What it's Like to Lose a Parent In Your 20s

What it’s Like to Lose a Parent In Your 20s

He was my hero. Not because he was my dad, but because of who he was as a person. If you had a parent who loved you unconditionally, led by example and supported you through everything, you know exactly what I mean.

My dad passed away on October 17, 2016 at age 64 from Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer. I was 23 years old. My brother was 21. He left this world and our family with an extremely large hole in our hearts.

Losing a parent at any age is heart-wrenching. But there’s something different about it happening in your 20s. You feel torn between an adult and a child. Part of you wants to crawl into the darkness and die, too. Part of you knows that life must go on.

Hopefully this blog provides some solace for those who are going through a similar situation. To the friends and family of a person experiencing a loss like this, I hope it puts their grief into perspective and gives you the tools to comfort them. To those who still have both of their parents, I hope this makes you hug them a little tighter next time you see them or linger a little longer on your next phone call.

Here’s what losing a parent in my 20s taught me.

It Makes You Reprioritize Your Life

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When my dad died, nothing mattered. I had to make a conscious effort to keep going so I wouldn’t slip into a deep depression. I knew that I had plenty of responsibilities as a recent college grad, but I had to seriously think: were they worth it?

In your 20s, you’re always looking ahead. It can be difficult to focus on what’s important right now when you’re trying so hard to get a grasp on adulthood and plan for your future at the same time. Losing a loved one makes you pump the breaks and puts your priorities into perspective.

After losing my dad, I spend much more time doing the things that I love. I spend more time connecting with my family and friends. I spend more time doing activities that remind me of him. I’ve found that life is too short to be constantly looking forward. I’m learning to reprioritize the “right now,” because it’s all I have.

You Regret Not Spending More Time With Them

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No matter how much time you spend with your parents, the time you’re given with them is never enough. When my dad died, I felt a soul-crushing amount of guilt. To be honest, I still do. I think of all the times I should have stayed in to hang out with him instead of going out with friends. For all the times that he wanted to hold my hand in public when I was younger and me being too embarrassed. For all the times I didn’t pick up his calls.

As I got older, I knew how important spending time with my dad was, but I never knew just how limited that time would be. I’d give anything to have just a few more moments with him.

There Are So Many “What Ifs”

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Because my dad passed away from an extremely aggressive form of cancer, our time with him after his diagnosis was short. 39 days to be exact. Looking back, there are a lot of “what ifs” – signs we may have missed, symptoms we should have taken more seriously, conversations we should have had. The list is endless.

I replay those 39 days over and over in my head. I go back to 2016 and relive every time I saw him. Could I have known then? Was he sick then and we didn’t even realize? Should I have come home more? It’s agonizing to think you could have done something to change the outcome of something that changed your life forever.

You Think About The Future

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I lost my dad 2 weeks after getting engaged to the love of my life. We were lucky enough to get his blessing before cancer took him, but I can’t help but cry when I think about all the things he’ll miss out on. When you lose a parent in your 20s, you realize how much life you have left to live without them. My dad never got to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. We never got to share a daddy-daughter dance at our reception. He missed my promotion at work and my brother’s college graduation. He’ll never get to hold his grandchildren or see our first home.

Your 20s are a formative time in your life. You speed through so many milestones… milestones that your mom or dad should be there for. Graduations. Engagements. Marriages. Babies. Buying a house. Landing your dream job. For every celebration, there is an aching sadness that goes along with it. You think about the memories you’ll never get to make.

You’ll Never Take Anyone For Granted

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After losing a parent at a young age, you may do one of two things – you may push everyone in your life away from you OR you’ll pull them ever closer. Why do we do these two things? For the same reason: the fear of losing someone else.

We push people away because we try to emotionally disconnect, hoping that we don’t feel “anything” if something were to happen. On the other hand, we pull our loved ones even closer because we can’t imagine losing any more precious time with them.

For me, I spend far more time appreciating the wonderful support system I have in my life. I’m lucky to have an extremely close family, friends that might as well be family, and a husband who would go to the ends of the earth for me. Sometimes, I just find myself just staring at Andrew or my mom or even my friends, trying to memorize their facial features, their mannerisms, their laugh… because you don’t realize how fast those memories start to fade once your loved ones are gone.

You Realize Your Own Mortality

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You don’t quite realize how short your time on earth is until something life-altering happens to you. Losing a parent, especially when it felt as if it wasn’t their time to go, really puts things in perspective.

Death is a scary thought for most. It forces us to think about what’s next, about leaving loved ones behind, and even the harsh reality of not accomplishing everything you set out to do in this life. For most of us, losing our mom or dad forces us to face death in an intimate way at a young age. We’ve seen death in a way that most people won’t experience with their own parents until 20 or 30 years down the road.

Losing a parent in your 20s is the ultimate wake-up call that our life here on earth is time stamped.

Some Days are Worse Than Others

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People always think that the holidays are the hardest for those who have lost loved ones. Or, maybe certain dates like birthdays or anniversaries. The truth is, some days are worse than others – but those days are unpredictable.

Maybe it’s a Tuesday, and you’re driving home from work and a song comes on the radio that forces you to completely break down. Maybe it’s a Sunday afternoon at the park and you pass a dad pushing his young daughter on a swing and you’re instantly catapulted back to the same moment with your own father.

It’s not the holidays or the “special days” that are that hardest. It’s the Tuesdays or the Sundays that suddenly jolt your senses and break you down. Those days are the hardest.

Life Moves Forward, And So Do You

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I hated writing that last line. Why? Because it’s not fair. Life shouldn’t move on. The day my dad died, I remember driving to the funeral home and seeing people talking and laughing, walking down the street. I remember thinking how fucked up it is that these people’s lives could go on when his couldn’t. When ours couldn’t.

The saying that time heals all wounds is a lie. Time doesn’t heal wounds; it forces you to learn how to cope with the pain. This quote by Anne Lamott describes it perfectly.

“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

My dad lives forever in my heart. It’s broken and bruised, but it’s still beating. He lives in me and his presence surrounds me more than I realize – when I see the first snowflake of the season, when I hear a Beatles song, when I smell garlic, when I feel the softness of his old sweatshirts, when I taste Italian cookies. My five senses have a way of paying homage to him, wherever I go.

For anyone going through the same thing, my advice to you is this: let yourself feel. Let yourself remember. Let yourself grieve. But, also let yourself be happy. Let yourself see hope. Let yourself learn to dance with the limp.

25 thoughts on “What it’s Like to Lose a Parent In Your 20s

    • Kendra says:

      Thanks so much for sharing . Our stories are similar. My dad just passed away from the same advanced about a week ago after 18 months of fighting. I am 27 and my brother is 23. I am also engaged and getting married next year and it is so difficult for me to imagine that day without my dad. But again thank you for sharing , literally everything I have been saying and feeling 💕

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      • Abbey Donahue says:

        Hi, Kendra. Thank you so much for reaching out. I am so, so sorry for the loss of your sweet dad. It can be hard to verbally process what you’re going through so I’m glad you were able to find some solace in my post. I don’t think it ever gets easier, especially knowing he will be missing out on so much of your life, but just know that you’ll still feel his presence… maybe just in a different way than before. Sending you so much love and light! ❤️

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  1. Kaitlyn says:

    This is the first thing I’ve read that says everything I ever wanted to say after my Dad passed. My Dad passed in June 2018 from stage 4 pancreatic cancer. He battled for 18 months. I was also 23 and my brother 21. He missed my brothers college graduation a month prior to his passing and wasn’t there to walk me down the aisle 3 weeks ago. Beautifully written! Thank you for writing this and sharing it!

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    • Abbey Donahue says:

      Wow I can’t believe our paths have been so similar. I am so, so sorry for your loss as well. It just isn’t fair how much of our lives we have to live without them. I’m glad my post was able to resonate with you. And congrats on your wedding. I know it was probably a bittersweet day but I’m sure it was beautiful. ♥️ wishing you all the happiness in the world!

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  2. Hayley says:

    Thank you for this. My dad, also my rock and my best friend, is losing the battle to stage 4 esophageal cancer. I’m trying to cope with the fact we may only have weeks left together. Trying to understand how he could go from fit and healthy and hiking to the tops of mountains with me 6 months ago to now barely able to walk. Trying to cope with the idea of living without him, of him never meeting my children… It’s shocking and fucked up and unfair. But it is so so so helpful to know I am not alone. So much of what you write is how I am feeling. Thank you.

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    • Abbey Donahue says:

      Oh Hayley… I am so, so sorry. This brings tears to my eyes and a familiar lump in my throat. All of those similar feelings come just flooding back to me reading this. I know exactly what you’re going through and none of it is fair. To him, to you, your family. It sucks. No matter what, you are NOT alone. Your dad’s love for you will make you feel his presence even after he is gone. Spend as much time with him as you can. Even when it’s hard to see him in this state. Tell him you love him. ❤️ Sending you so much love. I will be thinking of you and your sweet dad. 🤟🏽

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    • Cassandra Chamberlin says:

      My dad just died last week of esophageal cancer. It’s 2am and I’m crying my eyes out remembering him. I’m graduating college in fall and I’m almost 25. I wish he could’ve seen so much in life. I’m so critically upset and feeling so sad. Your words were incredibly relatable. You and Abby both. I feel like a part of me died with him

      Liked by 1 person

      • Abbey Donahue says:

        Cassandra, my heart is breaking for you, sweet girl. Losing a parent in your 20s is already so difficult but losing a parent to cancer is absolutely earth shattering. I wish I could say it gets better, but it only gets easier to deal with the emptiness you feel without him in your life. But trust me, what you’re going through will shape you in ways that you don’t even know yet. You will take the best parts of him and it will radiate through your personality and your actions. This is all so hard but your dad will still show up for you – on the good days, the milestones, the bad days and every day in between. He might not be there physically but I can promise you’ll feel his presence. Sending you endless amounts of love right now. You are not alone. 💜

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  3. Alexandra Johnson says:

    Thank you for this so beautifully put explanation of everything I have been feeling for the past few years. I lost my dad in my early twenties and couldn’t really understand what had been happening to me until I read this. So well soothing to have someone else summarise a really tough period in life, thank you for helping me put it all into perspective a bit

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    • Abbey Donahue says:

      Alexandra, thank you so much for reading! This was so hard to write but I am humbled by so many individuals who have gone through the same thing. Our dads will always hold a special place in our hearts. And no matter how many years have passed, the pain never really goes away. It’s equally comforting and heartbreaking that there is a community of us that understands what it’s like to lose a parent at such an impactful time in our lives. I wish you nothing but the best! I know your sweet dad is watching over you & is SO proud. 💕

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  4. Noha Alon says:

    This is beautiful. I’m 26 and I just lost my father suddenly almost 4 weeks ago now. He went out on a hike and his heart just stopped mid-trail. It still feels surreal. Your dad, like mine, seems like he was the most amazing dad and truly special human being. I’m so sorry for your loss. And I say that with a deep empathy that I couldn’t have even began to imagine before this happened. The truth is, we are lucky to have had them while they were here. I just keep trying to remind myself of that when the grief waves come crashing. I identify with everything you wrote here, thank you for writing it.

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    • Abbey Donahue says:

      Thank you so, so much for reaching out. My heart breaks for you and your family. We truly are lucky to have had amazing dads, even if it was only for a small portion of our lives. I miss my dad every day and that’s something that’ll never change but losing him has taught me so much about myself and has given me so much more empathy. Like I said in my post, don’t be afraid of grief and negative feelings. It’s important that we know we have the permission to feel sad but also try to remember the amazing memories you have of him. Sending so much love your way!

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  5. David says:

    Just lost my Dad at 22 this past March. Your story was really relatable and just seeing someone else’s perspective on a similar situation made me feel more at ease. Today was an especially tough day for me (no clue why) and I stumbled upon your post. I especially loved the quote about how time doesn’t heal wounds – makes a lot of sense. Hope your journey is doing a lot better and thanks for sharing.

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    • Abbey Donahue says:

      Hi David, thank you so much for reaching out and sharing your story. Sometimes, those hard days just hit you out of nowhere but I’m so glad my post could bring you some comfort. We will never truly fill the void our parents leave behind but I do believe for those of us that lose our parents at a young age, we gain a lot of perspective, empathy and grace that most people won’t experience until much later in life. Sending good vibes to you on the hard days and every day in between. 💜

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  6. Jen says:

    Couldn’t help but shed some tears reading this. I lost my mom last month to cancer a month after diagnosis. i feel sometimes like no one understands this pain so this was very comforting to read.

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    • Abbey Donahue says:

      Hi Jen, I am so so sorry for your loss. I know the pain and hopelessness you are feeling right now. I know how big the hole is where your mom’s presence used to be. Sometimes it’s easy to feel isolated in your grief but you are not alone! You have a long road of grief and healing but I promise you that you will find new ways to connect with your mom over time. I see my dad In so many parts of my every day life now. And I make myself remember all of the wonderful things we did together. Sending so much love your way!!!

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  7. Etienne says:

    I’ve Only gotten through the first few sentences and i have to comment. I have been struggling with accepting my dads passing, which happened January 23 2020. He too had stage 4 pancreatic cancer and he had just turned 62 on New years day. Just 22 days before he passed. So, our stories are very much alike. I know the pain you feel. I also know the disbelief and numbness you feel. I am 27 and the youngest of my siblings. My son was 1 when my dad passed. So he wont remember his grandpa or know how much he loved him. I moved out of state a few years ago so i didnt even get to take a picture of them together. I feel cheated on time but i know that the Lord is in control and He has a plan. We will see our dads again and in a much better place. Heaven. No more sickness, pain, suffering or death. Praying for you.

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    • Abbey Donahue says:

      Etienne, I am so, so sorry for your loss. I am now 27 as well and I know how difficult it is to be missing your dad for big milestones in your life. I am glad you have found some solace in your faith & I know 1000% that he is watching over you and your family. I hope you feel his presence from time to time. I know I feel my dad’s in certain things that I do and it makes it feel like he’s still with me. 💕 sending you light and love!!

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