Events, features and things to do for families in New Hampshire
“The doctors tried to fix mommy’s heart, but they couldn’t fix it.”
Even today, almost 17 years later, those words still echo in my head. No eight-year-old ever imagines they will hear those words come out of one parent’s mouth in reference to another parent.
In my case, these were the words my father used to tell my then 12-year-old sister and myself on May 20, 1995, that our mother had died unexpectedly after having seemingly fallen ill just a couple of nights prior. I can’t recall with much clarity what kinds of things occupied the space in my mind at that age, but I can say with certainty that the thought of losing one of my parents was surely not one of those things. Why would it have been? Both of my parents were healthy, vibrant, happy people, as far as anyone could tell. There was no reason to believe that I would wake up one night and suddenly be thrust into a nightmare; the lives of me and my family turned upside down inexplicably.
But that’s exactly what happened. The doctors tried to fix my mother’s heart, but they couldn’t fix it. I wondered if they could fix my heart that felt shattered into a million pieces inside my chest.
Over the years, my father has frequently referenced a quote by Robert Frost in reference to this time in our lives: “There is a time for departure, even when there’s no certain place to go.” It was evident that we were departing from something significant – from the realm of normalcy, from the lives we had grown so accustomed to and perhaps even taken for granted – but it was unclear where we were going, or why.
Nothing and nobody can prepare a person to be faced, literally almost overnight, with losing their spouse and becoming a single parent, or losing a parent and becoming a “motherless” or “fatherless” child – and although both perspectives are different, they are equally painful.
To this day I feel a certain degree of disbelief, at times overwhelming, that something seemingly so random can happen out of the clear blue sky. My mother, at age 45, had died of a rare adrenal gland tumor, or pheochromocytoma – something that nobody even knew she had – after her heart finally gave out, the result of the gland mass-producing adrenaline and excess hormones, which essentially caused her heart to pump much too fast and give up.
My dad, trying to explain this concept to two young girls, had said that her heart had essentially exploded. Years later, in a college poetry class, I revisited this idea; desperate to understand it, writing a poem called “Tumor,” in which I wrote:
“I am still to this day trying to figure out -- how can a heart just explode? Never made sense then, still doesn't now. Never will, I suppose. All I know is she's not here -- should be here, but she's not. One hell of a heart to lose. If anything, I have learned that we don't choose who we say goodbye to. We don't choose for our heart to break, or burst.”
My dad was not prepared to lose his wife. His daughters were not prepared to lose their mother. And yet, we all lost her. And so the departure began. We had no say in it, of course, and no idea where we were going or how we would get there.
I know this situation is not unique to me. I know that many parents have lost a spouse, and many children have lost a parent, or maybe both parents. And that is why I feel compelled to share my story, my family’s story, knowing that others are in the same shoes and hoping that somehow, I can ease the anguish and struggle, even if only slightly.
I hope my story will serve as tangible proof that, although you have lost something considerable, it doesn’t mean you will spend the rest of your life lost, or losing.
It’s difficult to feel “normal” when you find yourself in a situation that feels anything but. I remember feeling a strong sense of alienation from my friends and peers; feeling almost like an outcast and for something I had no control over. I was different, after all. I was “that girl without a mom” among a bevy of other kids whose biggest concern, for the most part, was where they wanted to have their birthday party or what they wanted to put on their Christmas list that year – normal things that children should be thinking about.
I couldn’t quite grasp how I was supposed to react, what was acceptable or what was expected of me. I understood that something terrible had happened, even if I didn’t quite realize it until my sister began to cry at my father’s words that day. And yet I tried to force myself to smile and pretend I was OK, even at my mom’s funeral.
“Kids react differently at all ages,” said Susan Swanwick, a family counselor at Child and Family Services of New Hampshire in Exeter. “It depends on their age and what they can comprehend about death. If a child has experienced other deaths, such as an older relative or a pet, they may have some understanding that their parent will not be returning. Sometimes, as kids see a parent’s health decline in front of them, it’s harder to keep the reality at bay. I don’t think there is ever a ‘good time’ for a parent to die.”
“Kids’ behaviors may change during this time,” she added. “They may show their feelings differently than adults.”
Chuck Johnson, the bereavement coordinator for the Manchester VNA Hospice who organizes the Stepping Stones through Grief bereavement group for children and adolescents who have lost a family member or friend, also shared a quote from a brochure that he uses in training adults to support children in their grief.
“When a family member or friend dies, children and adolescents must deal with this loss and with the resulting grief and this is where you can play an important role. Whether the death is that of a friend or family member, whether it is sudden or anticipated and whether it is a result of an accident, illness, murder, or suicide, it challenges the coping skills of youngsters. Early attention to the needs of these young people makes it possible to keep them psychologically healthy and to prevent the development of later emotional problems.” (Sandra Sutherland Fox, Good Grief: Helping Children and Adolescents Deal with Death and Dying).
In a story titled, “Against All Odds” that I wrote and had published in a book called Chicken Soup for the Soul: Just for Preteens in July 2011, I tried my best to describe this feeling, hoping to relate to what so many other children and adolescents must inevitably be feeling following the loss of a parent.
Don’t get me wrong – my dad did a wonderful job of raising my sister and me on his own, and I was lucky to have an older sister to turn to who could give me advice. But it just wasn’t the same. Everyone knows that nothing can replace the presence of a girl’s mother in her life – and the loss leaves a void that can never truly be filled, by anyone or anything. I always felt that having lost my mom made me different from everyone else – that it would always brand me as being an outsider, the girl without a mom. I often wondered if it occurred to my schoolmates when I passed by – “There goes the motherless girl....” Some days, I would have given anything to just wake up with a pimple or have worn an ugly outfit – those seemed like such simpler problems. Most days, I felt very much alone.
I think another common question or feeling when facing such a monumental, incomprehensible loss is, “Why me?” I know I grappled with that question for a long time. Of course, I would never wish something like this on anyone, but still I often found myself thinking, why my family? Why my mom? I also experienced the various phases of loss, starting with denial – I remember literally convincing myself that I was just having a bad dream, that this wasn’t real. It wasn’t actually happening. It couldn’t be. We always think these are the kinds of things that happen to other people. never to ourselves. But you quickly learn that nobody is spared from the uncertainty that is life; none of us are exempt, nor are we promised that the way things are today will be the way they are tomorrow. But that’s what makes us human, and that’s what makes life, well…life.
I think the last paragraph of my story in Chicken Soup sums it up pretty well:
Life makes no guarantees – not to any of us. The only thing within our control is how we choose to handle the obstacles life places before us, whatever they may be. The thing to remember is, with the right attitude, you will never meet an obstacle that is insurmountable. No matter what happens today, there will still be tomorrow – and you will make it through. I’m living proof.
If you need help...
If you are coping with the loss of a parent, or have a child who is struggling to navigate through this difficult experience, there are numerous resources available. There are counselors who specialize in grief therapy, both in general and for children, as well as web sites such as barrharris.org that provide helpful information and resources. There are even bereavement summer camps for children who have lost a parent to meet other children like them and have a constructive outlet for their grief as well as learn coping strategies. Most book stores also have a section with books about death, bereavement and grief – including children and young adult versions.
The Visiting Nurse Association of Manchester & Southern New Hampshire also offers a bereavement group, Stepping Stones through Grief, for children and adolescents ages 5 to 18 twice a year in the spring and the fall. The groups help participants to explore and better understand such topics as the meaning of death, the feelings generated around loss and how to celebrate and honor loved ones who have passed away. The groups meet once weekly for eight weeks and are held twice a year in the spring and fall. The next group will be March 7 to May 2. For more information, or to register online, go to www.manchestervna.org.
Last updated by Parenting NH Administrator Feb 28, 2012.