• Thu, Feb 27 - 3:00 pm ET

I Just Realized That My Parents Are Going To Die

coping-with-parents-death

Quick note: I promise I’ll be back with my regularly scheduled silly content tomorrow and will leave the serious stuff to serious people. But stick with me for a bit and help me work through this.

I woke up one morning in a hospital bed and realized that both of my parents will one day die. This may seem like a spectacularly stupid realization, and of course I always knew they would die one day. Nobody lives forever, least of all in my family where heart disease knocks you out early. But the reality of one day losing my parents never felt particularly real for one reason or another. It just felt like something that happened to other people’s parents.

I went to my great aunt’s funeral a month or so ago. I only got to meet her once or twice, but my dad was very close to her. They shared a birthday and inside jokes, and he flew here, to New York, to attend. For some reason, I spent the entire funeral planning my own parents’ funerals, which I imagined separately and with a lot of detail. We would ask for donations to the non-profit my mom works at instead of flowers. My dad’s would have music–probably The Beach Boys or Etta James. My sisters and I wouldn’t speak, just sit there, holding hands, like we have at funerals in the past. Like we will again. Is it normal to plan this out in advance? When did I become so obsessed with my own parents mortality?

The night of my great aunt’s funeral, I ended up in the emergency room with what was eventually revealed to be an inconsequential chest infection. However, the ER doctors spent the first 12 hours of my visit thinking I had a blood clot, which meant it was a somewhat stressful experience (although, I’ve had worse). Around hour 10, a suspiciously young radiologist told me that the dye they’d need to inject into my blood for a CT scan might make me “feel like my insides were on fire” or make my throat close up such that I’d need to be intubated. I totally lost it–maybe it was the mix of exhaustion and fear, but I became a crying mess. I wouldn’t stop apologizing to him, saying “It’s really not your fault! I went to a funeral today but it’s fine I barely even know her, but it’s just been a weird day!” while he patted me on the shoulder. I’m a fairly independent person, but I did something I haven’t done in a long time–I called my dad for help. By some miracle, he was still in New York City and was able to come save the day, which wouldn’t have happened under any other circumstances.

I’m not particularly close with my parents. We haven’t gotten to that point of being friends, we just kind of coexist and catch up and everything’s whatever. But for the first time since moving out, I felt like I needed a parent. I felt like a little kid. I think of myself as quite the little adult–I pay own rent and bills and live on the opposite coast from from my parents, starting my own life and family with my boyfriend. These moments remind me that I am so, so young, and that I still need to be parented. It reminds me of how much I’m floating out here, and how those two people 3,000 miles away are anchors.

He came to the Brooklyn ER, talked to the doctors, and I fell asleep. I woke up an hour or two later and realized that normally, he wouldn’t have even been here, because he lives in California. And then I realized that one day he would die.

You can reach this post's author, Julia Sonenshein, on twitter.
Share This Post:
  • http://Mommyish.com/ Eve Vawter

    The saddest :(

  • Valerie

    Oh honey. I’ve had these thoughts too and they fucking suck. Big giant coffee/tea/latte, happy book that you love and a comfy couch. Ride out the storm and be good to yourself. ((Big Internets hug))

  • Maria Guido

    Oh Julia, this was beautiful.

  • JustaGuest

    It is hard. And the reality is worse. My father was suffering for months – I certainly didn’t want him to continue suffering, and I was glad he was no longer suffering. But now, just over 2 years later, it still hurts. Not as often or as intensely as often, but it still does. Knowing the my future child will never know their grandpa, knowing that my Dad (who was great with children) will never get to have grandkids, just generally not being able to ask my Dad anything at random…it hurts. The last time my Dad left the house not to go to the hospital was for my wedding. We have wonderful photos and he had a great time; I am so glad we have all those great memories. But I was hoping for more and more years, not that this would be the end.

    All I can say is: try to enjoy them while you can. There aren’t any guarantees in life, so you have to grab what you can when you can. My last visit home was the day after I had staples removed from my back following back surgery. I got on a plane and flew for 4 hours, which is the worst trip I think I’ve ever had. But my dad had been in the hospital for 3 months and managed to recover for Christmas…I just needed to see him. And it was the last time I did see him. If your gut tells you to go, even if it’s not the most convenient thing, I really do advise following your gut if you can. I wouldn’t give up memories of our last Christmas together for anything.

    Wow, that’s all really depressing. Umm. Yeah, it’s hard. And it will hurt when you lose them. But you will survive and it will hurt less eventually. And remembering them won’t always be full of pain – it can bring you joy too. So I guess I’d advise enjoying it while you can and remember that nothing lasts forever; that’s no reason to get too depressed about it now.

  • Alanna Jorgensen

    These are the thoughts that come to me in the dark before bed. Probably has a lot to do with why I need sound and light to sleep comfortably.

  • SmrtGrl86

    The complete and total realization of death was the thing I struggled with the most when I started working in funeral homes. As fascinated as I was by the profession it took me a good six months of sleeping with a light on and the TV going to come to grips with the absolute eventuality and random tragedy of death. That’s a lot for an 18 year old to process. Now as a new parent, almost a decade later, I find my self processing it again, this time worrying about the tiny fragile life that has been trusted to me, who’s safety I ultimately can’t completely control. This is a great article and a necessary one for sure. Great work.

    • Guest

      When I was in my early twenties there was a job opening for embalming assistant (or something similar) that I actually wanted to apply for but my parents were like you will never feel the same way again and won’t ever get over it etc. etc.

  • thisshortenough

    My mam died when I was 13 so that’s out of the way. It was incredibly hard especially since my dad was a shithead and I never wanted to live with him. Meaning I haven’t seen him in 7 years. Luckily I got to live with my grandparents and my granny is the most amazing person. But every week it seems I get incredibly sad and scared at the thought of her dying. I don’t know if I’ll be able to cope when the time comes but I know I’ll have to.

  • Rowan

    That calling your dad for help thing… yeah. My dad died 3 and a half years ago but I still have moments where my first thought is to call him for advice. I now have his office chair in my study, hoping that some grown-up vibes will rub off on me.

    • Sri

      I have the same urges. When something really stressful happens, good or bad, my first instinct is to call my mom and dad. My MIL has graciously offered to be the go-to person, but I usually end up talking to myself. As nice as she is, it’s just not the same.

    • pixie

      I often find myself wanting to phone my grandmother who died last year. She was the only grandparent I knew and I was pretty close with her. I also often regret not seeing her one last time before I went back up to school – she was the image of good health for a nearly 88 year old woman and she would be around in April when I returned…or so I thought.

  • Guest

    I’ve always been very worried about this because of my dad’s health issues. He was always worried about dying young like his dad and I was worried about what would happen after he died. He still hasn’t gotten my mom in the loop about all the bills and insurance and whatnot. They have life insurance thankfully. I’ve been trying to pry details out of them about what they want for funerals or to be cremated or buried and they’ve been recently opening up more. I just really, really want them to put everything in writing because I know out of all three kids I will be the one to take over everything for them. I don’t want to try to remember “the river bank” up north that they want their ashes spread on.. give me a damn map!
    I think especially for those of us who are planners by nature it makes it that much more stressful. I’m 26 and I want everything in place with bills, accounts, wills, living wills, pets, kids etc. I just don’t want to leave a mess for someone else.

  • CrazyFor Kate

    My dad is 76 and my mom is 61. I’m 22. I know that my time with them is likely to be much shorter than many people of my generation get (especially my dad), and so I’ve struggled with this notion since I was a teen. Living abroad for a year, my biggest fear is that I’ll come home and one of them won’t be there. I don’t know what I’ll do when they do go. This article is so accurate, sadly…

    • Guest

      My husband and I have thought the same thing about his dad who is much older than his mother. We’re more worried about if he’ll be around when we have kids if we wait much longer. Just never know, he could live to be super old or next year..just don’t know.

  • pixie

    I’ve begun to struggle with this more and more, especially with my dad, since a good number of people at my dad’s work have died in the past several years. It’s not a super dangerous job, but he works in a chemical warehouse driving a forklift and putting things on trucks. He’s also got really bad arthritis, and an allergy to ASA and NSAIDs (we think). Over the past couple years he’s just deteriorated – he’s still fairly healthy when you look at his blood pressure (normal) and eating habits – but it still frightens me. Add heart problem in the family and an enlarged prostate and I’m terrified.

    I do worry about my mom, too, but she’s incredibly healthy and will most likely live a very long time (unless something happens to her on a business trip, like the plane going down or something, which is my biggest worry about her), but with the shape my dad is in now, I worry about him the most, and so does my mom. :(

  • jane

    This is something I have thought about for a long time. My father had a stroke when I was 10, so I have long been aware of my parent’s mortality. He had unsuccessful brain surgery when I was 24 that has left him severely disabled. My husband’s father died of a stroke. My husband has had cancer twice. People die. They die old and young, fast and slow. It’s fucking terrifying.

    It’s really hard to keep the anxiety in check, but it’s also really important to do that. When things were really bad with my husband, I would say to myself “well, no one’s going to die today” and that actually made me feel a lot better. Try to focus on what you have now. The worrying that you’re doing isn’t going to make them live any longer, nor is it going to make it any less painful when they go. But it is going to spoil the time that you have.

    If there are conversations that you want to have with your parents about their deaths, you should have them. Not talking about it isn’t going to make them live longer either. But it might enable you to stop obsessing about it a bit.

    The future comes whether you’re ready for it or not, so you might as well try to stay in the present.

    • arrow2010

      WTF is the point? Just max out on adrenaline rush.

  • Amber Leigh

    I find that I am thinking so much more about everyone’s mortality, including my own, now that I have my son, we haven’t had a great run.
    My mum (57) has a brain aneurysm, my dad (65) has survived throat cancer and my partner (27) has had a heart attack and a pace maker inserted… and that was all before my son was born.
    Everyone knows in the back of their mind that these things will happen eventually but we can never see it happening to us, and I think having a child really brings into perspective everyone that you love and everyone that you can lose and that’s a scary thought.
    I know how you feel and its scary, but everyone deals with it and we never forget them, the good and the bad, so I think we just need to try to make as many memories good as we can.

  • brebay

    Maybe the only time in life where having horrible and abusive parents is an advantage. When my mother died, I felt very much like you do when you read the obituaries and don’t know the people. I wasn’t giddy, was glad she didn’t suffer and that no one hurt her but, otherwise, I just went on with my day. That’s one loss I guess I don’t have to deal with, but I definitely would have traded.

  • MERKIN

    I hear you. The crazy thing is, it will happen and you will still live. Your life will go on. To me, that’s the most unbelievable part of it all.

    My mom was an alcoholic who left my dad when I was seven. She drank more than anyone I’d ever seen or heard about in my life– but she was a good mom when she was sober. She remarried and pretty much forgot about my brother and I, while my dad raised us the rest of the way.

    My dad was the best dad you could ever imagine. He raised us alone and went through some crazy times trying to do it. He was my best friend and hero. My biggest fear ever was something happening to my dad– I’d have nightmares about it. Every night before I went to bed (up until last year, and I’m 27) I prayed for him to stay healthy and alive.

    I was 24 when I got the call that my mom had died. She was 50. I was shocked, but not surprised– honestly, I’d been wondering when it would happen. You can’t live that hard and stay alive. I remember saying, “At least it wasn’t my dad.” Horrible thing to say, but honestly, it was the truth. I clung to my dad after that, more than usual. I still prayed every night that he would live at least 30 more years…I never actually thought he’d die, though. He was invincible, like most of us think our parents are. He lived through Vietnam, working 30 years of manual labor, two marriages, and raising two kids. I figured he’d live forever.

    Last year, I couldn’t get a hold of my dad and neither could my brother. Both of us were out at other places, although we both still lived at home. (I had just gotten married and my husband and I were renting the basement while we saved money for a down payment. My dad graciously allowed us to live there as long as we needed to.) I was an hour away, but when I heard my brother’s fear I went home to check on my dad. I found him in bed, where it looked like he had died in his sleep.

    It’s been a long, hard, excruciating road without him. It kind of just becomes your new normal. I remember thinking, “If my dad dies, I’ll die.” But you don’t. You just keep going as best as you can. It seemed like I did die when he did, but then I slowly came back to life as the years went on. Some days I don’t know how I am still breathing. It feels like there’s no way your heart can hurt so much.

    This was really, really long, and I made it about myself and not you. For that, I’m sorry. I guess i just really needed to talk about it and this was my outlet. Forgive me for comment-jacking.

    TL;DR– Just do as much as you can with and for your parents. Love them more than you can imagine. Do the mundane, everyday things with them, and try to hold on to those moments. Knowing that it isn’t going to last forever is actually a blessing in disguise–it makes being with your parents now that much sweeter.

    • Jill

      This summed it up perfectly. I have seen some families we’re close to lose parents recently suddenly and very young. It just takes time but eventually they’re back to doing their regular fun stuff and I think the thing that seems to keep them all going is that mom or dad would want them to continue on and be happy.

  • http://wtfihaveakid.blogspot.ca/ jendra_berri

    My mom died when I was 16. And a valuable life lesson came with it: The only person guaranteed to spend your life with you is you.
    It can be a scary thing, realizing you’re the “other people” things can happen to. It certainly puts other considerations in life into perspective. It made me reevaluate what I consider to be an actual problem.

  • Harriet Meadow

    I was literally just thinking about this. The father of a good friend of mine found out he had Stage 4 lung cancer 10 days ago. He died yesterday. 10 days for him to say goodbye to his family. I know it’s more than most people get, but it’s still not long enough, especially since he was only in his 50′s. Scratch that – nothing is long enough. My friend is in a lot of pain, especially since he and his wife just had their second baby, who now will never know his grandfather. It’s terrible and it sucks. And my friend’s dad was the exact same age as my dad is. And my dad is a hardcore smoker…

  • Jezebeelzebub

    Yep- my mom died a few months ago. She had cancer- HAD cancer, as in she had just finished her last round of chemo and there was no sign of cancer anywhere in her body. We got that news a few days before the sepsis killed her set in- a result of her completely compromised immune system, courtesy of the chemo that simultaneously saved her life and largely contributed to ending it. So that sucked pretty bad. I have a very small family. My mother’s parents, dead. My mother, dead. It’s my father, my daughter, and me- and that’s it. It was a weird and sobering thought that when Dad goes, my child will be my only remaining blood relative. I made out my will. I didn’t designate my father at all. I picked my two best friends because they are all I have as far as people to look after my daughter- I’m not bitching, though, because those two are awesome. Anyway, yes. Your parents will die. Maybe you aren’t close to your parents the way I am/was to mine, but even so I can tell you that you probably won’t like it much. You’ll be okay, though. You don’t have much of a choice. You will be okay because you HAVE to be okay. But you don’t need to be worried about all that because your parents are still alive and you can say all the things you need to say to them still- where they can hear you and you know they can hear you. Like, you can look at them and observe them hearing what you tell them, and then they can say stuff back to you and there can be a dialogue and shit.

    I was lucky how it worked out with my mom. When she was sick, I got to take care of her. It was my privilege to do so. I got to show her how much I loved her by doing for her, and she and I got to talk to each other a lot about all kinds of things. So even though it was a horrible fucking shock when she died, at least there wasn’t anyting left unsaid. I would give just about anything- do just about anything- for 60 more seconds with my mother, 1 minute more where she is lucid and can hear me- but if I got that time, I wouldn’t have to cram in a whole bunch of shit I never said. I said all the things, and she said all the things. And so if you are worried about how you are going to feel after one or both of your parents die, you could maybe try to take that one thing off your shoulders. You could maybe say all the things now, and not have to be sad that you didn’t say all the things sooner. That might make you feel better now. I bet you a million dollars it will make you feel better later.

  • Kaitlyn Catherine

    Try not to ignore too many phone calls. After my mother died I went through all the voicemails she had left me, some never listened to. One was inviting me to a party that I just couldn’t possibly find time for, One because I was late to Easter dinner, and the rest were her just wanting to talk when I couldn’t be bothered to answer the phone. I would give anything to just be able to go back and answer one of those calls.

    • Guest

      :(

  • Allyson_et_al

    I never gave much thought to my parents’ mortality until my mom got diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000. I was in my second trimester with my first baby; mom died 6 weeks before my daughter’s birth at the age of 58. The day I finally convinced my husband and OB/GYN to let me be induced 3 weeks early so that my mom could meet the baby, I got a call from my dad that they were taking her off the ventilator the next day, and I need to come home.

    My mom and I had a difficult relationship (she had a major addiction problem along with some other issues), but we were also very close. For months after she died, every time my daughter did something new, or I had a question about babies, or just wanted to talk to someone at 3:00 when we were up nursing again, I would go to pick up the phone before I remembered.

    It’s been more than 13 years, and I still miss her. I’m glad my 74-year-old dad is a non-smoking, non-drinking distance runner.

  • darras

    I hear ya.. My dad is 83 this year, he has Parkinson’s and has turned into a bit of a hypochondriac mess. I think I accepted a few years ago that he was going to die some day. My sister, however, developed a terrible level of insomnia at the age of nine because she’d convinced herself that she would wake up one morning to find that he had died in the night! Awful..

    My mum however? She has always seemed invincible to me, until she nearly died from a very sudden and massive heart attack three years ago.That’s when I realised she was going to die some day, and it breaks me to even think about it. We’re very close, like sisters or besties. I talk to her every day, about everything. Now I just cried thinking about it again :( I hate that inevitability about it.

  • Pingback: My Mom's Death Has Taught Me Important Lessons About Parenting