My sister and I just lost our father to dementia. As the youngest of the family, I’ve always logically known and accepted that my parents would die and eventually my sister, followed by me. Death is certain, and once my father was diagnosed with dementia, I knew his would come sooner than later. Nonetheless, I wasn’t prepared for all the other events that occur when a parent dies.
There are things that people don’t tell you—things that your education and upbringing never prepare you to face. Dealing with the death of a parent is one of them. While I am no psychologist nor an expert on deaths in the family, I think that by sharing my personal experience, I can help you face the inevitable. So, here’s what happens when a parent dies.
Some people become closer.
My elder sister and I are five years apart. That may not sound like much, but when I was five, playing with toys, she was readying herself for puberty. When I was a 15-year-old cheerleader, she was a college student preparing for adult independence. A five-year difference can be a lot when you’re young, and even though we were raised under the same roof and hold shared DNA from the same parents, our childhoods were actually quite different. Dad’s dementia and death brought us closer than ever before.
Some people return.
A big part of what sets my sister and I apart is our mother. Yes, she is ours, but she has been in my life a lot longer than in my sister’s. For decades, they were estranged. Today, they are not. Mother has really stepped up to the plate, and while my big sister has lost one parent, she has regained another.
Some people betray you.
In my case, the way I see it, my father’s wife and in-laws have betrayed him more so than us. They never embraced us as part of their family to begin with. Why my father married a woman who did not treat his daughters as her own relatives is beyond me. Why he married into a family that also has never embraced us, even shunned one of his sisters when she tried establishing a kinship with them, is something that astounds me. His actions are so unlike him and contradict the very qualities he instilled in my sister and me.
By disregarding us, never reaching out to us, eliminating us from my father’s estate, his other family is betraying him by going against the wishes he had for his daughters to be taken care of after his death. When a parent dies and there is a different spouse involved in the situation, expect greed and betrayal. As a friend on Facebook once said to me, “The wicked stepmother isn’t just a Disney character.”
When a parent dies, someone may act in a way that is dishonest and dishonorable. In our case, it is his wife, mother-in-law, father-in-law, and brother-in-law, who is conveniently the executor of a will that never existed before.
In your case, the betrayer could be a sibling. I hear this one a lot. Oftentimes, siblings become estranged after a parent dies. I’m so grateful that it hasn’t been the case with me. Whomever it is, be prepared for it.
How you handle betrayal is up to you. Do you hire an attorney? Do you tell them off? Do you let it go? Do you hire a voodoo priestess (or a curandera, in my case) to curse your betrayers with a spell? Only you can decide what’s best for you, but I implore to make your peace of mind and health priorities.
Everyone’s emotions will vary.
My sister is sad and hurt. I am angry; so angry, in fact, that if Dad were alive, I would not be speaking to him. While my sister is focused on the loss, I am focused on the stupidity of the trust he placed in his wife and his in-laws. I am focused on the betrayal.
There is no right or wrong way to feel and think when you lose a parent. All you can do is surrender to the emotions and allow them to process.
Your own emotions will vary and change, too. Today, I’m angry. Maybe in a few weeks, I’ll feel guilty for being angry. Maybe after that, I’ll go back to being angry. I expect to be on a roller coaster of emotions until I find peace. But to get to that point, I know I need to allow these emotions to run their course.
Some people will make it about themselves.
This can be good and bad, actually. I think that when anyone dies, people, generally, use this time to grieve their own losses. I think I spotted a few times when people not only grieved the loss of my dad but also grieved the loss of their own loved ones. I don’t have a problem with that.
I suspect I will do the same in the future. It’s like, my dad dying triggered emotions for others. I’m pretty sure the same will happen to me. If my dad’s passing gave others the moment they needed to let go any grief that they had been holding onto from the loss of their own relatives, I’m glad they had that opportunity.
Expressing my anger also triggered the anger of others. Again, I have no problem with that, especially because these same people validated my own anger. People came to me with their own stories of betrayal and family division. It made me feel better and less alone on my journey.
Unfortunately, there will be those who see your grief as a way to validate their decisions, their way of thinking, their belief systems. If you’re single, there may even be those who prey on your vulnerability. Proceed with caution. You know who your friends are, who the people are in your life that love you. Don’t trust the others.
Your feelings are yours to feel. When a parent dies, no one can tell you how to feel or what to think. If someone does, tell them to fuck off. If you’re lucky, they’ll make themselves obsolete on their own.
Some people will be so kind and supportive.
My best friends have been so wonderfully loving and amazing. My relatives have really shown up and been supportive. My employer, bosses, and teammates have been kind and compassionate. I hope that when your parent dies that you feel as loved and supported as I have.
You will feel like a kid again, but not in a good way.
When a parent dies, it affects your role in the world. It’s weird. Even if you’re an adult, there’s a sense of abandonment, like when you were a kid and you would wander away from your parents, get lost, and panic. It’s kind of like that.
My mother says that when she lost her father many years ago, her first thought was, “Now who is going to take care of me?” She was a grown woman who had raised her own children, but yet, losing her dad made her feel helpless. My first thought when I lost my dad was, “Well, now what?” I just couldn’t imagine what I was supposed to do next in life.
You will not be prepared, no matter what.
A woman, who had lost her father already and had been informed of his terminal illness prior to his death, once told me that even when you know you’re going to lose a parent, you’re never fully prepared. I took her advice to heart, surrendering to my ill-preparedness. Sure enough, when I got that phone call, I was prepared—not for Dad’s death, but for my lack of preparation.
I have known of Dad’s diagnosis for years now, but I have never been prepared for his death. How could I be? I only know what I know. And I only know of a life where my father lives.
The best advice comes from those who have lost a parent.
I turned to many friends when Dad died. One, in particular, was a friend who lost her dad about two years ago. I knew she’d understand me. She did.
The BEST advice I have received have been from people who have already experienced it. Turn to them immediately. One friend recommended this book.
There is paperwork.
If, unlike me, when your parent dies, you are blessed with an inheritance, you’ll probably have to provide death certificates, wills, other documents, pay taxes, and sign a lot of stuff. If, like me, you are completely screwed over by a greedy, already-rich family, then you’ll have to hire a lawyer, subpoena documents, and sign a lot of paperwork. Either way, there is paperwork.
There is also a funeral or service to plan and an obituary to write. You may even have to hold an estate sale or sell your parent’s house. It’s sad that when a parent dies, it becomes a business transaction. That’s what happens when we accept capitalism as the norm. Death is a commodity.
You won’t feel like yourself.
Your brain will feel foggy. Your skin will look like shit. You may gain weight or lose it. You will have a bad hair day every day. You probably won’t digest normally for weeks.
Beyond that, well, you’re just different. I’m not the same me I was before Dad died. My friend that lost her dad told me that I never will be.
If you are single, you’ll feel lonelier than usual.
The day after I learned of my dad’s death, I woke up aching for a boyfriend, like a thirst. It was a surprising feeling to have, but considering that I am alone, it makes sense. I refuse to jump into a relationship simply because I’m sad, but it’s good that I identify that emotion and monitor it.
You’ll get mad that others get to live.
A friend who has lost her parent told me that when she encounters an asshole, she thinks to herself, “This piece of shit gets to live, and my dad is dead?”
I was watching a trailer for a movie, and the actor found his father and said, “It’s me, Dad.” Then, I thought to myself, “At least he has a dad.” While I’m not mad at the world, I find myself observing who has a father and who doesn’t. It’s an odd new habit.
Where do parents go when they die?
I’m an atheist; so you can imagine I don’t find solace in thinking that I will one day see my dad in heaven. I don’t believe in heaven. However, I do find comfort in electing to believe that what people believe in is true for them. My dad believed in heaven. My sister does, too. If that’s where he would like to be after death, I hope he is there, whatever that is.
I don’t know what happens to our parents after they leave the earth, but I like Keanu Reeves’ take on death:
I’ve spoken with many who have lost their own parents. They say the feeling of loss, the hole left in one’s heart never goes away. You just learn to live with it. You learn to survive and thrive in spite of it.
I imagine that will be the case with me. I’ll miss my father always, but my life will continue on without him. I know for sure he’d want it that way.
I will date. I will tell many men to fuck off. Dad would have loved that.
I will invite some men into my bedroom. I will get my heart broken. I will write a book or two. I will work. I will freelance. I will blog. I will play the guitar. I will learn to speak Spanish fluently. I will argue with people on social media. Dad would have loved that, too.
I will travel with my best friends. I will start a podcast. I will miss my my dad. When those moments hit me, I will cry. Dad, probably, wouldn’t have loved that.
Most of all, I will just continue to be the best me I can be, and Dad definitely would have loved that.