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The Presence of Absence - Holidays without Parents

A reflection about feeling the loss of parents over the holidays.

My parents - Sept.17, 1948

My mother passed away about four years ago at age 85 and my father thirty years ago this January. He was 58. Now that I’m in my mid-fifties, many of my friends are encountering the first holiday season without a parent or parents. For them, I want to pass along this message – it does get better.

My parents inevitably visit me this time of year, in subtle ways, which I often miss if I’m too busy or stressed to sense their presence. This year, they appeared in a broken-down cardboard box. In a binge cleaning spree on Christmas Day, I found a cardboard box I’d filled and set aside with memorabilia from my parents’ house.

From this box I lifted my father’s flight bag complete with helmet, oxygen mask, and a miniature Polish bible signed with love from his parents. My son Daniel is a pilot, born almost a decade after my Dad’s death. Daniel showed me how the visor drops down on the helmet, and explained the need for oxygen above 12,000 feet. Daniel’s build and athleticism mirror my father’s. Although my father never held my son, I could sense Dad as Daniel held that knicked and scuffed helmet and explained the facts of their mutual passion to me, the intermediary, who always felt safer with her feet planted on the ground.

My Dad, always the filmmaker/photographer, long before these hobbies were digital or easy, made a film of Christmas morning in the mid 1960s. In this film, he delicately lifted the folded wrapping paper label that revealed the names assigned to each present. This Christmas, my Jewish husband, Ken, created those same folded labels, scrawled with our children’s names. Ken always insists that my father, an ardent Catholic, would have rejected him outright. They never met because Dad died about four years before I met Ken. Why do I feel like these tiny labels on packages are my father’s silent defense to his ability to change and embrace?

Painful family photo - where only Mom looks good!

In the memorabilia box, I also found my mother’s journals, one in particular, from March of 1998 to August 7, 2001, less than a week before my third suicide attempt. She signed each entry with “I love you Lord. I love you Joe.” The depth of her sadness, her loneliness, fills most pages of this journal, which concludes more than fifteen years after my father’s death. As I read these pages, filled with sentences where she depicted her insomnia, isolation and feelings of uselessness, the genetic link of my depression stared back at me from the page. I was struck with how much easier the last two decades of her life might have been if she had used an antidepressant.

My mom, a counselor, was convinced she could solve her depression through meditation, prayer and positive thinking. No doubt those actions helped her. I suggested antidepressants for years, and she finally tried one late in life with great success. In the meantime, she spent much of the last ten years of her life in misery, and her children bore the brunt of that misery. Those pages read like an apology, which I granted without hesitation.

I don’t know if this blog will help anyone over the holidays, but on the small chance it might, I am offering it up to you. Whether you have lost your parents young or old, or if you never knew your parents at all –

My parents in 1983 about 1.5 years prior to his death

healing exists where you least expect it. I found mine in a tattered cardboard box, in a forgotten storage room, in my mother’s hand and in the hands of my son.

For more information about Julie K. Hersh or Struck by Living, got to the Struck by Living website.

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