Relationships

What It's Like To Fall In Love After Your Parent Has Died

“I just keep telling my girlfriend how funny he was, how kind, how interesting, but in the end, they feel like nothing more than empty words."
Falling in love (and out of love) hurts a little more when your parent isn't there to shepherd you through the process. 
Falling in love (and out of love) hurts a little more when your parent isn't there to shepherd you through the process. 

Losing a parent feels insurmountable at any age. Our series helps you face it ― from the practical logistics to the existential questions about death and dying today.

At 19, writer Julie Hoag met her future husband in college. It was three years after her mother’s death and three years into a deep, pervasive depression triggered by the loss.

Falling in love with her then-boyfriend Dave helped pull her out of that depression. But the prospect of bringing him home to meet her family without her mom around brought aspects of it back.

“All I could think about was how he’d never meet my mom, ever,” the Minnesota blogger said. “I wanted my now-husband to know that my mom was the most generous and giving person I’ve ever known and that she gave to others as easily as she took her breaths.”

Hoag wondered if this feeling would pass, along with the grief. It ebbed and flowed, but inevitably, she had the same gnawing feeling on her wedding day five years later.

“There was a mom-sized hole there that no one on earth could ever fill,” she said.

Writer Julie Hoag and her mother (left) and the writer on her wedding day.
Writer Julie Hoag and her mother (left) and the writer on her wedding day.

As someone who also lost a parent in her teens, I know where she’s coming from. It’s a new fact of life: Any time you get even semi-serious with someone, the same sad, spiraling thoughts kick in: What would my parent think of this person? Would they love the little personality quirks I find so endearing or be annoyed by them? Would the two of them shoot the shit at family gatherings or keep a polite but noticeable distance?

As Hoag alluded to, it stings slightly more to know your partner will never know what kind of person your parent was: how unrelentingly kind your mom was, in Hoag’s case. Or how your dad, in my case, laughed so obnoxiously, so distinctively, that people literally shushed him in movie theaters. (I can tell people about it, but it’s damn near impossible to replicate that infectious, movie-ruining laugh.)

Matt Sloan, a contributing editor at The Mighty and a fiction writer living in Belfast, Northern Ireland, agrees. As much as he tries, he can never quite share a story like his dad did. And even if he could, the memories and details become more ill-defined with each coming year.

“It’s been eight years since my dad died. I’m in a committed relationship now and I so wish she could’ve met him,” he told me. “My dad had a lot of stories — he was a merchant sailor and traveled the world — but no retelling quite captures the wonder and magic of hearing it from him directly.”

Sloan added: “I just keep telling my girlfriend how funny he was, how kind, how interesting, but in the end, they feel like nothing more than empty words,” he said. “She would’ve loved him, and he would’ve loved her. It’s heartbreaking to know she’ll never meet him.”

Sloan and his dad as Sloan receives his master’s degree in 2009.
Sloan and his dad as Sloan receives his master’s degree in 2009.

That regret is part and parcel of the experience of losing a parent early in your life and forging relationships later on. Research on early parental lost suggests adolescents can react two different ways when they start forming serious romantic relationships: They either move more quickly into committed relationships or avoid these relationships entirely. (They tend to do this even more than peers whose parents divorced.)

Going the first route ― rushing into love, but still being open to the experience ― seems like a minor win compared to the alternative of never falling in love at all, but you take an L regardless: Experiencing love ― falling in love, pining for it, or losing it ― without your parent as a witness and confidante hurts like hell.

“Grief doesn’t fit into a box. Falling in love, weddings and otherwise ‘happy’ occasions can often reactivate a great deal of pain.”

- Marina Resa, marriage and family therapist

For Anna Nordberg, a freelance writer in San Francisco, it wasn’t so much the falling in love sans-mom that hurt; it was getting her heart broken. (Nordberg was 17 when her mom died of colon cancer and is currently writing a memoir about becoming a mother without your mom around.)

Years before she met her husband and became a mom, she met her first love. He broke her heart in the shittiest, most unceremonious way possible.

“I was traveling alone when he broke he up with me, over email,” she said. “I remember sort of staggering out of an internet cafe, just thinking, ‘Where is she?’”

Nordberg could have called on a close friend or her brother or dad, but her mom was her go-to for knotty, emotional issues like this. (And admittedly, she was too embarrassed to tell anyone else that the man she loved, who’d loved her back just as intensely, didn’t anymore — and told her so via email.)

“This was a question of grief, but also, because it was my first experience in a serious relationship, I kept relentlessly running over things, imagining what I could have done differently,” she said. “I felt such a failure. She was good at talking to you about that kind of thing, listening and then steering you through mild crises, and I didn’t have her. It felt, well, miserable.”

Anna Nordberg and her mother in an undated photo
Anna Nordberg and her mother in an undated photo

Nordberg’s wedding, much like Hoag’s, was incredibly bittersweet, but she found ways to incorporate her mom’s legacy.

“I wore the veil she’d worn,” she said. “My brother sang during our wedding ceremony, just as he had during my mother’s memorial service. It was probably the most direct link between the two events.”

Those intentional funeral callbacks might’ve seemed a little odd for something as celebratory as a wedding, but Nordberg and guests who knew her mom embraced it: “I wanted it, this lovely, sad echo [of my mom]. It was the only time I cried.”

Of course, therapists say it’s human nature to envision how a new loved one would fit into your old, pre-loss family dynamic ― and to feel a resurgence of sadness over your parent’s absence in those big-ticket personal moments.

“Grief doesn’t fit into a box,” said Marina Resa, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles. “Falling in love, weddings and otherwise ‘happy’ occasions can often reactivate a great deal of pain.”

But as Resa notes, it’s also easy to lionize your late parent and to some extent overvalue their opinions. Think of it this way: If your living parent had a hard-line stance on your partner, would it make or break your feelings for that person? That stamp of approval is always ideal, but ultimately, your feelings about the relationship are independent of your family’s, she said.

“You have to trust your gut with falling in or out of love,” Resa said. “If your parents modeled healthy and loving relationships, your likelihood of picking the right partner is strong.”

Ultimately, that’s one of the most lasting parts of a loving parent’s legacy: that they taught you how to love and loved you so much that you struggle to put it into words. In their absence, you fall in love, retell their stories to the ones you love as best you can, and when you need to, simply lean into the sadness.

“Falling in love is easy,” as Sloan told me. “Even with the depression I’ve fought since his death, it’s easy to fall in love. The hard part is doing so without Dad around.”