Miriam Moss, one of the few researchers who have studied the impact of parental death, suspects that ageism is largely responsible for this neglect. "Old people are not valued in this culture," says Moss, senior research scientist at the School of Public Health at Drexel University. "The loss of an elderly parent is not seen as particularly important." What reinforces that ageism, Moss adds, is the fact that "it's normative, expected. The attitude is, Oh well, she was old. How old was she? Seventy-eight? Oh, I'm sorry. What else is new?"

Disenfranchised grief is the term for mourning whose depth is not socially recognized, and it has a silencing effect on the griever. It also, says Miriam Moss, has distorted and trivialized our understanding of the loss of a parent. "A parent's death," she says, "has a very strong impact, and it's not just emotional. The whole meaning of who you are is very much attached to this person."

Most of Moss's research has looked at the effect of parental loss within the first six months to a year after the death, when grief is keenest. But it is often in the following years, when a new emotional equilibrium has been achieved, that many people register the deeper, more lasting consequences of being motherless or fatherless. And about these unfolding long-term changes, there is virtually no professional research. There is, however, a growing body of anecdotal evidence, written and oral, arising from baby boomers, myself included, who have never been prone to silence about anything on their collective mind.

With the goal of further opening up this subject, I conducted interviews with a small sample of women, ages 46 to 66, about how their lives had been affected by the death of a parent. Although the stories they told, and the parent-child relationships they described, were highly individual, a remarkable consistency began to emerge. Without exception these women described profound changes, both internal and external, which they directly attributed to their parents' deaths. Most surprisingly, they characterized the changes as positive. That, in fact, is why they seldom, if ever, had talked in detail about their reactions to becoming motherless or fatherless. They were afraid that speaking of the good that had followed would be unseemly, disrespectful, too easily misunderstood as being glad that a parent had died. And that indeed would be a misunderstanding.

"I wish my mother could see me now" was a commonly expressed sentiment—paired with the complex irony that "if she could see me, I wouldn't be anything like I now am."

Next: How the death of a parent changes you