When my friend Mary decided to visit the Bay Area, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet her and her two children. We agreed to meet at her in-laws house. Not long after we arrived, her young son stumbled away to join her grandfather in the basement gym. Then about half an hour later I saw him toddling to the front door to meet her grandmother in the garden.
Witnessing the seamless relationship between children and grandparents may be normal for some. But for me and other orphans, it was hard.
In my final year of law school, my mother was diagnosed with: ALS, a neurological disease for which there is no cure. She died the following summer. Then less than a year and a half later, she found out that her father had cancer. He went into remission after chemotherapy, but two years later his cancer returned and he died on his mother’s birthday.
Since then, I’ve missed my parents for all the big events: weddings, moving abroad, buying our first home. Each parenting milestone made me want to see them even more. I told them I was pregnant (in both cases) and wanted to see them hold their newborn daughter.
But it’s the little moments that hurt the most. Like when my 2-year-old ran around in a t-shirt with a pacifier and kept saying no to everything. Or when my 5-year-old’s teacher said she was nice to everyone in her class. In such cases, I would like to call her mother. She knows how her mother calls her granddaughter “incredible.” In this fantasy, her mother also hands her father a phone and he just listens, but somehow I sense his thin smile.
And, of course, there are bad days. Like the morning when the girls woke up tired after three hours of sleep because they had an ear infection. Or the day her husband and I quarreled, or the tenth editor rejected the proposal. In the afternoon, when the girls are hitting each other (usually the younger is hitting and the older is crying), I feel that there is nothing wrong with me. In that moment, all I want is for her father to hold her and her mother to send her to bed with a warm washcloth on her forehead. On days like that, I miss parenting.
I haven’t found anything magical yet that will make the sadness go away. Instead, over time and therapy, I learned how to live with my grief. It’s part of who I am and part of my parenting experience.
The daughters are never disappointed that they can’t see their parents, but we do talk about how they inherited Grandpa Jack’s long eyelashes. And he was nervous about swimming, so he hung out at the shallow end of the pool. I tell them about Grandma Sarah’s bravery and rollerblading and ice skating. But I also found that I needed to develop more patience while driving. I showed the girls a picture of my parents and explained that I couldn’t hug them but that Grandpa Jack and Grandma Sarah loved them. I read stories about grief to my children to educate them about the inevitable part of life. You are also surrounded by friends and family who fill your childhood with warmth.
There are moments when I feel embarrassed by the intensity of my grief. Over the years, I’ve wondered if I would be a better mother if I didn’t have to deal with that grief and anxiety. But I don’t feel that way now. It took time, but I am learning how to extend compassion to myself. I am smarter and more empathetic than I was before they died. I learned that life changes quickly and that I will die like my parents did. all of us will.
For now, I am grateful for the opportunity to watch my daughters grow. As Fianna raises her voice to sing “Get Back Up Again” and Lugnatha yells every fifth word, my eyes are glued to them. When I go to bed, I put on my dad’s old sweatshirt and cuddle up on his bed. A father’s love fills me.
PS Learn more about grief, including The Dead Dad Club and how to write a condolence letter.