Mother's Day. Father's Day. Families gathering together to celebrate mom and dad. We honor them when they are alive. How do we cope when both have died?
Leah was only 23 years old when her mother and father died from accidental carbon monoxide poisoning leaking from a water heater in their home in Africa in 2007. Though their deaths were sudden, shocking and devastating, Leah has developed, thrived and maintained a close connection to their memories.
"As time goes on we get better at accepting it as our reality and our new life," comments Leah, who unexpectedly had to begin to learn to live in a world where her parents did not. Leah's mom and dad had been teachers at American International Schools for her entire life, which meant that they relocated frequently. Leah was born in Pakistan, moved to Gambia when she was first learning to walk, then progressively to Venezuela, Somalia, Mozambique and Myanmar. After her graduation from High School, Leah's parents went on to live in Tunisia. "The one constant during all the uprooting was that my parents were always with me."
And then the accident. That first week after learning about her parents' tragic deaths, Leah recalls that her journal entries were filled with sadness, confusion, endless errors and constant questions: "Are my parents really gone? The people that brought me into this world and made me who I am today, are they gone? I deserve so much more time from them."
In many ways, it is the comforting memories about her childhood and the close relationship to her parents that help Leah through the hard times. She credits part of her positive steps towards healing to her participation in a grief support group. There she met other young people in their 20s and 30s whose parents had died and who could relate to what she was going through. Leah experiences far fewer moments of great sadness now. "I'm learning to live with it and accept it. It is what is normal now... and I keep going."
Leah misses being a daughter, or being able to say "Mom, can you help me with this?" or "Dad, what do you think I should do?" Yet she finds great satisfaction in staying connected. For example, Leah tells me with a smile, "Every day I pick up one of my mom's pieces of jewelry - a bracelet, a necklace, earrings and I throw it on." Leah proudly displays the necklace she is wearing on this day. "Or I wear my dad's watch. It makes me feel closer to them. It's a physical tangible something that I can hold."
Another step forward Leah is taking in honor of her parents is that she has decided to volunteer this summer at Camp Erin, a weekend bereavement camp for children ages 6 to 17. "Since my parents were teachers, I thought why not use this opportunity to help kids who had lost someone. I would have loved to have someone who had experienced this kind of loss in their life; someone who could say: You are going to get through it; you're going to be happy again; the tears will stop."Leah believes that her parents would be proud of the woman she has become. And she shares this wisdom with others who are grieving:
- You are strong enough; you will come out on the other side of this.
- You will laugh again and be happy
- You will find joy in things
- Someone will someday tell you that you remind them of your parent and it will make you feel good to hear it
- Your heart will find ways of healing itself
Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.