Do We Benefit From the Death of Our Parents?

DSCN0915This is not a blog about financial inheritance. This is a blog in response to my brother's piece entitled, “When Our Parent's Kick The Bucket”. He writes about the emotional maturity, wisdom, grace and “enlightenment” we can obtain if our parents died early enough at a time in our lives that we could potentially benefit from their demise.

The first time I read his blog, I cried. I cried because anytime someone talks about how incredible our parents were, I'm moved in ways beyond articulation. As well, I liked the idea that I could somehow personally benefit from an experience of grief, like fertilizer for an anticipated bloom; the possible notion that my grief was for some better purpose.

I told him I would comment on his blog after I had come back from a visit with mom and dad out east.

DSCN0918At the Woodland cemetery in Kitchener, Ontario, the tombstone had been overgrown with thorny rose bush stems after an Ontario winter, waiting until warmer weather for my sister to prune these lovely plants in order to reveal its hidden inscriptions:

Душан 14 - 9 - 1926 9 - 12 - 2010 Cкро̏ман (meaning humble, modest, unassuming)

Παναγιωτα 26 - 1 - 1931 31 - 3 - 1999 Beautiful, Compassionate, Indomitable Soul

I stood there looking at their tombstone in the cool morning sunlight, and wondered if I had actually benefited from their deaths in a maturing-kind of way; that their deaths had somehow transformed my life with grace and wisdom.


Staring at the tombstone in front of me, I asked my parents, as I've asked myself many times before (as far back as I can remember), “What's it all about anyway?”

I cried for five minutes, and then I reflected on the question for twenty minutes after that.

There exists no one truth to the answer for that question, except through the unique eyes and perceptions of the one who is looking and asking at any particular moment.

For me, life is about the ongoing cycles and continuing movement between heartbreak and gratitude. When I use the word heartbreak, I mean it to comprise all types of intensities from miniscule fleeting disappointment, to prolonged heart wrenching loss and everything in between. At the core of heartbreak lies the notion of survival and the act of holding on. When I use the word gratitude, I mean it to comprise all types of intensities, from quiet peaceful contentment, to unbridled joyous love and everything in between. At the core of gratitude lies the notion of surrender and the act of letting go.

Heartbreak then gratitude, then heartbreak then gratitude once again, and the cycle continues until our last train stop home. Loss then gain, then loss then gain once again, and the cycle continues until our heart stops beating, leaving those behind to wonder about the meaning of our physical loss in their own lives. We enter this world holding on to life, then go through the cycles of letting go and holding on, over and over and over again, until we completely let go into our last breath.

To each unique individual on the planet, the ultimate purpose of these cycles may be about connection, or about love, or about acceptance, or about trust, or about learning. For others, these cycles have no ultimate purpose except to have experienced the experience. One size does not fit all.

We can allow unhindered movement in going from one experience to the next, through tears and sighs that can be the bridge between heartbreak and gratitude, between holding on and letting go, that can ease the transition along the way. Tears and sighs are like rain showers and wind gusts, clearing the path and making way for the next experience to follow. Without the rain and wind, we become stiff. My brother's theory of aging is as follows: “it amounts to stiffening – stiffening of our arteries, our joints, our hearts, our minds, etc.” Sighs are the gusts of comfort, and tears are the lubricant to our stiffening.

At every stage of life we have the opportunity to accept the endless flow of these vacillating states. We can do this while our parents are alive or when they die. Our parents' dying need not be a motivating force for change or for growth at any age.

This past weekend, my husband and I flew across the country to see his elderly mother and father for their 78th and 80th birthdays respectively. They were more frail, both physically and mentally than we had seen them in years past. My husband spent his short time with them, laughing at memories gone by, hugging them with gratitude, and crying while sharing with them, their losses and struggles as they both experienced the challenges of advancing age and illness. Rain had cleared the path once again.

Throughout their lives, both my mom and dad would say this: “Forget about it, it's not important”. It was their way of helping each other and helping their children remember to transition from holding on to letting go; from heartbreak to gratitude; from perceived loss to perceived gain; knowing that these cycles are ongoing until we breathe our last breath. This is the way I articulate this concept: “Life is too short to withhold an open mind and an open heart.”

So do we benefit from the death of our parents? Yes, for some, like my brother, whose humanity exponentiated after my mother's death. No, for others like me, who plod along through life, hopping on and off that train before the last stop called death, in a constant flux between holding on and letting go, and trying to embrace all of it; both the heartbreaks and the gratitudes.

And in so doing, my losses and heartbreaks become more deeply bittersweet, and my gains and gratitudes become more richly expansive.