After you have a parent die, you think of them in odd moments and ways.

Example: one day last fall I was shaving. As I stood there, scraping metal against skin and stubble, for some reason my brain jumped back 31 years to the night my stepdad taught me how to shave. I remembered him showing me the proper amount of pressure to use, how to avoid nicking the edges of my lips but still get the area around them cleaned up, and his amazement at my ability to shave with either hand. He kept his razor in his right hand at all times, reaching across his face to shave the left cheek. I, on the other hand, just swapped hands and used my left hand for the left side. That seemed perfectly normal to me but blew his mind a little bit.

I chuckled at this memory and then did the math trying to recall how old he was that night. Thirty-six. Which, you know, wow.

I also thought of my mom’s age at the time, 34. Then I thought ahead to her age when she died, 46. That’s when my mind was blown a little. As I stood there, shaving on a warm, late fall morning, I, too was 46. I did some more math and figured that if I made it through the upcoming weekend, I would have lived more days than she had. Which was utterly amazing.

We’re at the age now that, unfortunately and sadly, several of my loyal readers and friends have lost parents. I never pretend to have all the answers that will help ease their grief, but I also have always felt an obligation to provide some kind of comforting words based on my experience. I usually say two things:

1) There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Whatever feels right to you is the correct way. As long as you aren’t being destructive to yourself or your loved ones, never feel guilty about crying too much or not enough, being too sad or not sad enough. Do what you need to do.

2) You will think about your lost parent every day for the rest of your life. This one has always bothered me a little. I don’t mean to tell people who are in deep grief that that pain will never go away. No, the message is that every day something will remind you of your lost parent. You may be going about your day normally and hear a song they loved, come across something you have from their home, or just see a particular kind of late afternoon light that reminds you of riding to practice together and laughing at their bad jokes.

Or shaving and remembering how your stepdad, who is now two years gone, bought you your first razor and how you have almost passed your mom in total days lived.

I share this today because it is the 20th anniversary of my mom’s death. And I still, honestly, think of her every single day. The memories aren’t often sad or of her death. Just little things here and there.

Over the years I’ve had plenty of regrets of the things she missed – my marriage, being a grandmother, her not being there for my stepdad in his final years – but those, also, are fleeting. Most days it’s just a quick thought of her in the midst of other things. I keep the last picture we took together here on my desk, and although I don’t look directly at it very often, she’s always right there in my peripheral vision. Kind of like those fleeting thoughts each day: always there, but just out of focus.

There are a few days I think of her, and miss her, a little more. Mother’s Day. Her birthday. And February 22. In the first few years after her death, on Feb. 22 I would constantly check the clock and count down until the time of her death. When the time arrived, I would often go somewhere on my own, and both think about it and try not to think about it at the same time. Weird, I know.

More recently, I’ve just acknowledged the day early on and then gone about things as I would any other day.

As the 20th anniversary approached, though, I’ve been thinking more back to that day she died. I’m astounded at how strong my memories are of the first 12 hours or so after she died. Honestly, I think I remember everything about the period from the moment I got the phone call from my stepdad until I finally passed out on my grandmother’s bed early the next morning. After that, the following week is a blur.

As many of you know, S lost her mom in 1993. So we talk a lot about the Dead Moms, as we call them, in our house.[1] We often wonder how they would have changed as they aged. Would they have mellowed, become more strident in their ways, or some combination? Would they get along with each other? Would the four of us all get along? I’m pretty sure my mom would have been the one we had to tell to stop buying the girls so many presents at Christmas, for example.

And, to be honest, we use them to make fun of some of our closest friends. When someone tells about a crazy mother or father in law they have to deal with, we will always chuckle to ourselves. Later we’ll laugh together about how we never have to worry about St. Carolyn or St. Marie pissing us off, ignoring our instructions for the kids, or meddling in our business. They are forever frozen, all their rough edges softened by grief and two decades of them being memories.

  1. The coda of our famous First Date Story revolves around telling each other our moms were both deceased.  ↩