lamps flicker on and off.  They are also both lamps that she gave me.   I moments when I feel something, and a butterfly will appear.    It’s not just the sense that she might be somewhere, but that this thing called “death” is more mysterious than we know. I can get a lot more woo-hoo about it, but I’ll spare you.

11. Talk To Your Loved One – In Mexico they cook meals on Dia De Los Muertos and talk and spend time with their loved ones.  I talk to my mom everyday. I have battery operated candles always lit and I believe that she hears me. Again, it may feel crazy, but I promise something shifts. I believe she gives me guidance and I actually listen to her now, as opposed to when she was alive.

To be continued…

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