When you experience one loss, death becomes more tangible — more real. You realize that no one is immune and that our loved ones can disappear from our lives in an instant. Even though we deeply understand the fragility of life and the meaningless, unpredictable ways that our loved ones can get ripped away from us, it’s doesn’t mean that it prepares us for more losses to come. It’s hard enough to comprehend losing just one person we love — so how do we make sense of our world when it unjustly takes away TWO?
Brett was just 11 years old when she lost her mother to breast cancer (six years after her diagnosis). Her death made Brett grow up fast. She learned about the certainty of death, it’s unpredictable nature, and the monumental impact it makes on our lives. So, when her father died suddenly when she was 27 years old, Brett couldn’t believe that the “universe would be so cruel to take them both.”
Brett shares her story below.
Nothing about either loss of my parents compares to the other. Drastically different in circumstance, I personally experienced the two on grossly different scales. My mother was originally misdiagnosed. Had she not been, she may still be here today. Six years in and out of hospitals, hospice at home, chemo, radiation, and morphine drips fueled the chaos of the unknown. In a daily warp of an uncertain truth that though no one had answers, no one could predict the good or bad days, and no one knew whether she’d be alive or not after school, I knew for certain that “mommy won’t be here as long as the other mommies” (her words exactly).
Most adults can’t grasp or cope with the fact that we all die one day, but as a child, having to accept that as your truth, as your norm, is quite the awakening. I grew up fast. I had too. Fortunately, my mom guided me as far as she could, leaving me with valuable lessons no mother would imagine teaching such a young girl.
After her death, I grew up with a dad who did his best to ‘mother’ an adolescent female. He was incredible, but clearly unable to offer all the female guidance a growing girl deserves. My greatest challenge was having to figure most things out on my own. My parents raised a strong, independent, warrior type girl, who was far beyond her years in maturity, but life is confusing, especially when she who taught you the lessons has already passed on to the other side. I was previously taught about what I had yet to experience, yet to understand. Growing into those understandings as a reflection of stories she had shared was at times sad, but also encouraging. I had a mother who knew things. All kinds of things and how lucky I was that she guided me, told me the truth about life before it even came to fruition.
My dad was always my hero — I was his girl! But after my mother’s death, he showed grit, a survival instinct that I could only hope to emulate one day. As a small business owner in the emergency service industry, he was working insane hours to provide. My dad remarried shortly after our mom died, it was a rough several years, to say the least. We were pretty much on our own through middle and into high school, but as a teenager, we began to reweave a relationship. I came to understand the challenges of parenting, the challenges my dad faced through his own grieving and post loss survival. I saw him as a human, not just my hero. We became friends, best friends. So losing my Dad suddenly, was far more damaging than how I lost my Mom. A period of anticipatory grief allows for a certain kind of preparation leading up to the point when you get to say goodbye. I always knew my Mom would die. I never thought the Universe would be so cruel to take them both. I never got the chance to say goodbye to my dad.
His death was my worst nightmare come true. It was a shock — like having your legs kicked out from under you. I was angry. I was sad. Confused. Baffled. My world suddenly became chaotic again, but this time, instead of a chaos induced by uncertainty, it was a chaos induced by pain and the absolute certainty — the finality of death. I could physically feel the hurt throughout my body. My challenges were more visceral this time. My body hurt and my heart ached. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t eat. I drank. I smoked. I did everything I could to self destruct while still maintaining the outward appearance of strength in order to uphold the identity I’d carried for so many years: the strong, responsible one. A warrior.
The greatest challenge after my dad’s death was recreating an identity without him, according to the new normal, and pulling myself out of the greatest darkness I’ve ever known. Each day was a challenge. Finding joy was a challenge. Being me was a challenge. Wanting to live life without him was a challenge.
I coped with my mom’s death while she was still here. She prepared me the best she could and school counselors were a wonderful resource by giving me a chance to momentarily escape the chaos by holding a calm conversation in a controlled environment. I was very loved by my dad, my family, shared growing up with my brother – my dearest friend and closest confident, and felt a sense of purpose. I felt a responsibility to overcome so that my dad and brother could do so also. I relied on girlfriends who supported me and also relied on my faith. Growing up religious – as my mother had taught me – I saw the strength she absorbed from her faith and I followed suite.
After a period of about six months that directly followed my dad’s accident – I call it the fuzzy period because it’s truly just a fog – I began to develop new routines that honored me and my body. After six months of self destruction, overworking, little sleep and unhealthy exercise, I started seeing a therapist, I began to eat regularly, drink less, and I went back to yoga. I began to run and hike again, allowing me to connect with nature. And I returned to my journal, reflecting on my reality as opposed to ignoring or distracting from it. I coped by doing the best I could each day. By taking small steps toward the lifestyle that I knew I wanted and needed to live, but understanding that it wasn’t going to happen overnight, I eventually came to a place of peace.
Fortunately I was surrounded by an infinite amount of love and support from the most beautiful people in the world. My community held me up, allowed me to feel deeply and honored my process without judgment. And it always helps to remember that my dad didn’t spend his life sacrificing and working his ass off so that I could be a victim to my losses. He did it all so we could be happy. And so I chose to be happy, I chose to be a survivor, I chose to find joy in life and appreciate my final moments (because to me, we are consistently living our final moments). That’s what dad would want me to do and I sure wish he’d had more time to do the same.
It’s been 22 years since I lost my mom and seven since losing my dad. I’m 33 years old. Still to this day, I miss them both. I wish I could ask my mom what it’s like to be a mother, what it means to be a woman. I wish I could call my dad to get his opinion, share a funny story or tell him I’m scared, let him save me. It’s like a kaleidoscope of emotions — all interchanging on any given day, at any given moment — mingling and overlapping, bright and beautiful or dark and chaotic. I can’t anticipate how I’ll feel each day, what will come up, how reminders will emerge. I mean, I could just set the kaleidoscope down and NOT feel, but for me, that’s not an option. And so I carry it proud and I let the shades and shapes of my emotions, memories and stories color my world. Each day is a new story, a new feeling. Their deaths will always be real and there will be more deaths to come.
And so I am grateful that I now know how to appreciate moments. I don’t take this life, or the people in it, for granted. These losses have completely morphed the way I see and walk in this world, for the better. I am lucky. Their lives and their deaths have been my greatest teacher, made me who I am proud to be.