Finally, it is all about you
Why parental death for adults is the new psychic Freedom 55
Parental sacrifice once followed a contained trajectory: changing diapers, sleepless nights, attending school recitals, paying college
tuition. Now, its summit has been raised to cosmic levels. The most positive sacrifice parents can make for their adult offspring? Die.
That’s the provocative claim of the new book Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life for the Better. “The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you,” writes Jeanne Safer, a Manhattan psychotherapist who marshals as evidence personal experience and that of 60 of her patients. Safer isn’t referring to the relief often felt after the death of a cruel, critical, or long-suffering parent. The demise of any parent—even the most beloved—can
inspire personal growth, she writes: “Nothing else in adult life has so much unrecognized potential to help us become more fulfilled human beings—wiser, more mature, more open, less afraid.”
Once, such words would have been sacrilege. But Safer is at the vanguard of new thinking about the salubrious effects of parental death on adults, a passage traditionally regarded as sad, if inevitable. It was the natural order of things, and, as such, didn’t invite the scrutiny devoted to the traumatic effect of a parent’s death on a child or the sudden death of a spouse. An adult whose parent died was expected to grieve, then get over it. Now, however, like divorce and menopause, the death of a parent in adulthood is being seized as an opportunity for mid-life transformation—not about loss but gain, not about them but you.
Death Benefits is the latest entry to a new genre targeted at the “mid-life orphan,” the titles of which telegraph a similar silver-lining sensibility: Losing Your Parents, Finding Your-
self: The Defining Turning Point of Adult Life; Never the Same: Coming to Terms With the Death of a Parent; Nobody’s Child Anymore; Midlife Orphan: Facing Life’s Changes Now That Your Parents Are Gone; The Orphaned Adult: Understanding and Coping with Grief and Change after the Death of Our Parents.
Despite this emerging market for adultorphan self-help, Safer had trouble finding a publisher. The idea that children could benefit from parental death was seen as unseemly, she says. Some assumed “benefit” had to be financial. “I really had to fight for the title,” she adds. “Death is a hard sell.”
That’s changing, Safer believes. “Death is the new sex,” she jokes. Debra Umberson, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin and one of the first scholars to investigate the effects of parental death on adults, concurs. She has seen a decided increase in interest in the topic since her book Death of a Parent: Transition to a New Adult Identity was published in 2003. “Now that boomers are finally experiencing it, there’s much more openness,” she says.
Credit the attitude shift in part to longer lifespans. Now that life expectancy for Canadian women is close to 83 years and 78 years for men, the child-parent relationship can extend more than 60 years (just look at 71year-old John McCain on the hustings with his 96-year-old mother). Statistics Canada doesn’t tabulate numbers on the topic, but in the U.S., one-third of Americans 50 and over still have a father and two-thirds have a mother. By the time they turn 60, only twothirds will be parentless.
Longer life brings a longer time frame to play out increasingly blurry parent-child dependencies. Once, children were expected to be out of the nest by 21. Now, they remain in, or return to, their parents’ homes into their 20s, 30s, even 40s, a development that prompted the American Psychiatric Association to announce in 2005 that adolescence officially ends at age 34. Amped-up parental involvement is also reflected in “helicopter” parents, the term used to describe the hovering that can take place into university and beyond. Extended longevity has ushered in a new life stage—the adult child caregiver— which further complicates the dynamic, says psychiatrist Irving Yalom, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the Stanford University School of Medicine: “I know people who wait for their parents to die; they’ve been nursing them and paying for them for so many years, and the parents have overstayed their due.”
Sociologist Michael Kearn, a professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, who is studying the prolongation of adolescence, sees a causal relationship between a Peter Pan culture and parental longevity. Parental
death is now the major maturational milestone, he says: “The new marker of entry into adulthood and of maturity isn’t becoming a parent but having one’s parents die.”
The idea of parental death as an adult benchmark isn’t new. Auberon Waugh, the son of eclipsing father Evelyn, once mused, “Perhaps nobody is completely grown up until both of his parents are dead.” The death of one’s parents was viewed as an inescapable mortality wake-up call, an existential reminder that you’re on your own and next in line.
But in an arrested-development culture, the death of the parents of adults can cause the same dislocation felt by children when parents die. “You’ve lost your biographic anchor, someone who knows you through and through, someone who has been there for you through most of your life,” Kearn says. He points to adults’ adoption of the pathos-filled “orphan” to describe themselves, a reference that summons the image of a paunchy Oliver Twist. “It’s just weird,” he says. But Toronto poet Molly Peacock, who regards herself as an orphan at age 61, says society doesn’t appreciate the effect parental death has on middle-aged children. “People say, ‘Oh, she was old anyway.’ Or, it happens to everyone, so you’ll get over it,’ ” she says. “But when my mother died, I wanted to go back to Victorian times and wear a black arm band. I wanted my dry cleaner to know.”
In May, the Los Angeles Times devoted an entire section to the “mid-life orphan” that included a profile of Larry Gräber, a Santa Monica psychotherapist who took up African djembe drumming as a therapeutic tool after his parents’ deaths. Gräber, the son of second-generation immigrants, spent his life trying to please his parents by working hard and living modestly. When they became ill, he was their devoted caregiver for two years. Six months after he was orphaned, Gräber began organizing “drum circles” at caregiver retreats, an activity of which his parents would have disapproved. Free of parental judgment, he pursued other interests. When he went to buy a motorcycle, he splurged on a high-end model. “Now that my parents are dead, it’s just one more indicator that there’s no reason for me not to live the life I want,” he told the paper.
Umberson’s research, which tracked more than 3,000 people over eight years, found the death of a parent often provided a catalyst for self-change “in order to revive, revere, escape, or reject the parent.” Many of her subjects reported improved emotional and psychological well-being following a parent’s death, though it was most common for those who grew up with an extremely overbearing parent. She also found longer-term heath improved, though the average person experienced a
decline in health for the first three years after a parent’s death-often due to depression and increased drinking. Returning to the data eight years later, she found adults who lost a parent exhibited more improved health than those who had not. With parental death comes the final shedding of childish identity, Victoria Secunda writes in Losing Your Parents, Finding Yourself. Most of the 95 people she interviewed said relationships with their children improved, while childless adults often paid new attention to nieces and nephews or became mentors. Most reported intensified friendships, many winnowed away those who didn’t “add meaning to their lives.”
Yalom, whose latest book is the recently published Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, is uncomfortable making generalizations about parental death. “Everyone
is different,” he says. “I’ve worked with patients who wish they could have done more, who wish there are things their parents could have told them. Then there are those things that existed between themselves and their parents that no longer exist; there’s no one left to share it with.” He says he finds himself often reaching for the telephone to call his mother even though she died 10 years ago.
In presenting parental death as the bestthing that can happen to an adult, Safer is for-
ging a new frontier in the self-help conceit that parental baggage can be transcended and then repacked, a blame-the-folks-for-everything sensibility reflected in titles like Actually, It Is Your Parents’ Fault: Why Your Romantic Relationship Isn’t Working, and How to Fix It. “I’m not saying one doesn’t lose something when a parent dies,” says Safer from her New York office. “You lose a part of yourself, you lose part of your own history. But it’s also an opportunity for seismic shifts in who you are and who you are vis-à-vis that parent.” The book evocatively chronicles Safer working through her own complicated 57-year relationship with her mother, a formidable and distant woman who instilled anxieties in her daughter. Safer outlines her conscious examination of her mother’s emotional legacy after she died at age 92, referring to it as “psychological inventory” not unlike sorting a parent’s belongings and deciding to toss the La-Z-Boy and keep the silver. “I can modify those parts of the inheritance that hold me back,” says Safer, displaying her classical Freudian train-
ing. On the discard pile went her mother’s perfectionism and inability to forgive others or provide solace. She kept her mother’s creativity, her exuberance for life and took up her hobby of swimming.
Her patients also provided a parade of postparental-death metamorphoses. Some broke bad habits, others exited corrosive relationships, many pursued new passions or careers. One man left an unhappy marriage he stayed in for 39 years to please his father. Another pursued his dream of being a writer, and published a novel about his troubled relationship with his father. One woman finally felt free to marry. The central motif of finally taking centre stage in one’s own life was literally embodied in a woman who became an actor after her overbearing mother died. Arguably, examples culled from a group in analysis for
£1 know people who wait for their parents to die; they've been nursing and paying for them for so many years and the parents have overstayed their due'
unresolved issues, many arising from controlling, dependent parental relationships, doesn’t constitute a sound, scientific sample. Catherine Gildiner, a Toronto therapist and author, observes that people who’ve had a healthy relationship with their parents cope more easily with their deaths. “But if they had a dependent relationship or that parent never gave them what they needed, then they treat it as an abandonment,” she says. “It’s not their fault; the parent has given the message T will only love you if you remain dependent on me.’ But the whole point of parenting is to make people independent.”
Changing careers and getting divorces were not typical in Umberson’s survey. Instead, change was manifest in smaller ways. “People might decide to be more like the parent—to become more religious, or become a better teacher, or parent, or to try to enjoy life more,” she says. Not all change was for the better. Umberson was surprised by the extent of marital instability. “It’s a real time of vulnerability,” she says, citing the case of a doctor
who left his wife and three children because he felt his father should have left his mother but never did. “He thought it was a positive but he wreaked a lot of havoc.” Underwriting many of the radical transformations outlined by Safer is a more tangible parental death benefit: financial inheritance. “People see their parents as their pension plans,” says one Toronto-area lawyer who receives calls from children while their parents are still alive who want to know how they’ve been provided for in the will. Safer agrees money can make a difference. “I think it’s okay to say that one of the things my parents did was to leave me enough money to do things,” she says. “I don’t think money should be left out of equation. But money tends to be obvious. What’s less obvious is the other legacies that can change you.” Openly discussing the upside of parental death—a topic not far from voicing a parental death wish—shatters a long-standing social taboo. But the mainstreaming of family dysfunction—everywhere from Arrested Development to the proliferation of bad-parent memoirs like Augusten Burroughs’ latest, A Wolf at the Table—has left zero stigma attached to admitting ambivalence toward one’s parents. Diane Rehm, a host on National Public Radio, admitted to Safer during an interview about Death Benefits that the death of her own parents when she was 19 was key to her personal growth, though it took years for her to figure it out. Toronto writer R.M. Vaughn is candid about the serenity he felt after his father, who suffered from mental illness, died three years ago. “My father was a troublesome person, very difficult to get along with,” he says. “It’s not that I wanted him to die, but once he was gone I realized how much stress he created on a daily basis.” Afterwards, Vaughn says, he finally felt free to take extended trips. His experience confirms Safer’s contention that the death of even one parent can lead to positive re-calibration of familial relationships. “I enjoy my family now,” Vaughn says. “The first Christmas after my father passed we were all sitting around the dinner table and there was this moment of kind of unacknowledged recognition where we all realized, ‘Oh, this is pleasant, no one is worried, there’s no tension,’ and there was this collective sigh when I realized life without him is so much better.” Peacock says she felt an unexpected buoyancy after becoming the sole survivor of her nuclear family. “I felt as if I were a balloon that someone had let go of,” she says. “And I was rising into the atmosphere, floating without any fingers to anchor me. At the same time there’s a certain type of relief and exhilaration in that.” Peacock says she adored her parents, though admits they could be difficult. Her father, who died in 1984, was
an alcoholic; her mother, whom Peacock cared for during her last year of life in 1992, suffered from depression. Peacock uses the analogy of a giant tree fallen in a forest to describe parental death. “It’s a terrifying image. But then, things that never could have grown in that shade begin to grow.” After her mother died, Peacock, at age 45, began writing prose for the first time, she said. “It was my mother’s death that said, ‘It’s time to really get serious.’ ” She now has a fuller sense of herself and the decisions she makes, she says. “There’s nowhere to run for advice and that’s not such a bad thing.”
With death, parents become mortal, and thus human. Vaughn says his father’s death permitted him to feel empathy for him for the first time. “I have more sympathy for him because I don’t have to deal with him,” he says. “But I also have an idea of the wholeness of his life. I can feel sorry for him. And that released me from anger.”
Detachment is the greatest death benefit, Safer believes. Of her own mother she writes: “Now I could see us together from a therapeutic distance—beyond blame, beyond the
frantic need to get through or justify myself, beyond disappointment, beyond rage—beyond fear.” She promotes the notion of rewriting the parental-child relationship after a parent’s death—on the child’s terms. As she puts it: “All further communication is unilateral, which makes it far easier to understand.” No one should be surprised to learn her relationship with her mother is far better now. Peacock says her relationship with her mother remains vivid. “You keep internalizing the parent and the parent keeps changing inside you,” she says. “I have a vital relationship with my mother, although she’s entirely dead.”
The idea that the parent-child relationship evolves in the child’s mind after death is backed by research. A landmark 1999 study by psychologist Dov Shmotkin of Tel Aviv University that polled hundreds of Israeli adults aged between 17 and 77 revealed that many people whose parents were dead felt as close a bond with them as people did with parents who were alive. Many said their relationship with their parents developed following their deaths. Children whose parents were alive, on the other hand, reported greater ambivalence toward them.
Gildiner rejects the idea that relationships can be re-calibrated. “That’s wacky; it’s just a fantasy,” she says. “You just need to come to terms with what a toxic parent is, and that you’re not going to have the type of relationship you wanted and you’re going to have to take out things that were good.” Secunda echoes her point, noting that those who made the most progress as “adult orphans” recognized that “whatever they did or didn’t get from their parents now was moot.”
Gildiner is equally skeptical about a parent’s death being an agent of life change. “What alters things is when you’re willing to give up that parent’s expectations, and that can happen before they die or after they die,” she says. “Ifyou have to wait for your parents to die to be free you’re not going to be any more free when they’re dead.” A 56-year-old Toronto designer who put his wanderlust on hold for several years to tend to his parents before they died in their mid-90s sees it another way. Watching his parents’ decline provided acute consciousness of mortality, he says. But their deaths proved liberating. “It made me feel more immortal,” he says. “I’m thinking, well, now I have 50 more years.” M