On Losing a Parent, and How to Help a Friend Who's Grieving

Preface—My dad died two years ago this week.  I could write numerous essays on the things my dad has taught me, but for today, I chose to write about grief.  Two years out, it can still be hard, and grief comes and goes.  I hope this post helps you or a friend who’s recently lost a parent or a loved one.  I listed specific info for things you can do at the end of this essay.

I sat on the outdated comforter and sobbed, staring at it vacantly, memorizing the details of the chintzy burgundy print and the slippery feel of the polyester fabric.  You never prepare to get bad news, especially outside of the comfort of your own home.  And yet here I was, at a condo near Disney, aka the happiest place on earth, receiving the worst news of my life from one of my brothers: my dad went to bed at home with my mom and did not wake up.  In the midst of my frozen disbelief, I stared at the comforter for a long time.  It wasn’t supposed to happen like this.  But it was.

That day was March 2, 2014.  I would like to say it was the worst day of my life, but the days and weeks that followed, when the grief really sank in, those were harder.  Each day, before I was fully awake, I knew there was something I was forgetting, something devastating that made my chest and heart physically hurt.  Then it would hit me, so hard, new, and raw, each day: my dad died. I will never see him again.  He will never see my girls again.  I will never hear his laugh again.  Grief surrounded me like a heavy fog, enveloping me at times, making it hard to see more than a few steps ahead of me.  So in those early days, I told myself to literally just put one foot in front of the other—right-left-right-left—and get through the day.  I kept marching on, right-left-right-left, because really, was there any other choice?  You have to keep going because life keeps going. 

In that regard, I think that Robert Frost quote sums it up perfectly: “in three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”  And so, with the days, weeks, months, and years since my dad passed away, I’ve learned to live life without my dad here.  Now that two years have passed, grief pops up at unexpected times.  Grief is a funny thing like that; not ha-ha-funny, but surprising-funny.  It sneaks up on you and surprises you when you least expect it, like a sad surprise party you never wanted; it pops up and yells SURPRISE! and then stares at you, waiting for a reaction.  To be clear, yes, I am sad on days like his birthday and on Father’s Day, but more often, I am sad at completely unexpected times.  And when it does happen, there’s no controlling the sadness, you have just feel it all and be sad and let it out.  Here are two recent times that happened. 

I was recently shopping at the Dollar Tree when I saw an older man who looked exactly like my dad from the back—same silver hair and balding head, same careful walk.  And I wanted him to be my dad so badly.  In my irrational mind, I was so excited that he was randomly shopping at the Dollar Tree.  But then I remembered—he is not here, as much as I want him to be, and he will never be here again.  And then I missed his laugh and voice and everything about him.  So I stood there in the party section of the Dollar Tree, between the pink plates and birthday pendants, choking back tears and trying to appear normal.  After I paid for my purchases and made my way to my mini-van, I let it all out and sat in the car and cried.  I texted my husband.  He understood.  He said he was sorry.  He knew he couldn’t fix it.  I texted my sisters.  They understood.     

Grief surprised me again last week.  We were in the middle of meat section at Costco when Lucy declared “it smelled like Grandpa.”  Which was rather bizarre because, first of all, we were in the Costco meat section.  Second of all, Lucy was only six when my dad died—did she remember what he smelled like?  What did she think he smelled like?  As I bent down to pepper her with questions—I smelled it.  The familiar scent of Skin Bracer aftershave.  It was the same after shave my dad had worn for decades. Lucy had remembered his smell.  It felt like that moment at the end of Lost where everything comes together and they all realize they know each other, you know?  It was likeyou remember!  And it was so happy and sad and poignant.  And it was happening smack in the middle of the Costco meat aisle, which also made it a little hysterical.  My mom was with us, so I relayed it to her.  We agreed it might be a bit creepy if we all trailed the Skin Bracer shopper, sniffing him.  So we both smiled, and I think she consciously stopped herself from being sad, and we carried on.  Because two years into my grief, that’s what I do—I pause, acknowledge my sadness, and keep on keeping on.      

So much has happened since my dad died that I would love to share with him, but of course the biggest thing is the birth of my three babies.  I could hear his words when my babies were born; he would’ve said, “yes sir, you’ve done good, Chrissy.”  My dad was, at his core, a huge family man.  If he were here, he would be telling everyone he knew—and those he didn’t!—about the babies.  He would’ve been so proud.  I am not someone who generally thinks that things happen for a reason, but I feel like there was some cosmic influence or act of God in having spontaneous triplets just seven months after he died.  They have brought so much joy and happiness to our family, and you cannot be too preoccupied with grief when you’re busy entertaining three giggling babies.  I treasure the text videos he sent to my big girls, where he laughed and smiled and told them silly things, and I look forward to showing my babies those videos when they’re older.

In the end, even though I know he’s not here in person, I know he’s here.  I see him every day in my babies’ bright blue eyes.  I feel him at baptisms and family celebrations.  I see him in the cardinal that perches outside my kitchen window, entertaining the babies while they sit and eat breakfast.  I hear him telling me to fill up my tires with air and go the cheaper gas station to get the gas (he had a thing about cheap gas).  I feel him when Adele belts out her latest love ballad and every time I hear a patriotic song.  I hear him laughing when we have to spend hours building Christmas presents.  And I know that Lucy is right when she tells me so confidently that my dad is watching us from heaven.  After all, if she was so certain we were having triplets (see my first blog post, she was psychic), it would make sense that she has some connection with my dad too, right?   I think so.  And there have been so many times I’ve felt his presence so strongly, I know she’s right; he’s with us, just not here in person.  He’s right here, and he’s also everywhere: in the way I parent my children, in the way I love my spouse, in the person I try to be.  He’s left a beautiful legacy of love.  And that makes me smile.  

If You’ve Recently Lost a Parent

If you have recently lost a parent, I’m so sorry for your loss.  It is so hard, raw, and new.  Please let yourself grieve and be sad, and know that there is no handbook for grief—it is different for everyone and manifests in different ways.  And, as you will learn, there is no timeline or expiration for grief either.   However, I want you to know that it will get easier, and, one day, the fog will lift and you will be able to laugh and smile without crying when you remember your mom or dad.  I know it’s not a club you ever wanted to be a part of (i.e., the I’ve-lost-a-parent club), but everyone who’s in it is incredibly compassionate and understanding, so I would encourage you to reach out to them and lean on them.  They know your grief and they share in your sadness.  I also wanted to share that one of the hardest parts about missing your mom or dad is that life will go on without them.  It will be hard, but you will eventually feel happy.  And you will feel them with you.  Be gentle with yourself, friend.

If Your Friend Has Recently Lost a Parent

I wanted to share a few things that you can do if your friend is experiencing a loss. 

  • Call or text.  My friend Abby texted me throughout the week as we planned my dad's service, simply to say—I am thinking about you.  It meant a lot.
  • Offer a specific way to help.  A few dear friends said I will bring dinner on Tuesday night and Thursday night, will you be home?  It was so nice to have warm food.
  • Take your friend to have fun.  My friend Lindsey took me out for a pedicure and to go shopping.  It was a much-needed respite from grief, and it felt so good to forget about my sadness for a little while.
  • Show up to the funeral.  Two of my best friends showed up and stood with me during my dad’s wake and funeral.  I have no idea how much work was involved in squaring away kids, work, and everything else, but they did it.  They showed up when I really needed them.  They didn’t even have to say anything, but they stood there alongside me, bearing witness to my sadness.   
  • If you knew their loved one, share their sadness and honor their loved one by sharing your favorite memories of them.  My oldest friend Jessica grew up knowing my dad quite well.  With each call and text, her sadness was palpable.  She regularly sends me old photos of my family as she finds them.  They’re always a treasure.
  • Send a handwritten card to your friend. There’s something to be said for snail mail and seeing my friends’ handwritten expressions of sympathy.
  • Send a plant or flowers for the funeral in memory of their loved one.  If you can’t be at the service, sending a plant or flowers will make your friend smile and feel your presence.     
  • Just say something.  When you get back to daily living after having lost your parent, everything is the same and altogether different, too.  If you don’t say something, it seems like everyone is pretending this big, sad thing didn’t happen.  So say something very generic, like I’m sorry.  Or I’ve been thinking about you.  Or, I’ve been praying for you.  Generally any expression of sympathy is welcome except for any sentiment that “they’re in a better place.” 
  • Don’t forget.  Use their parent’s name.  Share your favorite memories.  Help keep their memory alive for your friend.  Understand that your friend may still be sad months or years later.
  • Finally, just be present and listen.  Your friend will appreciate that more than you can know.