I received hundreds of messages the week my dad died: There were floral arrangements, sympathy cards, teary voicemails, and 1,000-word emails detailing memories I’d never heard about a man who would never get the chance to make any more of them. But the one that’s stayed with me the strongest, even after three years, was the one welcoming me to the dead parents club: “You’re part of the club now. It’s the club that no one wants to be in, but at least we’ve got each other.”
If you’ve never heard of it, consider yourself lucky. Chances are, your unfamiliarity with it means you’re probably not a member (and also haven’t seen a certain episode of Grey’s Anatomy). But, as its many members can attest, the group is very much a thing, and, just as the initiating text message I received about it read: We’ve got each other.
In the years since joining the dead parents club—which, heartbreakingly, already included a number of my closest friends—I’ve come to rely on it to help me navigate my grief. The members are the people who call me on every anniversary of my dad’s passing because they know that the day doesn’t get easier as time passes; they’re the ones holding my hand during father-daughter dances at weddings; the ones to whom I send a “thinking of you today” text on Mother’s and Father’s Days.
“We’re the sum of our experiences, and if we haven’t had the experience of losing a parent, it’s hard for us to relate to it.” —Diane P. Brennan, LMHC
Psychologically speaking, there’s a reason why those of us with dead parents have banded together to form such a populous club that no one actively seeks to join. “In our grief, there’s an effect mentally, physically, and emotionally that makes us feel very different, so we do gravitate toward people who understand what we’re experiencing without having to explain it,” says grief counselor Diane P. Brennan, LMHC. She adds that being around others who have navigated the death of a parent is like a “shortcut,” because they have some sense of how it feels. “That’s what people are looking for: someone who can kind of understand versus having to explain it, because explaining it can be really draining. Furthermore, people who haven’t experienced a loss don’t fully understand it. We’re the sum of our experiences, and if we haven’t had the experience of losing a parent, it’s hard for us to relate to it.”
And since losing a parent is a transformative experience, many people (myself included) are left feeling unclear about their identity without them. “We all know who we are in the context of our identities—that’s my mom, that’s my dad—and if you lose that meter, your world feels so different,” says grief counselor Alan Wolfelt, PhD, of the Center for Loss and Life Transition. Because of this, we tend to seek out other people who can empathize with that experience.
The dead parents club phenomenon has inspired a number of communities, both digitally and IRL. Katherine Hooker and Sam Vidler, who became friends in college after bonding over the shared experience of losing parents, developed The Dead Parents Club podcast in 2018. “We both found so much help and hope from having each other,” says Vidler. They wanted to help others do the same by creating a club “full of friendship, tears, laughter, brutal honesty, and one massive thing in common.” There are also a number of other podcasts available that focus on the shared grief of losing a parent, including Dead Parents Podcast, My Dead Parents, and Dead Parents Society, each of which involves guests, who have lost parents, discussing their experiences.
Social media has become a dead parents club outlet, too: There are dozens of Facebook groups with the moniker, and Reddit’s r/ChildrenOfDeadParents community has more than 5,000 subscribers who support each other in discussions like, “What do you do on birthdays and anniversaries?” and “How do you deal with your living parent dating again?” And people are taking these communities offline by way of Meetup, with brunches for motherless daughters, Thanksgiving dinner for young adults who have lost parents, and beyond.
“When you have a community to support you after a loss, you feel understood, and the world maybe feels a little less confusing.” —Brennan
In my experience, having a shared-grief community has helped with the healing process: When my dad was diagnosed with cancer and died two months later, the friends who had already experienced the death of a parent were the ones I leaned on the most. When so many people in my life had no idea what to say to me during that time (it’s hardly a secret that death generally tends to make people uncomfortable), they were the ones who could anticipate exactly what I needed—even when I, myself, had no idea what that was. “When you have a community to support you after a loss, you feel understood, and the world maybe feels a little less confusing” says Brennan.
One of the unspoken rules of the dead parents club is that once you’re a member, there’s an inherent responsibility to pay it forward. So now, whenever I see someone posting about the death of a parent on social media, I reach out immediately—even if that person is a total stranger or someone I haven’t spoken with since the sixth grade. This has allowed me to forge relationships (even if many of them only live in Instagram DMs) and reconnect with people solely on the basis of our shared loss, and the fact that we both just kind of…get it.
What we get, specifically, is that the pain of losing someone never, ever goes away. My dad won’t be at my wedding or see me publish my first book or meet my kids, and that will suck every single day for the rest of my life. But having people to hold onto and help me navigate rough times moments makes the would-be great moments less tinged with sadness. And, that’s a win.
If you’re stuck in the third stage of grief, you’re not alone. Here’s why anger is so common after a loss. And if you’re getting ready to go back to work while grieving, this tool kit can help you make the transition.
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