Saying Goodbye to My Dad’s House

Even when it’s the most practical option, taking over a parent’s space once they’re gone isn’t always an easy decision.

When my dad died, we faced the question of what to do with his townhouse. My sister, who lives in California, thought my then girlfriend Liz and I should live there, which was the last thing I wanted.

I didn’t want to move into my dead dad’s house for a number of reasons. I didn’t want to live so close to where I went to high school. I didn’t want my future mother-in-law to be three minutes away from our doorstep. And I didn’t want to be constantly reminded of the parent I just lost. 
Granted, I probably didn’t handle my dad’s death in what therapists would call a “healthy manner,” but the whole thing happened rather suddenly. In the span of three weeks, my dad went from the guy I saw every couple of months to a terminally ill patient, who needed to be “made comfortable” because he was past the point of treatment. I wanted to scrub the image of my dad taking his last breath from my brain, and I didn’t think having coffee in his kitchen every morning would help me do that.
Plus, there was no way Liz and I would be able to keep the house as immaculate as he did. If the dead really did check in on their living relatives as I’d been taught in Catholic school, I knew my cleanliness (or lack of it) would probably piss him off.
At the same time, I couldn’t argue with the logic of the move. My dad’s mortgage was about the same as the rent on our apartment, and taking over the loan was a simple process. Plus, our apartment was falling apart, our landlord was becoming more difficult to reach, and rent would only go up.
“Can you promise me this will only be temporary?” I asked Liz before we moved. She promised. She also went out of her way to make sure the move was as painless as possible for me by rushing to decorate the place to look more like our former apartment and less like a place where my dad lived.
Of course, there was only so much she could do. Even with Liz’s infamous hippy curtains on the windows, it still felt strange. For the better part of a year, it felt like house sitting. 
It didn’t help that our homeowner’s association continued to address monthly statements to my dad despite my repeated calls and emails to inform them I was now the homeowner. In a desperate attempt to get the statements in my name, I sent this email to the association:

When I spread the remains of what the Lehman Funeral Home assured me was my cremated father’s body in the ocean along Delaware Seashore State Park, I was under the impression that my father, Gary Bilski, was actually dead. However, your dogged insistence on sending homeowner’s statements to Gary Bilski despite my repeated calls informing you of his death can only mean that rumors of my father’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Therefore, I’m asking you to please send some additional information showing valid proof of my father’s existence so I can reach out to the Lehman’s Funeral Home to find out whose cremated remains were sent to me.

Early on, I’d spent a lot of time wandering around the new place, picturing what my dad’s life must’ve looked like or trying to conjure up memories of my own visits. If I stared at the living room sofa long enough, I could see a hungover 25-year-old me sitting there drinking endless cups of coffee from the French press my dad had been so excited to show me.
Gradually, I settled in to our new home. And slowly, little by little, I learned to love the house – not in spite of it being my dad’s old home, but because of it. Living there allowed me to keep a small part of my father alive and helped me believe he could share in all the moments his death prevented him from experiencing in person.
The powder room sink is the very spot my wife placed a home pregnancy test as we watched two solid pink lines tell us our lives would change forever. The upstairs bedroom is where I, with the help of our Boston Terrier, Luna, proposed to a sleep-deprived nurse who had just finished her night shift. The living room coffee table is where Liz wrote the most beautifully honest tribute to a life – a tribute she handed out at her grandfather’s funeral.
After so many of these moments, my family’s memories took over. Now when I look at the living room, I don’t envision my dad’s former life. Instead, I see my daughter bopping around to “I Want to Poop My Pants,” a Beatles parody I’d sing to her on a daily basis. I see Liz and I on the sofa, wine glasses in hand, catching up on the backlog of awful TV (“Grey’s Anatomy”) in our DVR queue.
With a second baby coming, we need more space. That’s why, after more than five years, we’re moving. It already hurts to think about leaving this place, partly because of all the memories we’ve created here, but mostly because of my dad.
Saying goodbye to my dad’s house will feel like losing him all over again. 

Learning to Parent Without You: A Letter to My Late Mom

The entire family was crowded into the living room of that rental house on the shore. It was you and dad, the six of us kids and our spouses, and several of the older grandkids. We sat on old couches that smelled of ocean, feeling the grit of sand between our toes after a long day on the beach.

We gathered as a family to discuss the next few months. What did the doctors say at your last appointment? How much pain will you be in? Are all the finances in order? How much help will Dad need taking care of you in the coming months? When will hospice care start?

You barely had the energy for that trip, but barring a miracle, we knew that it’d be the last time we were all together. The doctors said you probably wouldn’t be around at Christmas.

You looked weary and thin, wearing wrinkles in your skin that aged you beyond your years. But you were beautiful. You sat on that old sofa next to Dad, answering our questions and concerns with a voice that occasionally quivered and eyes that drooped with exhaustion.

That summer, while talking about the harsh realities of your cancer, it hit me in a deeper way than ever before that you would not know me as a mom. You wouldn’t be there to see my kids grow up or hear them run into your house, arms outstretched as they gave their Nana a hug.

My voice shook and hot tears ran down my face as I shared my fear with you and the rest of the family. We wept, my heart aching so deep inside me in anticipation of how much more I’d miss you when I had kids and couldn’t share the joy of motherhood with you.

During that last year, I so badly wanted to get pregnant simply so that you could be there for it, but I knew that at that time, my primary focus was taking care of you. I wanted you to help me learn how to be a mom. Instead, I was living the crude reality of changing you, feeding you, brushing your teeth, making you comfortable.

It was a joy and a privilege, a season of my life that in an odd way, I’m thankful for. But it wasn’t what I envisioned.

I remember when I found out I was pregnant. I think I took at least three pregnancy tests that morning, just to make sure. My husband was getting ready to walk out the door to work. I came downstairs trying to hide the excitement evident in every bone of my body, and he asked what was going on.

I tried to keep it a secret – just until the end of the day at least. I knew there was no way he’d be able to focus at the office if the day started off with this news. But he saw right through me, and there in the kitchen, me still in my pajamas, we smiled, laughed, and cried happy tears because of the new life that was inside of me.

We had our first doctor’s appointment when I was eight weeks along. I wish you could have seen my husband’s face when the doctor told us the news. Twins! Unknown to him at the time, I had been praying for two.

He had that “deer in the headlights” look, and I was nervous and scared, but my excitement outweighed all of that. We called everyone in the family on the way home from that appointment, still trying to wrap our minds around the reality of two babies.

Oh, how my heart ached to call you.

As my pregnancy progressed, there was so much I wanted to talk to you about because, well, you did this whole mom thing six times over. What baby gear did I really need? Was breastfeeding hard? Did you have any suggestions on how to sleep better at night during pregnancy? Did you go into labor naturally? Did your water break, or did they break it at the hospital? Any suggestions on how to deal with this annoying pregnancy heartburn? You were the expert I desperately wanted to consult.

When people found out I was pregnant with twins, they’d often say something to the effect of, “Wow! Congrats! Is your mom going to stay with you for a while when they’re born?”

I know they meant well, because having your mom come help after childbirth is a wonderful, beautiful thing. But it wasn’t my reality. I’d try to dodge the question by saying, “My dad and sisters will come out, and we’ve got family in the area, too, so I’ll have lots of help.”

But as much as I tried to avoid the question, I was regularly reminded that you weren’t going to be staying with us. You wouldn’t be stocking our freezer with homemade spaghetti sauce and pineapple chicken. You wouldn’t be there to run errands or rock a crying baby. I wouldn’t be able to ask you questions about my daughter’s reflux, or whether or not you sleep trained, or the question that’s been on repeat in my mind throughout my entire journey of motherhood: “How the heck did you do this six times?”

On my first Mother’s Day, my sisters gave me a video of an interview they did with you and Dad. It was about all things pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting. Your health was in rapid decline when the video was recorded, but you did your best to answer so many of my questions. I wasn’t even pregnant when they interviewed you, but I was given the gift of hearing your answers years later during the trenches of motherhood.

At times, it felt like you were there in the room, talking directly to me, as if I was actually sharing my first Mother’s Day with you. It was one of the best gifts I have ever been given. Eventually, the video ended and you were gone. How I wish I could just pick up the phone and call you.

The kids are walking and starting to talk now. My son is a snuggler, who could spend all day playing in the dirt. My daughter is strong. She knows what she wants, and she’s as stubborn as anything. My husband says she gets it from me – and I know I get it from you.

I want to ask you questions about discipline, the developmental differences between my siblings and me when we were kids, what it was like to have more than two. I want you to see the dimples on my daughter’s cheeks when she smiles and hear my son’s giggles when he’s tickled.

I want you to cry with me when motherhood is overwhelming.

As the years go by, waves of grief make room for waves of healing, and I remember I have much to be thankful for. I miss you deeply, and I wish I didn’t have to learn how to parent without you. I wish you were here to watch me be a mother.

But I’m eternally grateful I got to watch you.

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10 Things That Happen When You Grieve the Loss of Your Mom

Losing your mom is an unparallelled loss that changes you forever. It’s only been two months, but this is my experience so far.

It’s been a little over two months since I lost my mom to cancer. When I say the words “I lost my mom” out loud, they don’t seem right, because a lost sock can be found again. This isn’t just a missing sock. This is a huge hole in my gut, which will never, ever go away.

Losing a parent means you’ve joined a club with people who understand that just walking out the front door with your shoes on and your hair washed can be a challenge. It means that grocery shopping and picking up brussels sprouts, and remembering how much your mom loved to eat them once she realized she could cook them in the oven rather than boiling them, and they actually tasted good, makes your eyes start to burn.

It’s wanting to go for a run to create endorphins to stop the screaming of, “Your mom died!” that keeps running in your head over and over, but you can’t because you also want to curl up in a ball and cry while watching “Gilmore Girls” on Netflix because it was “your thing” growing up with her.

There are a million things that change and take on new meanings and shapes. There are a million words that suddenly don’t seem so nice anymore. There are a million faces that don’t bring comfort like they used to.

I know time will help. This isn’t my first loss, but it is the hardest. So here are a few things that happen when your mom dies, in case you wanted to know where my head has been lately, or if you’re trying to figure out why your friend who lost her own mom smells like a garbage can half the time, or cries at a simple Pampers commercial.

You cry a lot, and at random times. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve seen a cute commercial and started sobbing hysterically. Maybe the character’s mom was cheering them on at a soccer game, or maybe she was just giving them a hug. Literally anything that shows another mom in it will have you crying.

Don’t even get me started on walking around in public and seeing another mom with their child. I’m planning a wedding right now and almost started weeping when I was at a wedding show and they asked for mother/daughter duos to come on stage and win a prize. Sure, it wasn’t meant to hurt me, but damn did it burn.

You get closer to your dad. This isn’t really a negative. When you lose your mom, you suddenly realize that you need your dad’s support and strength more than ever. While he’s grieving as well, there’s something special about sharing this together and being able to reminisce as a pair. You realize that you start telling your dad about your day in the same way you used to tell your mom, in hopes that maybe things will feel normal. It doesn’t, but it does help a little to know that someone still has your back, and you’re not going into every situation alone.

Life seems like you’re permanently wearing sunglasses, never the same brightness it was before. I don’t know how to explain this to someone who hasn’t lost a parent. Just trust me, nothing will have the same brightness after you lose your mom. Those cute shoes at the store you were eyeing suddenly just seem like a stupid idea. That new casserole you wanted to make? Its ingredients are still at the back of the pantry collecting dust. You’ll get back in the routine someday, but it won’t be today.

You’ve joined a club with supportive people – one you never wanted to be in. No one ever wants to join the “I lost a parent” club. Fortunately when you do, you’ll find that these are the people you needed in your life and they came at the perfect time. These are the people who will set their cell phone to a different ringer for you so they absolutely won’t miss your call at 2 a.m. These are the people who let you cuss like a sailor every other word because life is just not fair anymore. These are the people who will let you still be upset a month, a year, even 10 years from now. That brings me to my next point…

People expect you to be okay after about a week or two. If they aren’t a part of the “I lost a parent” club, people expect you to be okay pretty damn fast. Once the shock of the funeral (if you had one – we didn’t) wears off, people will slowly start to forget about your pain and expect you to be normal again. It’s okay to avoid people for a little while. It’s okay to still be grieving. Remind those you love how hard this is. Sometimes people are so focused on themselves, they forget how to be a real friend.

You can never fully grieve because something new hits you every day. When my mom passed away, I was on my second day of a three-week trip overseas. I had to push my grieving back because I wasn’t home and I had school and places to see. There was no funeral, so no reason to go home. My mom had wanted it this way.

I tried to push through and be okay, but grief would slip out of me and I would find myself hysterically crying in the middle of a street in Dublin. When I got home, I still felt like I should be okay, at least for my son and my dad. I didn’t want them to think I was falling apart. So I held a lot of my sadness inside. It’s hard to fully grieve, especially when you’re a parent. When I see news of the new “Gilmore Girls” series, or when I’m trying to remember what ingredients my mom used in her special lasagna, I find myself grieving all over again. It never really stops, you just learn to accept it.

Your child’s curious words will make your heart hurt. My son is four so death is not something he’s used to. Trying to explain to a four-year-old the idea of someone being gone is pretty impossible. We tried the “Mom-Mom is in heaven and she’s an angel and always looking down on you” stuff. And for the most part it works, but then there are the days where he’s reminding me, “Mommy, you don’t have a mom anymore,” where my heart breaks all over again. He doesn’t know it’s mean, he just says it like a statement. Because it’s true, I don’t. But man do those words hurt.

You’ll experience a whole new kind of pain when you start to see how much it’s affected your children. On the flip side to him being curious, he’s also pretty damn sad. When my mom began receiving Hospice care, my son regressed and started wetting the bed at night again. We’ve tried everything to make him stop.

When I’m tucking him in and his tiny voice says things like, “I miss Mom-Mom,” or, “Why does Mom-Mom have to die?” my heart aches. He constantly brings her up and while he might not always sound sad, I can tell that this is harder on him than he lets on. I just wish I could hold all his broken pieces together so he doesn’t have to experience this kind of pain.

You’ll scour their phone, Facebook account, Netflix account, etc. searching for one last message, and it’ll drive you crazy. My mom and I shared a Netflix account which I now feel so thankful for. It’s weird, but all I want to do is know my mom better. I searched through her phone looking for advice. I check Netflix to see what shows she was obsessed with. I went on her Facebook account looking for answers to questions I didn’t even know I had.

I try to find notebooks with her handwriting, hoping maybe she left a note for me somewhere. It will drive you crazy doing this, but you can’t help it. You just need one more piece of her, however tiny it is.

You’ll be jealous of everyone else who still has a mom, especially when they take her for granted. From this point forward, you shall never complain about your parent in front of me again. Because darling, you have no idea how lucky you are and how much I want to be in your shoes. Cherish them. Love them. Be thankful you have one more day with them.

Hug your babies tight. Tell your mom you love her. Seek her advice and wisdom. Don’t take these moments for granted. You only have one mom, and when she’s gone you’ll wish you’d never said an ugly word to her your whole life.