When a parent dies too soon. 3 people share what they miss most and the advice they’d give everyone else.
It was a shock when my dad died when he was 64. As I said at his funeral, I was happy we had that time together because many people don’t get near that long.
But it still seemed “too soon,” especially when many people are living well into their 90’s.
I remember exactly where I was when my big brother called to give me the news about dad’s terminal cancer diagnosis. One of the first things I thought was, ‘My little girl Anna won’t remember him.’
As time went on, I talked to more and more people who had lost parents “too soon.” Some had lost a parent when they were infants, or in public school. Some had their lives radically altered because they grew up faster as a result.
For this blog I asked a few of them to share their stories. Here’s what I asked them to answer: “What do you miss most?” and “What advice would you give people who still have their parents physically with them?”
Why would I do this? Because death comes for us all. And what we learn from our experiences of life and loss are best not kept in a closet: Those experiences can help lift others into a place of expanding abundance and gratitude.
The first person is Tracy Lamb (maiden name McLaughlin). I knew Tracy growing up. My brother Jason played hockey with her brother David. Mrs. McLaughlin was the secretary at Macaulay Public School where we went. And the lives of our small-town families intersected all over the place: The arena, baseball diamond, school, campground. The list goes on.
Tracy’s dad Ken (or, as we called him at the rink, “Mr. McGoo”) sharpened our skates, gave me years of advice about the right hockey stick to get, and was an all-around figure of trust, fun and encouragement in our lives. Plus, the McLaughlin’s always had the best snacks! Rumour has it that I once asked the blond-haired, graceful Tracy McLaughlin for a kiss at the hockey arena when I was small—but I can neither confirm nor deny those allegations.
Ken had been at a wedding and wasn’t his jovial self. The next day he asked his wife Marion to call Dr. Richardson. This was a sure sign something was wrong because the doctor’s office was not a place he liked to go. It was soon discovered he had cancer. It was big and bold. He passed away under two months later. He was 54.
Here’s what Tracy writes:
“When asked what I miss most about my father today I can simply say: Everything. I am sorry that he and my mother didn’t have the opportunity to share the “good life” after working so very hard all their lives. I know I would have witnessed their never-ending love living through the decades.
“I am sorry that my dad wasn’t an earthly witness to the growth and accomplishments achieved by his first grand-daughter, Kathryn. They were inseparable from the moment they met. This stands for the birth of my niece and nephews whom proudly wear #14 when they take the ice to play ringette and hockey.
“He wasn’t honored nor granted the glory of meeting these beautiful children. I believe he would have moved from his beloved hometown of Bracebridge to ensure he never missed one of the kids’ practices. He would have continued to enter into every rink throughout Ontario, as he did with my brother, with pride and nervous energy.
“Personally, I am most sadden by the fact that dad wasn’t here to witness my personal journey. I grew up. I am OK. I am at peace. I am resilient. I laugh. I love my daughter as he loved his. I am so very grateful for the lessons of love, family and friendships, hard work, volunteerism, servitude, community.”
Thank you, Tracy. I so appreciate your honesty. I’m sure your dad would be so proud of who you are and of the life you lead.
So what advice would Tracy give to those people who still have their parents physically with them?
“The only advice I have for those privileged to have both parents is this: Please remember the word privilege. Despite the hardships, troubles and trials, please honor your parents; give them your thanks; tell them you love them; ask forgiveness if it is sought; give forgiveness if it is needed. As I tell all my friends faced with the aging or ailing, or blessed with the parents that are hard to keep up with, “have no regrets.”
Thank you. That’s wisdom for the ages.
I met Courtney Morris-Crawford in my second week of seminary in Toronto. Courtney was 28 and her mother, Dawne McCulloch, had just passed away from ovarian cancer at the age of 56.
Although I never met Dawne, I’m pretty sure I have a good sense of who she was because of who Courtney is—she’s a kind, wonderful person who leaves a trail of grace behind her wherever she goes. You can’t be around Courtney and not be lifted up.
I asked Courtney what she misses most about her mom. Here’s what she said:
“I miss my Mom the most now that I’m a parent. It breaks my heart that she is missing out on being a Grandma and that my children aren’t able to witness her love first hand. She would have adored my kids. I so wish she was here to spend time with my kids and that they had a chance to get to know her. I miss being able to pick up the phone and talk her regularly like I use to and to ask her advice, especially in the difficult task of parenting.”
I also asked Courtney what advice she’d give people who still had their parents physically with them.
“I would encourage others to really appreciate their parents and to spend as much time with them as possible. Now that I am a parent, I realize all that my Mom went through and how challenging it must have been as a single parent. I would encourage others to be open to their parents’ wisdom and to learn from their life experiences.”
Thank you so much, Courtney. What you say is really true. As we go through life, it’s often when we deal with something difficult ourselves (like parenting) that we start to more deeply appreciate the work and sacrifices that others made for us.
Finally, let me share a few thoughts from my own experience.
As mentioned above, my dad was 64 when he died. They first gave him 2 years, and then 6 months. He almost lasted two.
After that call from my brother, I cancelled the Bible study I was about to lead, and went home to tell Laura. I needed to quickly drive up the highway to the Bracebridge hospital to see him as soon as possible. In a strange way, even though I was sad, I was also thankful. Thankful for what we’d had so far, and thankful that we’d get to have good conversations before he died.
So what do I miss the most?
For me, I miss my dad’s daily presence. I can still remember how he would peek his head into my room at 5 a.m. when I was young to say, “Matthew, time to get up” as we set out for another small-town Ontario hockey tournament. And I remember his strong arms lifting me out of the car when we got home late because I was fast asleep.
As an adult, he was present in different ways. He was no philosopher. But he worked hard and offered unconditional support. Just like my mom, he was always there when you needed him.
When American President Ronald Reagan was running for his second term in office some people were known to say, “Ronald Reagan, right or wrong.” It was a statement of unconditional loyalty to Reagan. In the same way, my dad demonstrated unconditional loyalty to his family. Right or wrong, he was ours and we were his.
After he died, my mom gave me his black North Face jacket. Apparently my dad knew I liked it! So when he didn’t need it anymore, he wanted me to have it. At first it smelled like him. But with each passing day, that faded. Although physical signs go away, the unconditional support he planted deep in my soul endures. I hope and pray it lives on in the relationship I have with my own three little wonders.
And what advice would I give to those who still have their parents physically with them?
Listen to their advice. Say the important things you need to say. Be grateful for the time—because life in this world is a gift that only lasts for a flash. And do your best to take the best they had to offer, and pass it on to the next generation.
I don’t know who’s reading this. But with certainty I can tell you this: You’re still alive, and your presence is powerful. More powerful than you think. In Romans 12:15 in the Bible a man named Paul writes, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” When thinking about parents, to that list I would add, “Bandage scraped knees, pick up the phone, show up when it counts, and share a laugh because life is short.”
For your presence to be powerful in someone’s life, you don’t have to know all the right answers, have an impressive resume, or be “successful” in the eyes of the world. You just have to be there.
And that, to someone, is water in the desert.
People experience grief and loss differently. Sadness can turn to anger. Anger to peace. And peace to gratitude. There is no correct order. And surprises abound. Despite popular belief, life never goes back to “normal.” You just try to adjust to life being…
I want to thank Tracy and Courtney for sharing their stories with me. I really believe that what we learn from our experiences of life and loss can lift each other into a place of expanding abundance and gratitude. Thank you for helping with that.
Let me end with this.
Toward the end, my dad made a heroic effort to get up early each morning, stand up behind his walker (which he called “The Cadillac”), and get outside to watch the sunrise. He was so captivated by it, like a little child. It was as if he was seeing the sunrise for the first time.
Or the last.
What if we all carried that sense of pure, unscripted awe into each day with the people we care about most?
He also came up with a saying he repeated whenever he could: “Each day is a new life—so live it like it is.”
“Each day is a new life—so live it like it is.” My dad, Eric Ruttan. 1950-2014
— Matthew Ruttan (@MatthewRuttan) March 30, 2017
Wouldn’t it be great if each one of us lived like that were true?
Thankful, Captivated, Alive.
By Matthew Ruttan
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August 08, 2021