The feeling of their absence is haunting. When we we lose a loved one, something breaks. The pain of emptiness inhabits our heart. For a while, our spirit is torn and ruptured. I remain shocked at the immensity of life. Absence is a powerful teacher, and it is a stepping-stone into the heart of grief.
The On the Loss of My Parents series is a tribute to my parents, Bruce Alger (1918-2011) and Vi Alger (1919-2010). It is the origin and foundation for my project, “Aging in the Second Half of Life.” On the Loss of My Parents is also an example of how transformative writing can cultivate healing, self-renewal, and understanding that is good for self and others at the same time.
The Feeling of Absence
The feeling of raw absence is traumatic. I never knew that absence could feel so immense.
I knew my parents’ lives were coming to an end in those final few years. I rationally understood that all life is impermanent, fragile, and uncertain. Both of my parents lived past age ninety. They had long lives, and they had good lives. I am grateful that the first fifty years of my life included the presence of my mom and dad.
Other children are not as lucky as I have been.
But there is more. It was the felt-meaning of their deaths that called out to me. Of course, I was sad and grieving, but the calling penetrated deeper than that. There was something overwhelming trying to lean into me. Death amputates physical presence and draws us into the raw and wild nature of existence.
When a loved one dies, a profound sense of absence invades our lives. We stand tattered and torn in the midst of a harsh reality. Once we have been touched by it, there is no retreat. Once we acquire certain knowledge about life, there is no release from it.
Our lives immersed in impermanence and loss. There is no escaping this. Suffering is an inevitable in life, and its natural habitat is aging, disease, and death. The wounds inflicted by absence will heal, but not without leaving scars.
The absence of a loved one requires us to move into a crucible of suffering and transformation. Feelings of absence can last for years: “years after a parent dies, the bereaved may be reminded of the parent’s absence at an event he or she would have been expected to attend. This can bring back strong emotions, and require mourning yet another part of the loss.”
The art of living has a great deal to do with the transformation of our own suffering.
The Dawn of Mourning
Absence changes the way we feel life. In my parents’ absence life felt awkward. A spiritual vertigo had settled into my bones. A chemistry of loss flowed throughout my bloodstream. I felt alien in my own skin.
I had never turned directly into the presence of death before in my life. Up until now, I never really had to. It stayed far enough away from me that I could pretend it wasn’t there. It’s a taboo topic. Why would I want to actually learn about death and dying anyway? After all, it’s dark, depressing, and morbid.
In hindsight, I wish I had learned a lot more about death much earlier in life. It makes me wonder why the most essential content in life is not taught in schools? Now that I am completely immersed in the school of life, I understand what being a student really means. I also know that the most powerful teachers in life are not human beings.
Absence is the predecessor of grief. It creates spiritual vertigo. On the outside we maintain our facade and continue to move through life as if everything is normal. We have become so good at wearing masks, this facade for our public identity. However, death easily lays these false fronts to ruin.
When mourning approaches, it’s impossible to be anything more than who we really are.
Perhaps that is one of the most frightening consequences of absence; we have to face the truth about our existence here. We learn that our social routines, habits, and assumptions are symptomatic of a collective identity crisis. The things we have been using to prop ourselves up no longer offer support.
This is the dawn of mourning.
The Pain of Remembrance
There it is. A single word that cuts deep into the fabric of our lives.
Mourning approached now that death had already ushered my parents away and my role as caregiver and advocate had suddenly ended. Absence invited a feeling of aloneness to visit me. I had experienced loss before, but it never felt like this.
Children usually outlive their parents. We all experience the deaths of family and friends. Loss is a universal experience in the human condition. This is lifewide learning on the edge.
We cannot hide from the pain of remembrance, nor can we avoid holding a conversation with it. Absence is painful and easily wounds us, but it also harbours penetrating insight into how to live a life worth living.
I was a primary caregiver for my parents in their final years. A large part of my identity became invested in that role. That role was shattered when they died. It was a wound for absence to fester in… an inner emptiness that invaded my sense of identity.
When we mourn over the death of a loved one we move into the silent and solitary interior of our sadness. It’s hard to walk in this place. It can even be hard getting back to our feet again.
And we feel the pain of absence, and the emptiness, aloneness, and abandonment that accompanies it.
The End of Caregiving
I have gained a deep respect for caregivers and advocates. They give themselves to another for the sole purpose of improving the life of another person as they approach death. It is a beautiful insight into our humanity.
In another sense, being a caregiver gave provided me with a way to distract myself from my own feelings. As much as possible, I always tried to place the feelings and needs of my parents ahead of my own. After all, they didn’t need to see me being emotionally frail.
When we deny or repress our own feelings, however, there is eventually a price to pay. Any stoicism I was able to muster was ripped away once my role as caregiver had come to an end. I hadn’t been acknowledging my feelings. They quietly intensified over time, and eventually thrust me into the realm of grief.
Avoidance of sadness, sorrow, and mourning is never anything more than a delay of the inevitable. When we are caregivers for others, we should never forget to take good care of ourselves.
Once our loved ones have passed, and our role as caregiver and advocate are brought to an end, there is no longer need to contain our emotional strife. I think that is possible for a caregiver to experience a form of post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of loss.
Giving to another in order to care for them through to the end of their life means that we willingly inhabit a realm of stress, emotional duress, and spiritual hardship. When absence sets in, we realize that we are no longer the same person.
The Echo of Absence
I have learned that absence is not the opposite of presence. Absence doesn’t mean that nothing is there. It does mean that the nature of presence has changed.
When someone we love dies, they are never completely absent from our lives. An echo of their presence remains with us. Death invites us to create a new relationship with those that we have lost.
After the death of my parents I slowly began to realize that, in a certain sense, they were not entirely absent. In a way, they were still here with me. Not as ghosts or apparitions. I have not “seen” my parents since they died, but they continue to be a fundamental source of inspiration and belonging.
Death eliminates the physical, but it also inspires a new sense of presence. The discovery of this insight was important in my own grieving and healing process. I began to recreate my relationship with them in spirit. This is perhaps the greatest lesson that absence has to teach us.
In this sense, I know that my parents are always by my side.
- The sixth article in this series is On the Loss of My Parents: 6 – The Feeling of Grief