It is a sad fact that at some point in most of our lives, we are likely to find ourselves living without any parents. Adult orphans, we are expected to get on with it, somehow. Although grief counselling is a thing, there isn’t the protective blanket of social support that child orphans (rightly) recieve. Grown ups gotta grow up. For me I lost my parents 25 years apart, and both experiences have changed me profoundly. The second of these losses happened during the first wave of Covid 19 and the situation was undoubtedly worsened by that.
The monster known as cancer took my father from us when I was in my early twenties. They called it ependimoma, a cancer of the brain and central nervous system. It consumed him slowly, cruelly, taking first his ability to walk, then his hearing, his sight, his ability to talk and eventually his ability to think. I watched him fade away over a couple of years, though I wasn’t in the room at the very end.
My mother was a survivor though in every sense, in defiance of grief she lived a full and active life for 25 further years, until eventually, in 2020, the monster came for her, too: Advanced bowel, liver and lung cancer, all at once. She did not deserve it, didn’t smoke or drink, she had an active and healthy lifestyle. But still, the monster came.
I am grateful that with mum she was able to see and talk for most of it, and the monster could not damage her spirit. Mercifully, the decline was swift. Denied a hospice placement because of a Covid outbreak in the hospice, she finally died peacefully at home under excellent care. My brother was with her in that moment but I wasn’t, because of Covid travel restrictions. As I waited for her passing, I sat in my garden, alone, staring at my phone while birds tweeted and the late May sun shone above me. I swear I felt it, from here, 20 miles away. I felt her say goodbye.
The two funerals couldn’t have been more different, and were a quarter of a century apart.
My father’s service in 1995 took place in a packed village church, and afterwards dozens of guests came to our house for a well spirited wake. My mother’s send-off in 2020 was restricted to 20 people in a cold suburban crematorium and we weren’t allowed to have a wake, nor hug anyone, nor stand close to anyone. We had to go home immediately when the service finished. She deserved so much more.
The pandemic has hurt those of us who grieve
The Covid Pandemic has made every bereavement far more difficult than it should have been. I have not been able to embrace my brothers or sister since it happened, or set foot in each others’ homes, or even meet up for a coffee. None of that is normal or healthy. In 2020 and 2021, big chunks of the normal grieving process have been taken from us all.
Because of Covid I have not yet been able to travel the 10 miles to see the updated grave where (eventually) we will lay her ashes to rest with my dad. One must make one’s own determination of what is “essential travel” these days, but I know that both of them would give my siblings and I a severe telling off, if we did these final ceremonies in ignorance of the current viral climate.
I still hear their voices
I still listen to them, you see. I listen to them both, even now. I hear them telling me off when I’m about to do something silly. I hear logic and restraint from my dad, I hear tolerance and patience from my mum. My parents are still in my heart, in my head. Not as some attached third party but as part of me; a part that’s always been there, since the day I was born. They are my conscience, my reason, my drive. I am them.
I still need them, even now.
I realised when my mother died, more perhaps than my father, that I was, and always will be, a child. Their child. And like any child, I still need parental guidance. I want to speak to my mum about so many things in my life, to seek her advice, her wisdom. I want her to bore me rigid with her knowledge of history and politics. I want to tell her that Trump is gone, that Brexit will some day be consigned to history as a harsh lesson learned. I want also to sit with my dad and tell him about my career path, my wife, my kids, my house, my choice of car, and see if he approves. I want to show him modern computers, mobile phones, the internet, 4K televisions and all the awesome things he never got to see.
A portal that does not exist
If there was a Facebook where you could have dead people as connections, wouldn’t that be cool? You could share photos and updates for them to see. You could reassure them of how things are going. You could seek moral support and guidance from them online, through some magical portal of life and death. You could be assured they’re OK, wherever they are.
It is a portal that does not exist. I need moral support from my parents so much. They’re gone, both of them, and are unreachable. I am a grown man now, though, and I must deal with things like a grown man. I have no choice.
The first birthday without a parent alive
In January of 2021, I turned 47, and I was highly aware that it was my first birthday without a living parent to see it with me. Perhaps this was the milestone I was waiting for, to stop feeling like a child and start feeling like a man. Maybe everyone, at some point, faces this change: I don’t mean physically, or socially. Obviously, I know I am a man in the literal sense; but there is a notable shift to feeling like more of the parent (which I am), than a parent’s child (which I was).
The trick is to still hear them, to listen to them, even after they're gone.
It makes me wonder, for the first time, how it was for my own parents dealing with their own bereavements; the mind shift they each underwent upon losing their own parents (although in my father’s case, he sadly died before his mum, my grandmother – that’s a whole other type of grief).
The moment when growing up really begins
People, I can tell you this: you never really grow up until your parents are gone from your side. The trick is to still hear them, to listen to them, even after they’re gone; to grasp the fact that in a very real sense, you are them, and that you can be your own hero now.
There are dark moments when I fear the monster will return, that it will come for me or even worse, for my children. Those moments are when I am reduced once more to a helpless child, crying and scared and in need of comfort. So I close my eyes and become that child. And in that darkness I hear my mum, telling me to be still, to clam down, and that all manner of things will be well. And then, when I open my eyes, I am not a child, but a man again. A man, and a father.