How My
Dead Parents

Taught Me
to Live

Ask Jean

Caitlin O’Malley is goop’s food editor. She gives us recipes, restaurant recommendations, leftovers from the test kitchen, and advice on anything not related to food. She makes us laugh every day. She’s wise, which you can see for yourself on the sixth episode of The goop Lab on Netflix: “Are You Intuit?”

    I hate using euphemisms for death. I think it’s because I only ever use them to make other people comfortable with the fact that my parents are dead. I’m only thirty, and both of my parents are dead. No one assumes that, so when it comes up in conversation, people always feel like they’ve put their foot in their mouth. “Are you staying with your folks for the holidays?” asks one well-intentioned coworker. “Uh, they’re not around anymore. It’s just my siblings.” “Oh, I am so sorry. I, uh, had no idea.” I’ve done this many times with every possible euphemism for “dead.” It’s a little annoying to feel like you’re taking care of someone else’s feelings when—hello—I’m the one with dead parents, but that’s all part of the experience of loss. You become an unofficial ambassador of grief. When my father died, my cousin Nancy said, “Welcome to the dead dad club.” I thought it was funny, but I didn’t realize how true it would be.

    I get inappropriately excited when I meet someone else who has a dead parent. I find I have to actively stop myself from smiling or sounding too giddy to hear about it. It’s not that I’m happy—I understand how horrible it is—but I still get this weird happy-sad feeling. It’s a sense of immediate closeness I feel with people whom I’ve just met when they reveal they’ve experienced a loss as I have. I suppose that part of me is foolishly assuming that all loss is universal. Obviously, grief contains multitudes, but more often than not, there is at least a bit of mutual understanding of how that part of life (the end of it) works.

    Last summer, Anderson Cooper interviewed Stephen Colbert. Cooper, having just lost his mother, asked Colbert about the loss of his father and brothers at a young age and then, much later in life, the loss of his mother. Colbert’s response was incredibly moving. Cooper was on the edge of tears through most of it, and it went viral. I watched the clip and felt that same profound happy-sad. Everything, from their words to their expressions, was comforting because they were all things I’ve known and lived. It means what I have endured and felt is endured and felt by others. It means that I am not alone. After many losses over many years, sometimes I still need this reassurance.

    My father died during my senior year in high school. My mother died ten years later. They both had punishingly long struggles with slow, degenerative diseases that happened one right after the other, as if they had been given successive sentences. I effectively began mourning their loss while they were still alive, mourning how they’d never come back to their former selves, as who they once were deteriorated before our eyes. That type of prolonged grief is incredibly isolating. People don’t talk about that type of grief as openly. Maybe that’s why I lean into connecting with people with dead parents so hard, because I spent years quietly grieving alone as my parents slowly disappeared. I felt trapped by time and extreme guilt for wanting it all to be over already. The sadness I felt when they each passed was so different from the sadness I’d felt in that emotional limbo while they were dying. And it was a sadness that, for the first time, seemed like something other people understood.

    We are so good at accepting that the circumstances we experience in our lives are normal. Or rather, that the only life you ever truly know is your own, so normal can be sort of relative. To me, growing up with sick parents, and later without parents, was normal. I’d notice how unusual it was only when I told people my parents were dead. There were times when my story brought tears, discomfort, and disbelief. In college, I went to the campus clinic for a checkup, and the doctor asked me about my family medical history. “My father had multiple sclerosis,” I’d say. The doctor interrupted: “Had? He’s passed?” “Yes, and my mother has frontotemporal dementia.” She looked at me with a sad and knowing face. I’d often get a blank stare when I’d share my parents’ diagnoses, but this woman was a doctor, so she knew exactly what they meant.

    “And how old are you?” she asked. “Twenty,” I said. She set her clipboard down and looked squarely at me. “You’ve had a hard life.” I felt relieved to have someone acknowledge and understand my situation without my having to explain it, but that feeling of being seen also means that it’s real. And in order to cope, I often denied the reality I was living in.

    A lump grew in my throat, and I pushed it down deep as I had done for years. My skin felt hot and prickly, and there was a dull ache in my chest. I would have episodes like this throughout my twenties. Weeks would go by when I’d have to pretend that everything was fine and try to live a normal life. And then things would come up that would shock me into reality. One time, the receptionist at our family dentist office asked how my mom was doing, and I started crying uncontrollably and walked out without going to my appointment. Another time, when I was working retail on Mother’s Day, a customer asked whether I had called my mom that day. I choked down my tears through the transaction. Then I took a break to sob in my car.

    I think about what my life would be like if my parents were alive. It’s like that scene in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when he looks in the mirror of Erised (wink wink, that’s “desire” backward). Whoever looks in the mirror sees whatever he or she desires, and for some kids it’s fame and glory. But for little orphan Harry, it was his parents. There was something about being in college that made me fantasize about having normal parents a lot. Maybe it was all the visits my friends’ parents made and all the nice dinners out I tagged along to with them. I imagined how it would be if those were my parents. My mom, had she been healthy, would have put together the best care packages and sent cards just because. My dad, had he been alive, would have called to remind me to turn the clocks back the night before daylight savings. They’d have come up to visit with grocery bags full to stock my apartment. My mom would have made a huge meal for all my roommates, while my dad would’ve won everyone over with his dry sense of humor. Of course, these fantasies don’t include all the annoying idiosyncratic things about having parents. That’s the fun of fantasies, but it’s also a trap.

    Here’s the thing that was really strange to realize, and the older and farther away I get from their deaths, the plainer it is to see. Of course I would rather have parents. I would rather have had my mom hold me when I cried after a breakup. I would rather have had my father help me buy my first car or walk me down the aisle at my wedding. I would rather have had both of their unsolicited advice when my husband and I started house hunting. I would rather have them know my theoretical future children. But it’s hard for me to imagine who I would be. The loss of my parents is a foundational part of my identity now. As painful as it all was, it’s given me invaluable perspective, a deepened capacity for empathy, and a steadfast sense of knowing what really matters.

    The other thing is, in spite of some terrible luck, I’ve had an amazing life, and I got a lot of the care that I needed. My friends held me after breakups, and a really wonderful therapist helped a great deal, too. My brothers helped me buy my first car, and my sister walked me down the aisle. My theoretical future children won’t know their maternal grandparents, but they’ll know lots of aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends, and they get my incredible in-laws, who treat me as their own.

    There was a time when I needed to connect with other people who had experienced loss so that I didn’t feel alone. To feel seen and understood. To know that this pain is universal. It’s been twelve years since my father’s death and a little over two since my mother’s, and I still have days where the pain crushes me. When it’s as fresh as the day it happened. Time has taught me a lot though. And I feel compelled to help tell other people who are experiencing loss that they can still be okay. That life can still have joy. That you don’t have to be defined by tragedy. And that the process is often ugly and hard and shameful. And that you’re allowed to move through it however you have to.

    My mom always believed in mediums, miracles, and all things misty woo-woo. We used to make fun of her for it. Now I really wish we hadn’t. In retrospect, I love her open-mindedness and penchant for the unexplained. When the opportunity to talk to a medium came, I took it. Why not? I tried to have no expectations, but deep down I was Harry at the mirror desperately wanting to see my parents one more time. I was so afraid of being disappointed and feeling hurt and alone all over again. Even worse, I was afraid of feeling like a fool for having believed. I tried to channel my mother’s open-mindedness before the session started, and even though my palms felt clammy, I thought of what she would have said. Her signature mantra: “It’ll be fine.”

    And it was wonderful. Both my parents came through and seemed to know everything about my life. And to be clear, I’m not sure how much I believe, but I cannot deny how good I felt afterward. In a way, it made me feel that they’ve been with me all along. That they’re rooting for me. There are huge swaths of my life they weren’t there for. And to think that in some cosmic way I’d had them all along gave me a peace that I didn’t even know I needed.

    I’ve been to one other medium since then, and it was nice, but I don’t think I need to do it again. Maybe someday, but for now, I feel content.

    I’m grateful for my grief. It has taught me to love deeply, forgive freely, and let go of shit that doesn’t matter. I still really wish my parents weren’t dead. My grief is still an evolving, intrinsic part of me, but it is not all of me.