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A Father’s Day Remembrance

When his father dies just months after his mother, a reporter searches for answers and discovers the “widowhood effect.”

Charles Ornstein with his parents, Alexander and Harriet Ornstein, and sister Debbie in the early 1980s. (Photo courtesy of Charles Ornstein)

This story was co-published with The Washington Post.

My sister and I took our positions in the funeral home's family room and greeted hundreds of mourners who had come to pay their respects. Everything seemed as it had four months earlier at our mother's funeral. The ubiquitous tissue boxes. My navy pinstriped suit. The ripped black ribbon, a Jewish tradition, affixed to my lapel.

But this time, we were accepting condolences after the death of our dad, who stood next to us such a short time before.

It's hard enough to lose one parent. Losing two within months is incomprehensible. When I left my parents' Michigan apartment last month, I couldn't believe it would be for the last time. I've replayed phone messages so that I could hear their voices again. And each morning, I look at Dad's watch on my wrist, thinking it should be on his.

Two days before my dad died, I celebrated the first Mother's Day without my mom. Now, I'm marking the first Father's Day without my dad.

As I've mourned my parents, I've been struck by how many stories I've heard about husbands and wives dying soon after their spouses. One of my high school teachers lost both parents within a year; so did a journalist friend in Los Angeles. My rabbi told me his parents died only months apart.

My mom buried both of her parents within the same week in April 1979, when I was 5. My zaydee died first, unable to fathom life without his wife, who lay dying in the hospital. My bubbe died during his funeral two days later.

I wondered whether there was more to this than coincidence, and sure enough, there's a well-documented "widowhood effect." Those who lose a spouse are about 40 percent more likely to die within six months than those with living spouses. The effect has been found in a host of countries, across a range of ages, in widows and in widowers – though men are more likely to die soon after losing spouses than women are.

S.V. Subramanian, a professor of population health and geography at Harvard University, co-wrote a review published in 2011 that looked at more than a dozen studies on the effect. "We never say that grief is a disease," he told me. "But what some of this research is showing is that at older ages, grief can make you more vulnerable to mortality."

Subramanian said his uncle's parents died within days of one another.

There are a variety of theories about why this happens. Perhaps it's the emotional toll – the grief that accompanies a broken heart. Perhaps there's a practical explanation – a wife or husband may have provided support in the form of reminders to take medication. Perhaps it's that a surviving spouse may be less active and feel less of a sense of responsibility after a partner is gone, contributing to a decline in health.

For my dad, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, his heartbreak was evident from the start. I'd never seen him cry as he did in the minutes after we disconnected the ventilator keeping my mother alive back in January. He typically kept his emotions well contained, and it was agonizing to watch him overcome by grief.

"My sweet, sweet wife of 42 1/2 years has just passed," he wrote on Facebook hours later. "She was a wonderful wife, mother, and grandma. There is a hole in my heart."

Then he stopped talking about it. He changed topics when my sister and I asked how he was coping. Instead, he talked of moving to the Jewish senior apartments, going on a dialysis cruise, starting a new business, visiting our family in New Jersey.

My dad's health problems may have caught up with him even if my mom hadn't died. He had heart disease, diabetes, renal failure and congestive heart failure. Last summer, his heart stopped and he had to be on a ventilator, but he pulled through.

Whether by coincidence or not, his health began to slide further after my mom's death. He fell in the bathroom and cut his foot, a problem for diabetics like him. When the toes didn't heal properly, he had to have them amputated.

He joked that he and his toes had had a good run and wondered if the toe fairy would come for a visit.

My father maintained his humor even on the morning of his death. When my sister called to ask him, "Who's the best dad in the world?" he responded, "I don't know, but when you find him, can you have him give me a call so I can get some pointers?"

I can't help but think about the pain behind that facade – how much he missed my mom, the woman he shared his life with and relied on for more than four decades.

In the end, I was relieved that my sister and I didn't have to decide whether to disconnect life support, a decision that caused so much anguish and pain in my mom's final days. My dad died quickly: He went into cardiac arrest and could not be revived. He was 68.

There's some solace in the idea that my parents are together again. But that doesn't make this Father's Day any easier.

I'll cherish the time with my wife and kids. We'll probably go for bagels, as we do every weekend, and maybe we'll head to the Jersey Shore. I wish that I could share the day's highlights with my dad. I want to tell him that his 6-year-old grandson has learned how to play checkers (and is actually decent) and that our 3-year-old is building symmetrical Lego spaceships. I want him to know that the baby boy my wife is expecting in November seems to be doing well.

Could I have made more of my time with my parents? Will my children remember them? How I can live a life worthy of their legacy? If I can be as kind and generous a parent as they were, that will be a start.

Have you lost your parents within a short time frame? Share your experiences of cope and loving in the comments below, or join Charlie for a discussion of the "widowhood effect" on Facebook. Charlie wrote about his mother's death, and how it changed his thinking about end-of-life care, in February.

Please accept my condolences, Charlie, but also my congratulations on an important essay. If it’s of any solace to you, I’ve found over the years that writing about the loss of my own father—as I do in today’s Atlantic.com—helps keep my memory of him alive.

Mary Ann Roser

June 14, 2013, 1:56 p.m.

Charlie—I am very sorry for the loss of your dear father—and so soon after losing your mother. He sounds like he was a great dad. I will be cherishing the memory of my own father this Sunday and feeling grateful, as always, for his love and guidance.

I can not imagine.. I was there when both of my parents went on ahead, and feel blessed to have held my mothers hand.
The grief of loosing two so quickly I can not imagine.

To love is to know loss…

Larry Dreiling

June 14, 2013, 4:36 p.m.

Charlie: My condolences. What a bittersweet essay. Thank you for sharing the stories of your parents. I’m like you, it took a bit of reading up that studies on the widowhood effect exist. In covering rural people, though, I’ve found, at least anecdotally, that the effect isn’t as notable in small, farm, towns because everyone knows each other and so folks can more easily see people who are hurting. You can see it in the coffee shops with the clutches of old widowers sitting together and predominance of “little old ladies” sitting together at church and then going to the bigger (20,000) pop.) town down the road for lunch and a movie together. People, for some reason, find that connection out here. I don’t know how, but they do.

Charlie, how fortunate you are to have had such parents, and to have loved and appreciated them. With such role models, you now are in a position to be an equally wonderful parent. Many, many people do not have such advantages. Condolences and congratulations.

Charlie, I’m so sorry for your loss. I lost both of my parents in the space of 20 months. Thank you for this heartfelt essay.

I’m so sorry for your loss, Charlie. The pain is a familiar one. My beloved mother passed at age 83, having had advancing vascular dementia for 7 years prior. When my dad could no longer assure mom’s safety, we forced his hand to get her into a nearby nursing home. He visited her at least once a day for a little more than two years. He was diagnosed not long after with pancreatic cancer. He told me despite the prognosis of up to 6 months, he only had a month.He went into the same nursing home as mom- in the room next door. He passed 30 days from the day we had that conversation. He missed his little “Shusha” terribly, and I believe he willed himself to find his way to her. You never stop missing them, but with time you are able to treasure their gift of themselves without grieving, then without crying. It helps that my daughter named her little red-haired “Simcha” after her red-haired Zaide Simcha, and my other daughter named her beautiful little girl Shea after her Bubby Sylvia, my mother. It means the world that my children treasure their memories of my parents, and share them with their children at every turn. It is perhaps then, when we see the circle of life continue, that our grief steps back into the shadows a bit to allow joy to be the fuller presence in our lives. May your parents’ names be for blessings always.

Fairleigh Brooks

June 14, 2013, 7:44 p.m.

My parents did not die close together, but I wanted to relate an experience Charlie probably realized at some level, and more intensely. When my mom died at ninety-two my dad had been gone twelve years. She declined sharply in her last three months, stopped eating for the last month and drifted in and out of consciousness. So it truly was a surprise when, the next day, I literally stopped in my tracks and said out loud, “I’m an orphan.” And, even at fifty-five, I was. It doesn’t matter how old you are or how much of this last person has faded, when your surviving parent dies you are suddenly alone, and just sort of existentially out there. I am fortunate to have my wife and our daughter, and my surviving sibling. However, being someone’s child - and then not, at least not on this plane - is a state that cannot be reclaimed.

Lisa McGiffert

June 16, 2013, 1:37 a.m.

Charlie, what a heartbreaking love story—I’m so sorry for your losses. I didn’t know about your dad. Two weeks after my father died following a 3-year battle with lung cancer, my mother had a heart attack. She survived because my older sister from Washington state was still with her and immediately took her to the hospital. Afterwards we heard many stories, like the ones you tell here, about couples in long relationships dying soon after each other. The shock of it to those of us left behind is indescribable. My siblings & I were lucky that our mom survived & just turned 87 this week—for that I am so grateful. Happy Father’s Day to you.

My father died May 13, a month after mother died April 8. It hurts like hell, like a constant kick to the stomach. Life lost it’s colors, lost its purpose and lost its taste. After fifty years of marriage they lie next to each other now,,,,
I never thought life was this cruel….

Condolenses to you and yours.  My father also died after my mother. Twas bad enough mom left us right before Christmas, 122294.  Dad was the toughest guy I knew, and with his health issues left us in 0396.
My dad always joked around instead of showing his feelings outright.  I was this way as well, but not getting older I find myself tearing up during moments, such as typing this.

My mother died at 93 in March, 2008; my father, who was 99, died in September of that year.  They had been married 72 years, but had been separated by dementia for 15.  Incredibly, he had promised her that he would outlive her.
Although nearly 5 years has passed, I’m still mentally checking to determine whether or not I could have or should have found a better way to help them in their final years.  The daily memories of them are greater than any monetary inheritance.

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