Today marks the 16th anniversary of my mother’s passing, and I can still hear my sister’s scream on that early morning that changed our lives forever, “Wake up, mom’s dead!”. My mother’s unexpected passing at 44 from cardiomyopathy was my first experience of true heart break. At 22, I didn’t have the life experience to process the trauma that was radiating throughout every cell of my being and as the oldest of four, I can only imagine the sensations of my younger siblings.

Experiencing a death of that magnitude, at that age, was sure to change the course of all of our lives. My mother’s death vibrated through our family tree shaking everyone to our core. How could this have happened? This isn’t the way “it’s” supposed to be! But one of the lessons we were taught from that experience is that nature doesn’t care. My mother didn’t die for any other reason than… she just did. Life is just that fleeting and precious. We truly aren’t promised tomorrow. 

We all grieved in our own ways and my father’s way of dealing was to succumb to his grief. Slowly, after 13 years of allowing diabetes to ravage his body, my father passed as well. He was on a ventilator, so his transition was much different than the sudden shock of my mother’s. The gift my father’s passing provided us was being able to surround and hold him as he made his transition out of his physical body. 

But then, it was just my siblings and I. We had our grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins but OUR family changed in that moment. It was just the four of us. The beauty in our experience was that we immediately let go of any petty sibling squabbles, and quickly united under the truth that we, in that moment, were all that remained of our branch in our family tree. 

Losing one parent is extremely difficult, but losing both is a much different experience to process. The reality that our old age and death are a step closer now that both parents are gone, becomes apparent. Through no action of our own, we have become next in line. It’s hard to put into words the sense of vulnerability that rushes in. There are no longer any shields protecting us from our own aging and march towards death. We were pushed up. My parents became two very special guides for me, and I was now the elder of my family. 

My father was the youngest of 13, and adding to the loss of our father, we were experiencing a generational shift of elders in our extended family. We lost 7 aunts and uncles over the corse of a few years. Even for a family of our size, the reality of what we were whitnessing was hard to escape. This primal tie to our family was being severed. The hierarchy of family elders was shifting in many of my cousin’s families as well. 

I’ve seen this family shift manifest in many different ways over the years. Some voids refill, others lock shut. As a “recovering Catholic” spending the majority of my life staying as far away from organized religion as I could, I had a newfound desire to connect, on a more visceral level, to whatever my own Spirituality is. I question where my parents are. I hear and feel them when I’m out in nature, so I continue to follow the breadcrumbs they leave for me. I feel there comes a time in all of our lives when we begin to ask, what else is out there. For me, losing both parents reopened that door for me to explore.

When you are going through challenges in life, like losing one or both parents, illness, divorce, loss of your job, or any other major shift, it’s easy to feel like you will never get over the pain, loss, and hurt you are experiencing. But it’s important to remember that you have in the past, and you will once again. The miracle of our body is that it wants to heal. Not just external cuts and bruises, but our emotional heart as well. It softens with time. For those of us who have experienced a close death we know that we will never get over it. We just change in that instance, we have a new normal, but the strength of our character helps us continue to put one foot in front of the other, some days easier than others, but we continue to walk our path with the blood of our ancestors racing through our veins. This helps me realize that my parents are never truly gone, but a part of who I am not only in my heart and my memories, but in my blood and bones as well.