No one ever expects to lose a parent, and nothing can prepare for the experience. I was freshly 18 years old, sure that I was an adult already, when my father unexpectedly passed. He was 53. He had struggled with health issues for nearly a decade, so in a way his untimely death was also somewhat of a relief. He was no longer trapped in a body that seemed to undermine his efforts towards recovery every single day. Though learning how to cope with loss wasn't easy, it did help me realize that my father remained calm despite the fact that he couldn't control the circumstances.
For me, the birth of my son and the passing of my father are forever linked because they're the only two experiences where I've felt completely vulnerable and woefully inadequate as they happened to me. Obviously the birth of my son was a decidedly happier moment than the sharp pain my dad's loss wrought. Yet, that moment in the recovery room right after my c-section, I felt 19 again. I was lost, confused, and unsure of how to proceed next with my new role in life.
I underestimated how my world would be turned upside-down when my child was born. Before he arrived, I was confident about the strange new world upcoming foray into parenthood. Sure, some of it may have been for show, but once I actually held my tiny bundle of joy in my arms, there was no denying just how little things resembled what I’d imagined they'd look like.
On one hand, I was beyond elated to have taken part in creating a life. Yet on the other hand, I felt the crippling heartbreak of losing my dad all over again. He'd be the only one who wasn't there to welcome Max to the world. My son would meet everyone but him.
After losing my dad, I knew what it was like to have my life shaken to its core by loss. Of course I shared some things in common with other mothers-to be: I wondered if I would be a good parent, how my relationship with my partner might change, and what I'd do if something went wrong, but I was also utterly terrified that the anxiety and grief I felt after my dad's passing would somehow made me a terrible mom. And after my son made his entrance, I was conflicted. On one hand, I was beyond elated to have taken part in creating a life. Yet on the other hand, I felt the crippling heartbreak of losing my dad all over again. He'd be the only one who wasn't there to welcome Max to the world. My son would meet everyone but him.
I wish, more than anything, that my son had a maternal grandfather. I’m sad that he won’t know how much he’s just like my dad. The spark in my son’s eyes, like he knows a joke no one else does, reminds me exactly of my father. They share more than just personality traits: My son has a birthmark on the nape of his neck and a lighter one in the middle of his back, which are identical to the ones my dad had. On the tough days, I wish I could just leave the memories of my father neatly boxed up in the past. But at the most random times I'm confronted with reminders by an unsuspecting and unaware little boy. The range of emotions runs the gamut from sharp pangs of grief to a bittersweet nostalgia and hopeful optimism for my son's future.
Not having my father here to be a shoulder to cry on or to offer a reassuring pat on my back when I question my own parenting skills will be something I can work to accept, but it'll never stop feeling like a gut punch straight to the heart.
There are times, usually in the quiet moments, like when I'm watching my son while he's reading his favorite book and carefully tracing the pictures with his little finger, that I wonder what it would be like to share this with my father. Though I can't quite put my finger on what I miss most from my past, I know what it is I miss for my present and future as a parent. What would it be like if my son could have a grandfather to go on adventures and play pranks with? The fact that I will never know is what hurts the most.
Parenting after losing my own parent has taught me an empathy I never knew I wanted or needed.
Right now, he’s only 2 years old. He isn’t old enough to understand death or ask me why I don’t have a daddy. I feel thankful that I can skirt those issues, but I know that day will come and I honestly don’t know how I’m going to handle it. The main reason I'm dreading those inevitable questions is because I haven't yet fully processed my own loss, even in the decade since it first happened. So if I can't even put my feelings into words for my own sake, how can I explain things to my son? I've confided in friends who've lost a parent, too, and we all have one major thing in common: we all just assumed our parents were immortal.
As kids, most of us see our parents as invincible superheroes. Even if you never lose a parent, once you become an adult and bear witness to your parents' mortality, it's an impossible reality to shake. Not having my father here to be a shoulder to cry on or to offer a reassuring pat on my back when I question my own parenting skills will be something I can work to accept, but it'll never stop feeling like a gut punch straight to the heart.
If and when Max loses someone, I'll give him the space to feel those emotions in his own way. Whether that means holding him while he cries or letting him go when he just wants to be alone, I will honor the sacred experience of loss. Parenting after losing my own parent has taught me an empathy I never knew I wanted or needed. Though I'd never wish the death of a loved one on anyone else, I’m grateful to share what I've learned. Because I know time is fleeting, parenting without my own parent has made me even more determined to be the best mother I can possible be to my son.