When You Reach the Age Your Parent Died

Drawing parallels doesn't really help.

Posted Sep 25, 2019

There comes a time when those of us who lost a parent too early in life arrive at the same age at which that parent died. I am quickly approaching that age.

My daughter was only 11 when her “yiayia” passed away — that special person who so intuitively could communicate with my child the way no one else could. At the time I was in my 40s and the idea of drawing parallels between my mother’s early demise and my own just hadn’t surfaced yet. Turning 40 was not a big deal to me. Neither was 50, close to when great changes were about to take place in my life. But 60 was different. And terrifying. Because it represented the decade during which my mom left us.

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ScaryMommy’s writer Nina Collins lost her mom much earlier than when I lost mine but understands the feeling of reaching the number that represented her mother’s final year. “Turning the age someone we loved was when they died is a clichéd moment that many of us can reflect on in one way or another. I read somewhere that in the case of a parent, it can be a startling revelation, a moment of immense freedom that washes over you.”

None of us knows what is around the next corner. If a parent was taken too early in our lives, all we can do, then, is to compare our health right now to what we remember theirs being at the time. By age 68 my mom had already survived breast cancer (there were no lumpectomies in those days), had had a hysterectomy, suffered a bout of shingles, and had gotten very sick with pneumonia, having passed out in the choir loft during Holy Week after cooking Easter goodies that were not to be touched until after midnight — a time Greeks wait for all year. By her 60s it was also determined that she had heart disease, possibly caused by the harsh therapy treatments she was given back in the ‘60s to eradicate her breast cancer that may have weakened her heart muscle. After open heart surgery closely following her 69th birthday, her tiny 107 lb. frame could not withstand the trauma and she died six weeks later.  We were dumbfounded.

I added up how my mother lived her life  — always doting over even her grown family, rarely finding time to take a break and when she did, she would fall asleep sitting up. Mom was a product of the war years, when exercise, diet, and self-care were not yet featured as part of the health equation. Her idea of treating herself was getting gel nails done every few weeks after she turned age 55. She permed and colored her own hair, she had never had the pleasure of hiring someone to clean her home, and my father was of little help since she had spoiled him mercilessly. Her reliance on faith became her touchstone when she could not fathom what was happening to her health-wise. In Mom’s eyes, it all had a meaning.

Mom used to repeatedly say that I had a gift; the gift of knowing how to relax whenever I wanted. At first I thought she was telling me I was lazy in a polite way. As I aged, however, I came to realize that there are some people who simply can’t slow down and actually envy people who can. If they did take a break, their self-worth and sense of purpose might be affected. She agonized that others had to care for her after her surgeries when she was the one who was the superstar at taking care of others. But losing her before my daughter reached high school age still haunts me.

Contributor Tasmin Eva, in her Huffpost article The Day I became Older Than My Mother, put it this way: “Becoming older than a parent can be a troubling transition. At the most base, mathematical level, it's hard to comprehend how they can still be your parent if you are older than they ever were. When a parent dies they become frozen in time, forever their age at death. You write it on medical history forms and mutter it in sympathetically awkward conversations. Like a mummified memory, preserved for all to recall as things were, but not what would have been. Your parent has to be older than you. If you become older than they were, it's as if they are no longer the parent.”

I think I have figured this out, however. If you reach and then pass the age at which a parent died, consider each year added a gift. Of course, this is the way you should look at it anyway, but somehow using that age as a milestone might make it feel less dramatic in the long run. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve watched for signs that my health might parallel my mom’s at my age, but so far I’ve come up empty. In that regard may my cup continue to remain half full.

This weekend I turn 68. My activities include a flight south and a weekend with my now 35-year-old daughter, who knows my idea of fun is Disneyland. Yes. I still run between rides. And I am in the front car of the roller coaster with my arms up in the air just before we descend the first drop. 

I think I’ll be fine.