How I've learned to cope with losing a parent as a young adult
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
It has taken me many years to put into words how I feel about losing my dad. Grief is hard and it's ever-changing - perhaps why I find it such a challenge. Grief is so personal yet universal, which is why I have nothing but admiration for Rose, 27, for writing a book about her own experience with no other aim but to help others.
Given the festive period can be a particularly hard time for those living with grief, I wanted to speak to Rose about her experience of losing her dad and how she has coped over the last three years. Thankfully, for me and for you, she agreed...
What was your relationship like with your dad?
Dad and I were very very close. Growing up, we lived in different countries due to his work, but we were fortunate to be able to talk on the phone, Skype or email every day. For me, this was normal as it was all I had known as it had always been like this. We were definitely very connected and he was a very invested and interested parent and hands-on as much as he could be. It also meant that school holidays were spent with dad wherever he was working which was always a fun adventure and I feel very lucky to have grown up with that childhood. He was definitely my biggest cheerleader and one of those parents who never stops talking about his kids to his friends. Dad was also an older parent; he was 50 when I was born and had lived a pretty crazy and exciting life beforehand, so he was full of stories and was a bit of a larger-than-life character.
How do you think losing your dad has changed your life?
I think the two biggest things for me are day-to-day life and feeling like I’m having an identity crisis!
Talking to dad on the phone or via email was such a huge part of my day and I didn’t realise until he died how much I actually relied on that. In particular, because he lived in LA which is 8 hours behind us, if I was walking home from the tube in London in the dark or felt a bit nervous I’d just call him (as it would be his day time) and it would make me feel safe. I hugely miss that. Also, if I was just a bit bored, I’d call him for a chat, see what he was up to or tell him about my day. I also, like I’m sure so many grievers do, really miss being able to tell him things that are going on in my life, like getting a new job, or moving house, or not being able to talk to him about my PhD research, it feels very odd and I still have moments where I go to pick up the phone and then remember I can’t.
Identity crisis wise I’m still stuck in the “I can’t believe this happened to my life” sort of denial shock stage. In the first year especially, I remember it being very difficult to look at my reflection because I just didn’t recognise the girl looking back at me. I just looked so sad and dead behind the eyes, tired and pale. Or other times, if I caught my reflection or saw myself in photos and I was laughing with friends, I also just felt really uncomfortable because I knew that inside I was definitely not feeling that happy and my eyes are glazed over. I was also really conscious of not becoming “the boring friend” that doesn’t want to go out and have fun, and so I struggled with that and really pushed myself to say yes to things when, in hindsight, I should have said no because grief is also totally exhausting. I’ve always been quite mature for my age I think, probably, due to having two parents who work abroad, but I do think losing dad made me grow up even more.
On a maturity level, I just felt suddenly very separate to my friends who haven’t lost a parent. Not just from dad, but also through the act of becoming a carer for a very ill parent for months and dealing with doctors and hospitals and that just really opened my eyes and changed my psyche completely. It was also very hard to talk to friends about this because if you haven’t been through it, you absolutely cannot understand what it is like, and I think that is a big issue. It would be good to have more arenas to vent about these kinds of things. Like mum, my brother and I had to literally drain dad’s lungs every other day using all kinds of medical contraptions and none of us are even slightly medically trained. Equally, seeing a parent hooked up to a dialysis machine is just mind-blowing, and being in doctors’ offices whilst they tell you there’s nothing else they can do is the most discombobulating feeling - so is the moment when your loved one actually dies. I think it has made me a much stronger, resilient and capable person. I also do not take anyone’s shit anymore either, life is way too short for that.
How do you cope with grief over the festive period?
It’s very hard because dad was Jewish so we celebrated Christmas as well as Hannukah which falls in December too so it’s a bit of a double whammy! I kind of get through it by a mix of blocking sad thoughts out, but also dwelling on them so that I don’t try and erase dad from these times. I think it is important to keep their memory or presence alive. Usually, we have a lot of family over for Christmas – aunts/uncles, cousins etc - so it’s a full house which is fun. But I like when we can say things like ‘remember when Cyrus did blah blah blah last Christmas’ or ‘dad would have loved this present’ etc.
It’s coming up to 3 years now, so this is the third Christmas without dad and I have felt in the last 3 years that, sadly, the “Christmas magic” has gone for me because the day just doesn’t feel complete and really does serve as a shocking reminder that dad is not here. But I like to think that once I have my own family in the future, the magic of Christmas will return. I also try really hard to enjoy (in non-Coronavirus times) festive things with friends so I’m not just putting a downer on everyone’s Christmas. We found out dad had cancer in November 2017 and he died in January 2018, so this time period is also intrinsically linked to memories of dealing with all of this too, so it is just very hard emotionally and I feel a lot more exhausted mentally, emotionally and physically in these months.
What do you avoid doing, if anything?
I don’t think I really avoid doing anything specific, but I do avoid stopping myself from talking about dad, death and grief. I think it is SO important to talk openly about it because it is a bit of a taboo topic in our society. People feel so uncomfortable and don’t know what to say, or perhaps view you a bit differently so we need to keep having these conversations to break down that awkwardness because death is universal and so it is so important to talk about the grieving process.
Do you find it hard to support family members who are dealing with grief when you are struggling yourself?
I do find this hard because I am seen as “the strong one”, and so I do have family members talking to me about their grief. Although this, on the one hand, is good that they can talk openly to me, it does equally make me feel really overwhelmed because I then feel like I carry my own grief as well as theirs and I can’t “empty it”. I remember dad’s funeral being the most exhausting day of my life because it felt like I was there as everyone else’s (family as well as friends) shoulder to cry on and for them to share their stories of dad with me. Which again, I can’t blame them, but it was totally over-powering and I feel like I shutdown emotionally and just tried to get through the day.
In 2019, Rose released a book, 365 days past the traffic lights, detailing her personal experience of grief. Rose hopes that the book will act as a comforting and relatable reminder to bereaved young adults that they are not alone.
What do you hope people will get from reading your book?
I wrote my book because at the time, when dad died, I could not find any resources for young adults who had lost a parent. The literature and support groups I found were either aimed at children/teens or for people who have lost a parent at a much older age, or had lost spouses. I really struggled with that and couldn’t relate to grief literature out there. So I decided to write the book that I desperately needed and wished I’d been given on the day dad died. It is about the first 365 days of bereavement, so it is raw and honest and explores a lot of different emotions and themes. I think because I haven’t sugar-coated anything I hope people can relate to it more. Grief works in all sorts of crazy ways and it’s so important to know that you’re not alone, and that what you’re feeling is normal and you’re not crazy, this is just part of the process. I think it’s also important to recognise that grief is a journey and it is in no way linear, so I hope my book helps to show people that having good days and bad days is normal and there’s no rush to feeling “better” or “accepting” or “moving on” because what does that even mean?! I much prefer to think of my life as having adapted to dad not being around, I don’t have to “accept” that he’s dead because why should I? To me, that is too final. I got through dad’s cancer and the years following his death with humour as a coping mechanism so I’ve tried to inject that into my book too so it’s not a total doom and gloom read. The final paragraph of my book reads,
Getting through each day is a process, sometimes a really difficult day and sometimes a lighter happier day. Once you acknowledge this, living with grief becomes just a little bit more manageable and you will grow more than you thought possible. It takes courage to grieve. You can do anything now, be brave, you’re getting through this, you can push through other barriers. Your life might not be anywhere near “perfect” now, but you can live your life with courage and bravery instead, and once you realise this, so many more doors will open in front of you.
I still read this paragraph to myself when I’m feeling low because it gives me permission to grieve and feel shit and not feel guilty about that, but it also gives me hope.
What advice would you give to someone struggling with grief?
First, allow yourself to be selfish. You can say no to doing things if you're tired, drained, or if the thought of going out or making a plan gives you anxiety. You can also tell friends/family that you don't have the emotional capacity to hear their problems like you would have done normally at that time. This is your time to be selfish and really put yourself and your needs first, like a protection mechanism. We all know what it feels like to empathise with friends and "take on their problems", but for me personally, when I have bad grief days, I do not have the capacity in any sense to be able to do this and its ok to be honest with friends and let them know that. It doesn't mean you don't care about them.
Two, don't panic. I mean this in the sense of knowing that what you're feeling isn't crazy and everyone grieves differently. For example, along with a lot of anger, I also had short term memory loss, weird cognitive issues that I hadn't had before, flashbacks, nightmares and so on. Also, if you feel better for a few days and then suddenly have an awful grief week afterwards, don't panic. Grief isn't a linear process; it takes time and there's no set pattern to it.
Three, and probably my most go-to piece of advice - see a grief counsellor. I know some people might not want to seek therapy, but it was the best thing I could have done. I highly recommend seeking a counsellor that is specifically trained in bereavement. I first saw a general counsellor which was not helpful for me at all because she wanted to get a whole picture of my life, whereas I wanted to talk about very specific death/griefy things. Changing to a grief counsellor was therefore the best thing to do. My grievance counsellor helped me to understand what I was feeling or why I was acting certain ways from a neurological perspective, which was just so helpful and transformative for my grief journey.
You can order Rose’s book, 365 days past the traffic lights, on amazon