Li: Death, parents and community

Grant Li, Columnist

Content warning: This story contains mentions of death.

Losing parents is a universal experience. As someone for whom this experience lies far away — God willing — its specter looms rather large.

When I was little, I obviously worried about the possibility that my parents would be gone one day. Perhaps out of youthful ignorance, I always assumed that everyone, including me, would recover just fine when the day came.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize how much my identity is oriented and anchored by my parents, both consciously and subconsciously. No matter how far away I am, I am tethered to the space my parents make which I call “home,” the space I can always count on being able to return to. 

If I were to ever turn my head back and not see my parents there, or look forward and not see the light they’ve shone on the path before me, I would be massively disoriented. For such a momentous thing, it has gradually become more and more puzzling for me to constantly meet people who have undergone the passing of their parents but seem to bear no external signs of unconcealable damage. 

Perhaps everyone seems fine because I’m only observing a sample affected by survivorship bias. Even so, the puzzle remains how many people manage to carry on. Although I’m sure those who have actually come out the other end of this might be in a better position to give answers, I’d like to hazard my own guess. The solution is community.

It’s hard to do things for yourself. If I’ve learned anything in college, it’s that. Here, I could eat once or five times daily, skip half my classes or not talk to anyone, yet at the end of the day I’d be fine, all things considered. What stops me from doing that is the fact that others depend on me and have expectations for me — specifically my parents. They believe in me, they’re counting on me and I would like to see them proud. 

Once the motivation of doing things for parents is removed, I imagine I would be lost. That’s where community comes in to re-anchor and reorient. Fundamentally, the community is a group of people for whom you would do things without expecting anything in return. 

Community of this sort can manifest in all different shapes and forms. The most common is finding a partner and perhaps having children. They become a way for you to align your inner compass towards a new direction after the polarity provided by your parents is no longer there. They are who you work and get up for every day.

For those who are religious, it might be the fellowship that comes with your place of worship. We help each other out, and when I need help, the community will take care of me. It might sound like I am once again expecting reciprocity on my goodwill, but what makes community unique is that when others take care of me, I feel secure in that their care would be no less if I could never repay in kind. The same goes if I were to care for others in the same way that the best parents still love their children even if they don’t meet every expectation. 

That type of community can serve as the lodestar when the light of parents flicker and fade. 

Grant Li is a Weinberg junior. He can be contacted at [email protected]edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.