How Do You Say Goodbye to a Parent?

My mother and me at 5.5 months of age, 1957.

My mother and me at 5.5 months of age, 1957.

I guess you simply say, “I love you,” with a hug before you leave them for the last time.

Because you do. It’s complicated, that love; it’s messy and tangled and holds decades of history that’s open to interpretation depending on who’s looking, but its essence remains.

Families are amalgams of conflicting emotions and memories that ebb and flow like ocean currents: support, comfort, criticism, judgment, love, irritation… all viewed through individual prisms of experience, your siblings’ perceptions different from your own, changing with time and circumstances, tossing and moving you in unexpected, relentless ways.

We don’t get to choose our family. Perhaps life’s biggest challenge is navigating the family you’re given, surviving its quirks and idiosyncratic dysfunctions, reaching adulthood to reflect and ponder what the hell you lived through. What to make of it? How did it shape you? What course-corrections do you make in compensation? How do you define you, apart from family?

Confronted with the impending, inevitable passing of an elderly parent, you have no choice but to reflect on the journey you’ve made so far. All those emotions and memories you thought you had under control, the conflicts and struggles as well as the happy times, come flooding back in the days or weeks it takes for your parent to pass. You toss and turn in your bed; you’re distracted while pursuing daily activities. Any lingering, below-the-surface tension with a sibling comes bursting through like a breaching whale, messy splashes and waves rocking your equilibrium, adding new layers to the grief you’re anticipating.

You think you’ve already done the work, thought it through and know how you’ll react to losing that parent, because really, you grieved the loss of the relationship you needed from them years ago. The waves of emotions – regret, love, anger, frustration, loss, wishing for something better, something…different – come silently and relentlessly, regardless of the height and thickness of the dike you’ve built to hold it all back.

Eventually you accept how little control you have. Life is thrown at you; all you can manage is how you react. It’s like we’re gifted at birth with a lump a clay, our future self: we sculpt it as we go, adding contours here, shaving off lumps there, always working it, adapting and changing the statue we want to present to the world. But in an elemental way, family informs the essence of the final product because it’s woven into the texture of the clay, remaining a part of our shape no matter how much sculpting we do.

In saying your final goodbye, you realize that really, it’s not just saying “I love you” that’s important, but mostly, it’s “I forgive you,” whether the words are said aloud or simply embraced internally. By forgiving, and being forgiven, the weight of the past is lightened. It’s manageable. We’re all of us imperfect – constantly reshaping our lump of clay, making mistakes and corrections, over and over. We don’t always get what we need from family, nor do we always give our family what they need from us. We can only strive to do our best, molding and smoothing our imperfections.

Even if you never hear the words that you crave from your parent, you can say the words you need, to them. It can be your final gift, to your parent and to yourself. Your way of saying goodbye.

***

She’s gone now.

Spending time in the forest with my dogs, I reflect and grieve, privately. The social pressure to be openly sad - it’s my mother, after all - is stifling. When the relationship that has ended was troubled and distant, so is the grief. You fear no one will understand. You fear judgment.

My dogs give me the unconditional love and support I crave, keeping me in the present, a little less inside my head.

Dogs. They always forgive, in a blink, and move on. If only it were so simple for we humans.