Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Charles Ornstein with his parents, Alexander and Harriet Ornstein, and sister Debbie in the early 1980s. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHARLES ORNSTEIN)

A Father’s Day Remembrance

• June 16, 2013 • 4:00 AM

Charles Ornstein with his parents, Alexander and Harriet Ornstein, and sister Debbie in the early 1980s. (PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHARLES ORNSTEIN)

“It’s hard enough to lose one parent. Losing two within months is incomprehensible.”

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.

“We never say that grief is a disease. But what some of this research is showing is that at older ages, grief can make you more vulnerable to mortality.”

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 five. 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 six-year-old grandson has learned how to play checkers (and is actually decent) and that our three-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.

This post originally appeared on ProPublica, a Pacific Standard partner site.

Charles Ornstein
Charles Ornstein, in collaboration with Tracy Weber, was a lead reporter on a series of articles in The Los Angeles Times titled "The Troubles at King/Drew" hospital that won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for public service in 2005.

More From Charles Ornstein

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.

October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.

October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.