When a parent passes away, we take on a new kind of work. I am not referring to the necessary “estate chores” of filing papers or clearing out the house. I am referring to the psychological process of sorting out the seemingly impalpable experience of the death of a parent.
Initially, the process is emotionally draining as we are tossed back and forth in time reliving the good, the bad, and the confusing. At some point we begin to settle down, organize “what just happened” last month or over the last fifty-five years, and begin to extract new meaning from the experience. It is a cryptic process that only reveals itself in layers, flashes of information or forgotten data, like pieces of a puzzle, we are asked to ponder and ultimately rearrange.
Here are some of the pieces:
1. Loss: No matter what we thought, we were wrong. Losing a parent hurts more than we planned. We are humbled at the power of biology even in the face of distant and dysfunctional parent-child relationships. We are like one of Dickinson’s orphans, surprised that we wound up this way with no clear idea how to feel better.
2. Regrets: As we ruminate over our loss, we find ourselves with a laundry list of regrets, a thousand things we might have done different, better, sooner, and always with more compassion. We find ourselves longing for a “do over” and, like Lear, the chance to “get it right.”
3. Insights: Despite loss and regrets, our hearts understand that the mind’s dream of perfection is fool’s gold. This is earth and we know that all of us suffer human endings filled with ambiguity, regrettable choices, and good intentions.
4. Stories: We are surprised to find that our lives can only be understood and explained through our stories, including the one about the loss of a parent. We are equally surprised by how important for us to tell our story even though its emphasis and meaning keep changing over time.
5. Lessons: We rediscover the real meaning of life-long learning as we come face to face with what matters the most. We know that these insights may not change our lifestyle, goals, or priorities; but they give spiritual substance and renewed meaning to our journey. It helps us feel real in a world filled of rapid and never ending transactions.