Soledad O’Brien Reflects on Losing Her Parents 40 Days Apart: ‘Your World Is Upended’

In March, Soledad O’Brien’s dad Edward died due to a lung complication. Just 40 days later, her mom Estela died, too.

“I was surprised at how devastating it was, because they were 90-year-olds who weren’t healthy,” O’Brien, 52, tells PEOPLE.

Her father had a constant cough and trouble breathing because of an issue with his lungs. “My dad was pretty healthy all along except until the real end,” the Matter of Fact with Soledad O’Brien host says. “Then once it went bad, it was pretty bad.”

O’Brien spent her dad’s last night with him in the hospital. “I was in his room and I was trying to get him to stay in bed,” she recalls. “He kept trying to get up, and he was so strong. I said to him, ‘Daddy, I can’t hold you down.’ Because he wanted to get up and walk around.”

Soledad O'Brien's parents Estela and Edward.

Edward died on Feb. 6. and O’Brien’s mom Esetla, who had dementia, barely remembered.

“She would call me sometimes and say, ‘Did you hear the news about your dad? He passed away,’” O’Brien says. “She never really recovered.”

Estela had lost her ability to walk after falling in the bathroom about 10 years ago. “After being in bed for five days, she was transitioned to a wheelchair and then never walked again,” O’Brien says. “From there she got dementia and it got worse every year.”

Edward and Estela lived together at an assisted living home in New York City and were “very close” through their final days. So when Edward died, O’Brien knew her mom wouldn’t make it much longer.

“We knew it was going to be very difficult, if not impossible, for my mom to survive,” the former CNN anchor says. “When my dad died, I think my mom decided when she was done, she was done. She’d go join my dad, and that was that.”

O’Brien had barely begun to cope with losing her father when her mother died.

“I had to be talked into doing a second funeral because I was like, I can’t do it,” she says. “It was such a weird mix of emotions. It was nice to not see them struggle anymore, but you feel like your world is upended.”

The mom of four leaned on her children — daughters Sofia, 18, and Cecilia, 16, and twin sons Charles and Jackson, 15 — in the period following her parents’ passings.

“My kids would take such good care of me,” O’Brien says. “It was weird because they really would mother me. I didn’t fight against it because I really needed it. I guess I did a good job raising these kids!”

But of course, there are moments when it hits O’Brien that Estela and Edward are truly gone. “I used to make these dishes and bring them to their apartment so that they had food for the week, like spaghetti and meat sauce,” she says. “The other day I was in the grocery store gathering spaghetti and meat sauce and I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I don’t have to do this.’”

Still, the Harvard grad accepts that what happened occurred for a reason. “If someone said, ‘I can bring your parents back to life exactly in the same state that they were,’ I don’t think that that would be good,” O’Brien says. “They were struggling. But I don’t think you ever really get over it.”

O’Brien’s parents were both immigrants — Edward hailing from Australia and Estela from Cuba — and have left the journalist with a fire to speak up about immigration issues today.

“The president’s talking about how immigrants are not American, it’s just so not the case,” O’Brien says. “My parents’ love for America was so deep because I think they were grateful about what the country gave them as outsiders. It’s sad the way the country’s conversations around immigration have devolved into this idea that immigrants aren’t valuable. It’s really terrible and it’s racist. I don’t know that you’re going to change that until you change leadership.”

The Long Island, New York, native thought of another way she’d like to honor her late mom and dad.

“I might plant them my own tree,” she says. “They were cremated, so I don’t have a physical place where they were buried. I like the idea of sitting under a big weeping willow or a big Japanese maple, two of the trees my parents loved, and just hanging out and bringing them up to speed. I think that sounds very relaxing and very hopeful.”

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