There are few things worse in a person’s life than losing a loved one “before their time.” My mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when I was only 19 years old, and died 9 months later. It was a huge shock to my family and me. I have three younger sisters, and the youngest was only 13 at the time. Grief is difficult for anyone, regardless of their age. However, there are certain things that especially suck about losing someone close to you before you become an adult:
1. You have less time with them. This one is probably the most obvious, but you don’t have as much time with them as you would’ve wanted. At this age, I can’t help but feel that I’ve been cheated out of time with my mom, and that it’s unfair. I know there are people out there who have it worse, but in our society we tend to rely on averages, and as it stands, my sisters and I lost my mom at a time that was out of the ordinary. It sucks knowing that you will never be able to spend time with them again, and that you will likely live over half of your life without them.
2. Milestones will always be painful. I’m only 23, so there are a lot of milestones coming my way. I recently graduated from college, and while it felt like an amazing accomplishment, I wished more than anything that my mom was alive to see it. I went to Europe last summer– my first time traveling out of the country without my family– and all I wanted to do was tell her about it and ask her about her experiences traveling through Europe in her 20s. She won’t be here to see me launch my career, potentially start/finish grad school, or get married and have kids if I choose to do so. All of these occasions are “supposed” to be extremely happy, but they will always be tinged with some bitterness and tears for me.
3. I don’t have an adult female role model to ask for advice. Before my mom got sick, I would always ask her for advice. It seemed like she had experienced everything I was going through. And I was just getting to that post-teenage age where I was starting to understand that. Sure I can talk to my dad about dating problems and career advice, but I miss that unique point of view I could only get from my mom as a woman who loved me deeply and cared about my best interests.
4. You don’t get to know them as a person, only as a parent. I am so jealous of how many girls my age are starting to develop an adult relationship with their moms. I never had that and I never will. An adult-ish relationship was starting to blossom between the two of us when I was 19, but I wasn’t mature enough yet for it to become all it could be. I was just starting to become more curious about her past, her wishes, her desires, her hopes and her dreams. Our relationship was pretty normal between a teenage daughter and her mother, which is to say it could get rough at times. I kept a lot of secrets from her but I feel that she truly knew me, even better than I knew myself. However, I never got the chance to unveil any of her secrets, and knowing about her life from her perspective will always remain a mystery.
5. You grow up a lot faster. I’ve become a lot more jaded. I’ve seen how shitty people I thought cared about me can be. I trust others less. On the other hand, I view time differently, and my priorities have changed. I trust my gut more because I know life is precious. It’s not something I actively think about, but when I don’t feel comfortable on a certain path in life, instead of waiting it out and hoping it gets better when I secretly know it won’t, I nix it. I do things that I love and spend time with people I love. I don’t have the time or energy for negativity, gossip, and people who bring me down. I used to be able to go out and party with whoever, wherever, whenever, but now, I’m not sure if it’s due to my loss or just growing up in general, I don’t want to spend my time in meaningless ways. Basically, I feel like an old person in a young person’s body, and often I don’t relate much to people my own age anymore, which can suck sometimes.
6. You are more prone to an early death, mental illness, and potentially suicide. Studies have been conducted examining the effects of losing a parent at a young age. One study from the Journal of the American Medical Association found that children who lose a parent suddenly are three times as likely to develop depression and also have an increased risk of developing PTSD. A study from John’s Hopkins found that people who lost a parent at a young age are more likely to be hospitalized for depression and have an increased risk of committing violent crimes. The same study showed that children who lose a parent to suicide are 3 times more likely to attempt/commit suicide themselves as adults. A study in PLOS Medicine found that people who lost a parent at a young age were 50% more likely to also die prematurely. Yikes. Finally, according to a study conducted by the nonprofit organization, Comfort Zone Camp (a camp that I personally attended and support with my whole heart!), 72% of respondents who lost a parent at a young age reported believing their life would be “much better” if their parent hadn’t died so early. Bottom line–losing a parent is an extremely devastating event, especially during childhood and young adulthood. The effects don’t just go away after a few months or even a few years–they can impact a person for their entire life.
7. It’s awkward when people ask you about your family/parents. I hate it when someone new I meet asks what my parents do for a living. Luckily, it’s being asked less frequently the older I get. But I remember in elementary school there would always be projects about moms and dads, and I’m starting to realize how insensitive that is. Not everyone has a mom and a dad. I’m not sure how they do it anymore because I attended elementary school in the late 90s – early 2000s, but even now as an adult, when I have to answer any questions about what my mom does for a living, I want to leave the room. I always have to awkwardly mention that my mom died, and then I have to deal with the even more awkward, “Oh I’m so sorry,” ‘s and then everyone goes silent or quickly changes the subject. Ugh. It’s all just very uncomfortable.
8. It hurts that new people in your life never got to meet them. Most of the friends I have now never got to meet my mom, or if they did, they never got to know her well. This especially sucks when it comes to dating. I see so much of my mom in myself, and I know that she was the person who most influenced who I am today. I talk about her so often even three years after she’s been gone, and I wish more than anything that the new people in my life could have met her.
9. You’re already going through a time of great confusion and change. Your 20s is supposed to be the decade where you discover who you are as an adult and how you fit into the world. You’re starting to date more seriously, you might be in college or starting a career, moving out on your own, traveling, learning how to budget, figuring out what you want to do with your life… When my mom got sick, I know that personally I was struggling a lot with wanting to change my major and being unsure if the premed path I was on was right for me. *Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.* And for people who lose a parent at an even younger age, childhood and the teenage years are also times of immense change. Your body is changing, you’re learning to navigate the world as a human being, you’re learning facts in school at a rapid rate… It’s all very stressful. That’s not to say later eras of life are less stressful, but once you get more life experience, you don’t need to rely on your parents as much. The childhood years through the early 20s are a time when many people still rely on their parents for emotional support because the brain isn’t at full maturity yet. Losing a parent during that time can be extra devastating and feel like your whole world has fallen apart.
10. Social media can suck. Especially for me on Mother’s Day. And this year, on International Women’s Day too. There are so many posts of people smiling happily with their mothers. I usually have to avoid social media on those days. I’m not saying it’s wrong for anyone to want to post those photos of appreciation, and I understand that social media only displays the happiest moments of our lives. I know not everyone’s relationship with their mother is perfect. But it does make me jealous and can deepen the wound I already feel on those holidays when I am bombarded with photos of happy-looking, lively mothers and their daughters about how lucky they are to have such a fantastic mom. The pain is lessening as time goes by, but it still feels like salt in a wound on those days for me.