When Your Parent Dies

What gifts of care or truth are worthwhile to the dying, and to those left behind?

I did not say all I could, but it was enough.

In the way we assign roles to those in our lives, I became your truth teller and acknowledged the world as it was.

This I knew: you were sick and you would die. You knew this truth, too: how could you not?

It came from within your body, and seeped into the chemicals that together orchestrated fear and dread in your brain, a little more each day. Maybe it chose you due to a combination of environment and genetic material, or maybe it was just a bunch of wild, mutated cells on a wrecking mission for no reason at all.

Here is irony: poison growing from the most lifegiving part of your body, destined to take your life, and with great pain.

In order that my thoughts do not become bitter, I comfort myself with the knowing: I told her the truth when others did their best to lie.

What nearly unyielding sorrow it was to watch. Most days after chemo I drove back to work punching the steering wheel in rage. “Rip out my hair,” I yelled, “sap my strength, make me vomit uncontrollably and unable to eat.”

And now all I can do is to know. I did not lie to you, because we are alike in that way. I know it gave you some small relief, acknowledging that it was as terrible as you knew it to be, deep within your bones.




I don’t have advice for anyone on how to watch a parent die of cancer. It’s awful, like having a wound re-opened, over and over again. I’m not sure there’s any wisdom to be gained from the experience, and if there is, it’s a little bit of clarity that cuts you wide open.

I better understand now, how people become wired into addictions, unhealthy relationships, and self-destruction. Divorce and grief have given me a great deal of empathy. As I get older I’m seeing that we’re responsible for measuring and doling our energy more carefully, but that knowing this doesn’t give us the right to be judgmental.

My dad’s Parkinson’s is starting to progress, too. I don’t anticipate that it will be any easier watching him suffer than it was watching my mom. I’ve watched him shuffle down the hall with two canes and wondered what will happen the day he just can’t get his limbs to move.

There’s a history of cancer in my mom’s family, and in my dad’s family there’s a history of Parkinson’s progressing into dementia. They both succumbed to their genetic destinies. It’s probably good odds I’ll get one of those things by the time I’m 50 or 60, and honestly the prospect of that scares the hell out of me.

So mostly, I think about now.

There is an urgency in my life, not to accomplish big things or go to amazing places (although I have dreams about those things, like anyone), but to live now and to not waste anything. Writing, music, becoming truly invested in my life: these are the things that have to happen right now. Not in five years or ten or twenty, but now.

When you get older, the world doesn’t make more sense, it makes less. The trick is to balance the responsibility that comes with age, with the ethos of the young, who understand biologically, if not intellectually, that you can’t afford to wait to invest in your passions.


Read more on Cancer.

Together stock image courtesy of Shutterstock

About Joe Cardillo

Joe Cardillo is a media professional, DIY musician, and writer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He believes the point of life is to connect to other people and acknowledge the absurdity/terror/joy of the human condition. You can find him on Twitter @joecardillo and read more of his writing on his blog, trialofthecentury.wordpress.com


  1. I suppose I embrace this philosophy to a paralyzing fault sometimes, but the passage of time makes me ever more cognizant that there are a whole lot of negative things (slow lines, irritating people, the frustrations of life that we get all hung up about) that just are a waste of precious time. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. My Mom died of early onset dementia after 13 years of going downward with the disease. She was 63 when she died. I thought it would be easier after my mother died because I have been grieving a long time but it was not. The fact I did not need to go to the nursing home, etc, was hard to get over.

    I try to remember the good times. She was not mentally well even before the diagnosis but if I think back when I was little, I can remember good things.

    • I noticed the same thing with my mom. The grieving started well before it was apparent she was going to die, and living a life of grief became the norm….similar grief with an unhealthy marriage, now I’m recovering from both. You get attached to that, grief becomes part of your character and it takes a lot of patience to work out of that.

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