Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Stories of Losing a Parent in Childhood
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Readers open up about the death of one of their parents at a very early age. To share your own experience, or offer advice to other readers (especially if you’re a health professional), please email hello@theatlantic.com.

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'When My Mom Was Depressed, She Was a Stranger'

A reader responds to the heartbreaking story of Destiny, the 14-year-old reader whose mother died three years ago after a history of health problems:

If I may be so bold, I’d like to contribute my story of losing a parent at a young age; maybe there is something that Destiny can take away from it. My mom, Debbie, took her own life on September 28, 1989. I was 12; my siblings were almost 11, 8, and 5. My mom was 34.

All the stories I hear about my mom from my family and friends paint a picture of a woman who loved her husband unconditionally and flourished through motherhood. She loved children, and having four of her own who were healthy and happy was an endless source of joy for her.

She and my dad realized another dream when they bought a house on the coast near our home, and every Friday night we’d pile in my dad’s pickup truck for a weekend of togetherness in the tiny 800 sq. ft. house. I have fond memories of her pulling us to the beach in a wagon, or waking up to smell her cooking breakfast in the tiny kitchen, or raking pine needles that never seemed to end …

I don’t exactly remember when it started, but she began to obsess about her weight and started having intense mood swings. She was subsequently diagnosed as being bipolar and anorexic, which it turns out is a particularly horrible combination. She was in and out of inpatient mental health facilities for the last three or so years of her life and I learned to walk on eggshells; I assumed the role of enforcer in our home to make sure that no one or nothing “set mom off.”

A 14-year-old reader, Destiny, emails the hello@ account from a school address in response to a recent piece of ours by Richard Harris on “living funerals,” or fake funerals meant to commemorate family members while they’re still living. Here’s Destiny:

My mom passed when I was 11. It was very hard for my family and we had so much to do after her death. She died because she wasn’t able to breathe. My mother was actually in and out of hospitals practically my whole life. One time I even had to spend the night there. The biggest change since her death was having to move twice. It has been very hard on me and my family.

Destiny discusses some other trauma that followed her mother’s death and continues:

School had become a safe haven along with a family member’s house. I now live alone with my father and younger sibling but we live close to some relatives who are loving and very nice. When I saw your post I knew that I wanted to contribute my thoughts and what has happened to me since my mother’s death and I hope this is a good contribution to your post. Thank you again.

If you’re a reader who also lost a parent at a very young age and have any advice for Destiny, or just have your own story to tell, please drop us an email. We’ll update this note and pass it along. Update from reader Ben:

For Destiny’s situation, one thing I would recommend is trying to find a group with Rainbows for Children, which I was in after my father died when I was seven. (The name says “for children,” but they have teen and adult groups.)

Destiny, I didn’t realize it at the time, but the coping skills I learned there really saved me during the tough times. Also, if you can find a friend or two you really trust, who you can cry to or explain when you’re mad about your mom (to those who don’t know, becoming mad about the situation is actually very common). It’s hard to rely on family for this, because they probably have their own grief, so it’s hard for them to “hear” you sometimes. Not their fault, really, just human nature.

So, get some coping skills (not online, actually join a program) to help you through. And know that it doesn’t hurt this bad forever. Yes, you’ll have some tough moments—maybe on the anniversary, for example. Thankfully, those bad moments will happen less frequently than they do now (and it doesn’t mean you’re disrespecting/forgetting her!). Stand tough for now, try not to obsess over your sadness too much (it can try to take over, but no need to let it), and be kind to yourself.