How I've Survived the Sudden Death of My Parents

I'm 43 years old now, and I still haven't unburied all the pain around my parents' death, or the pain I carry in regard to my relationship with them while they were alive. But I'm digging, and I'm facing it, and I'm healing, and I'm growing.
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I was 14 when my parents were murdered. I had no idea how to process their death, let alone the way they died. So I buried it all. I moved in with my eldest sister and her family, started a new high school and acted like everything was fine. I smiled a lot, made a bunch of new friends and mastered the art of shifting any conversation about parents to some other topic. After high school, I went to a good college, made lots more friends and continued to hide the fact that I was an orphan as much as I could. About once a year, triggered by a conversation or too many drinks or the sheer inability to suppress the grief anymore, I'd sob myself raw for hours and hours and then get back to acting like all was okay.

This was how I coped. This was how I survived. This was how I kept myself from turning to drinking and drugs and deciding that life was too fucked up to care about anything. I buried the pain. Actually, I didn't consciously do anything. It's as though the pain buried itself to protect me, to keep me from burying myself beneath it.

But the pain didn't go away. It stayed buried but present, like a parasite, not enough to take me down but enough to weaken me. It entered my body in the form of a regular cough and nervous stomach. It entered my relationships as distance and an unwillingness to commit too seriously to anyone. It entered my dreams as nightmares, endless scenarios of violence and death.

And still, into my 20s, I smiled. Still, I pretended that everything was fine, that I had processed my parents' death and had moved on with my life. I was so good I had even convinced myself. At the time, I didn't equate my cough or fear of intimacy as having to do with my parents. Aside from the nightmares, I didn't believe their death was affecting my life much at all. I denied the pain. And that only strengthened it.

In my early twenties and living in San Francisco, I had one of my yearly cries. Except it lasted for days and wouldn't stop. In a panic, feeling like I was going crazy, I went to the Yellow Pages to find a psychologist. I closed my eyes and pointed blindly at a name. She saw me two days later. Once a week for six weeks we talked mostly about my parents. It was a beginning. I had finally started digging up the pain. In fits and spurts, at times casually, at times relentlessly, I've been digging ever since.

We are all living with pain, deep pain, and whether consciously or not, we've all buried plenty of it inside us, where it feeds all the time on our peace and happiness. Inside us, where it prevents us from realizing our greatness, our truth, our freedom. Maybe it's time to dig some of it up*.

We all have our reasons for burying our pain, but at the core it comes down to fear. Fear of facing the truth of what we've done or endured, the truth of just how dark our darkness is, the fear that we can't survive it. But we can survive it, we've already survived it. Now it's time to let the healing begin, and healing doesn't happen within denial and fear. It happens within openness and honesty, when we can look at the truth of our reality and figure out how to accept all we've been through, and to love ourselves just the same. This is how we create a safe place inside of ourselves, to heal.

As a guy who posts pretty pictures with quotes about being yourself and seeking happiness and love love love, I want to be clear about something. It's easy to say "just be" or "just love," and the truth of those realities is powerful, but getting there is difficult. It takes more than just wanting it, or we'd all be gurus. It takes work. And much of that work begins and ends with our pain. It begins and ends in those spaces we try to ignore, the ones so many of us have mastered burying. The sooner we take out our shovels, the sooner we start to experience our lives with a new kind of hope, and a new kind of freedom. Make no mistake, it's not easy, but it's worth it. It's so worth it.

I'm 43 years old now, and I still haven't unburied all the pain around my parents' death, or the pain I carry in regard to my relationship with them while they were alive. But I'm digging, and I'm facing it, and I'm healing, and I'm growing. I've been digging for a while now, and I'll continue to dig, because I want to invite any opportunity to heal. I want to live as truthfully as possible. I want, more than anything, to be free.

*I'm a believer in the precision of timing, especially where personal growth is concerned, and especially when dealing with intense pain. If you feel clear -- or even strongly suspect -- you can't handle the reality of your pain without it breaking you in ways you don't want to be broken right now, then don't go there. Now may not be the time. The pain's not going anywhere. You'll have plenty of opportunity to face it.

Also, if you decide you do want to take a deeper look at your darkness, it's good to round up some support beforehand. Friends, family, a therapist, a support group, whatever or whomever will help you feel safer moving forward into your pain. And please, as you go there, take care of yourself. Love yourself. It's hard to face our darkness. We have be gentle with ourselves when we do.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.