I want to be as forthcoming as possible with you from the get-go: there is no proper way or magic formula to deal with the loss of your parents. This is one of the heaviest and most significant losses that many of us will ever face, and we are all going to react and cope differently. When the time comes, it is a bridge that we will all have to cross on our own terms.
My story, however, will hopefully help ease your mind and normalize your feelings and coping strategies. What I hope to accomplish by the end of this article is to instill the idea that however you are allowed and encouraged, you should cope the way you see fit. If you are feeling down about your coping strategies, I encourage you to take a step back and to exercise some self-love.
Trigger warning: I openly discuss both my father’s and my own mental health struggles, and I deal with concepts such as loss, death, suicide, depression, illness and panic.
When you have supportive parents, they are often the first, most prominent and seemingly permanent fixtures in your life.
Whenever I was bullied, my parents threw their arms around my shoulders and gave me a tall glass of milk and a plate piled high with cookies. When I needed help completing my homework, they tried their best to remember how to do long division. When I wanted to do something but my friends weren’t available, at least one of my parents was always eager, holding a board game, some marbles or a book. However, these examples simply scratch the surface.
Mom and Dad’s love went much further than these simple expressions.
Mom worried a lot about us and sacrificed her own self-care for our well-being. She never wore new clothes and worked at home, around the clock, to keep us happy. She was a passionate woman who saw the best in people but had little patience for selfishness. She came to our defense when her family was threatened, and didn’t shy away from standing up for us.
Mom was physically weak to a comical level, but her strength of character and sheer presence made up for it. In many ways, she inherited these traits from her Mom—a spry 93-year-old woman with a heart that shines hot enough to melt steel.
Dad, too, worked long hours at the office. His main way of expressing his love was making sure the family had enough money to keep a roof over our heads and have food on the table. Dad was never much for expressing feelings, but he demonstrated his love with acts of service: driving us around, playing road hockey or tennis, engaging in slapstick comedy, fixing a leaky pipe. That kind of stuff.
After Mom passed away, I saw more of his emotional side. Behind his rocky, macho exterior was a vulnerable man who held deep-rooted feelings of inferiority, believing that he wasn’t doing enough for us. I’ll admit that Mom was a tough act to follow, but he still did his best, given his circumstances. Although he did occasionally do things that truly pissed me off, I fault him for none of it.
Mom’s death, in 2010, was probably the most cataclysmic thing to happen to my immediate family. When someone loves as deeply as Mom did, their death creates a vacuum that everyone scrambles to inadequately fill. Our family’s reaction was no different.
In the following years, we were plagued by mental illness: my anxiety disorder and depression grew far worse, Dad’s depression worsened to the point of being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—and I know it also affected my brothers—the extent of which, I am unsure about, since we seldom had heart-to-heart discussions about it. It’s a rift that has, to date, never fully closed.
Out of all of us, however, Mom’s death possibly hit Dad the hardest. Mom was his biggest beacon of hope: he loved her much more than he loved himself, and when she passed away, he was left with a hole that was never fully filled. Dad’s love bordered on—and often exceeded—idolization.
In 2012, my then-girlfriend, now-wife and I brought home a cat. His name is Checkers and he lives with us now. Dad always told me he wasn’t a cat person, after fawning over his childhood dog, Cookie. Yet, when he first met Checkers, there was instant chemistry.
We were originally going to move to Sudbury with Checkers, but after finding a troubling letter on one of his computers, we decided that it would be best to give him the cat for support. Almost overnight, this cat became a new beacon of hope, and to his last day, we joked with him that he cared more about the cat than he did us.
To be honest, we were only partially kidding. It was almost like the cat was a proxy for him to redirect his intense feelings of loss into love and affection, once again. Checkers gave him the capacity to feel hope once again.
Mental turmoil and personal regrowth
My own struggles with mental illness came to a head in 2017 and 2018, brought on by a combination of overworking myself and my intense—and lingering—feelings of general sadness, never-ending intrusive thoughts and intense loss. This story was explained in brief, in another one of my articles.
Numerous mental health professionals told me I could improve by talking about my issues, but by December of 2017, talking about it was all I could do, and that only made it worse. My mind cycled between periods of intense sadness and dejection and periods of intense, near-chronic panic attacks. I still do not know the extent of the role Mom’s loss played at the time, but I can tell you that it certainly did not help. Dad’s mental health was at its worst in 2012, but I feel like in 2018, it was my turn.
By January, I was only sleeping about an hour a night, and by February, I had seemingly lost the ability to sleep. The invasive thoughts were intense, and I reached a point where I just wanted a way out. Suicidal thoughts began as ‘what ifs’ and hypotheticals in December, but by February, they had reached the stage of ‘how to do it without it physically hurting.’ After the fifth night in a row of absolutely no sleep in mid-February, I began hallucinating, seeing flowers blooming out of inanimate objects.
This insomnia-induced side effect was an actual blessing in disguise: as someone who was diagnosed with somatic symptom disorder (often a medical term for hypochondria, or health-related anxiety), I began to wonder if I was experiencing a physical disease. I decided to visit the Emergency Department, not because of my deteriorating mental health, but because I thought I had an infinitesimally rare disease known as Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI).
Odd or paradoxical, I know: Here I was, strongly considering ending my own life, but I was also afraid of the uncertainty surrounding physical illness and disease. At the time, my wife was supporting us financially, as I took a leave of absence from work. She tried so hard to help me, but it was like talking to a brick wall. Actually, it was worse than that. Because at least you can punch a wall if it’s being stubborn, and it’d hurt less than punching someone you love.
Maybe that was what scared me the most: the loss of control, or the uncertainty surrounding my own mortality. With suicide, I would maintain an element of control, because if I wanted to, I could have ended things on my own terms. Yet, with a hypothetical disease like FFI, I held absolutely no control over my life—or my death.
When I arrived at Emergency, I immediately expressed fear about my inability to sleep. Triage monitored my vitals. My blood pressure was through the roof, although I cannot remember the exact numbers. My resting heart rate was sitting at around 120 beats per minute (60 to 90 is considered normal).
I was sweating and unhinged. My thoughts were racing at a million miles an hour, and were cannibalistic in nature. One thought ate the other, which then ate another, which then ate another. My existence, at the time, consisted of a husk of a mind surrounded by metal doors and the strong scent of medical-grade disinfectant.
I felt like an absolute failure, because I knew, deep down, that my Mom approached a real, fatal disease with a headstrong attitude, never faltering in her courageous battle. And here I sat, physically fine but completely broken mentally. Her resilience made me feel worse about my lack of it, and I remember wondering why the hell her courage apparently skipped a generation.
If mindfulness is living completely in the present, then in triage, I was about as far away as possible from it. I remember nothing else about the visit, aside from being registered, pumped up on Ativan (a benzodiazepine-class of anti-anxiety medication) and questioned by a social worker about whether or not I was bipolar. Then, in a mental instant, I woke up, admitted to the hospital.
I spent a little under two weeks in the hospital’s psychiatric ward. And during that time, I had a lot of time for introspection, observation and reflection. First, I noticed that I was extremely bored. Second, I noted that contrary to how mental hospitals are portrayed in popular culture, the real-life version is actually quite uneventful.
Aside from having to take our medication on time and not being allowed to keep sharp objects or razor blades, life in the psych ward was actually quite normal. Everyone shared a goal: to reach a state of recovery, in whatever form that would take for them.
Traverse the mountain the way you can
I made quite a few friends in there, if only for two weeks. My friends there were astoundingly normal. I think the media, movies, television and fiction paint an incorrect and stigmatizing picture of mental illness. It is less a personal failure and more a combination of factors and a lack of adequate systems response.
I didn’t find myself in the hospital because of some kind of inborn flaw or limitation, but rather because I was overworked in a capitalist system, and I didn’t have enough free time or resources to properly address my many traumas, including the death of my mother. These traumas build within you like some kind of infection, and once you accumulate enough of them, they start to seep out in unpredictable ways and occasionally burst right open.
My time at the hospital, like in Emergency, was also quite blurry, but I remember that my conversations with other patients were some of the first meaningful conversations I’d had in a long time, and there are a couple of anecdotes that remain.
My interactions with other patients were simple conversations that began as that annoying, “Hi, how are you?” small-talk, but gradually progressed into talking about our stories, hobbies and passions.
One of the people I talked to the most was a huge fan of board games and Magic: The Gathering. Another person I met was a huge fan of the band known as Five Finger Death Punch, and she often scribbled drawings of anime characters into a notebook. A third one seemed like a stoic, quiet middle-aged man with stern grey stubble. Yet, one night, he picked up an acoustic guitar and began singing Gordon Lightfoot songs with skill, precision and passion. We spent a good hour huddling in the games room, listening to this man belt out tunes on his guitar, with a few of us singing along.
It was at that moment when I felt alive for the first time in months.
When I left the hospital, I was about 10 pounds heavier (a combination of the shockingly good food they served, and no, I am not being sarcastic), and the side effects of my new medication.
I began to look at Mom in a different light, not as someone inherently better at coping with challenges, but as someone who was simply a different person. I still look at her example for strength, but no longer demean my own coping strategies, just because she displayed more outward strength. My dad told me fairly recently, in the past two years, about moments where Mom’s tough exterior cracked, albeit temporarily. She was, after all, only human.
My experiences from 2010 to 2018 have taught me that comparing yourself to others when it comes to trauma or coping is a fruitless endeavour that quite often can result in self-depreciation. You need to do you, and any way you traverse your mountain is completely fine, whether or not someone before you traversed a mountain more quickly or smoothly. After all, no mountain on the planet shares a twin.
Dad: one final goodbye
The last time I saw Dad in person was on October 17, 2019. I was in town for a job interview at a national non-profit, so I stayed at his place for a few days beforehand. We shared laughs over some good food, coffee and stories.
Dad always harboured an intense longing for the past, often to the detriment of his present, especially after Mom passed away. It was only after receiving his cat that he began to redirect his negative feelings surrounding complex trauma, and live in the present again.
My last visit with him was defined by stories. We always mulled over the same anecdotes together: his time living in Prince Edward Island, his time as a Junior Park Forest Ranger, his success as a high school football player (defensive tackle) and his original desire to join the military (which was soon abandoned, once Mom said she wouldn’t marry someone who would “just gets his ass shot off in Crete.” There is no disrespect intended to those serving in the military; I am simply transcribing what Mom said.
Most recently, our conversations often shifted between these stories and funny tales about Checkers. You know Godwin’s Law? It states that if a conversation goes on long enough, someone will eventually bring up Adolf Hitler. Well, imagine a similar, more banal version of that law, where conversations with my Dad will eventually cause him to bring up Checkers.
At the time, I had no idea that our handshake and brief hug would be the last one I ever shared with him. In fact, I never got to give him a proper goodbye: I was in a hurry to catch a GO Bus back to London, and he was about to lay down for a nap. When I arrived at the hospital in October, he was already gone: doctors call it Brain Death. So, even though I had a few last words with him before the life support was unplugged, I don’t think he heard me.
Second time easier? Not necessarily…
I had this odd idea when my Dad passed away, that since he is the second parent to pass, that I would cope with it more easily. In fact, I have found that the opposite is true.
With both of my parents (my two biggest supports) gone, it has reinforced that life is temporary. From birth, I found myself with a consistent and steady support network. From my first breath and onwards, I was picked up when I fell, I was loved when I felt like the world could never love me and I was cradled in the comfort of my home while the world outside existed; indifferent, dangerous and seemingly uncaring.
The death of my parents has taught me that all things end, and that I must forge new coping strategies to deal with life’s day-to-day stresses and long-term traumas.
Dad left the world fairly recently, so I am not sure what kind of effect his death will have on my mental health. However, what I do know is that my immediate reaction and the following months seem to be manifesting differently. Whether that is due to my evolved outlook (I am close to 30 years old now, compared to 20 when Mom passed) or another combination of factors, I am not sure. Yet, this speaks to the notion that loss doesn’t get easier. It is not a concept governed by a formula.
Death is one of the hardest things to cope with. We are all going to die. Yet, when we’re living our lives and enjoying ourselves, we can sometimes forget about it.
The relations we form with other people, although fleeting and temporary, are valuable and nourishing. People need other people. We are social animals, who have within us the capacity for caring, loving, dreaming and believing.
If you are close to your parents, their deaths will probably hit you hard. We will all cope with this in a number of ways. Each one of our coping methods will look different, which is totally OK.
I hope that my story helped ease your mind and normalize your feelings and coping strategies. What I hope to accomplish by the end of this article is to instill the idea that however you are allowed to and encouraged to cope, do so whichever way you can. If you feel the same, then my mission is accomplished.
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