It's always a shock. But grieving grown-up children may be surprised to find that despite the sorrow, the life changes following loss are often positive. Le Anne Schreiber offers a fresh look at a rite of passage.
From as early as I can remember, I looked ahead to certain events that would usher me into the status I first called big girl and later called all grown-up—the first day of school, the mastery of long division, the first bra, the first date, graduation, age 21, the first full-time job, and should all else fail, that surefire marker of adulthood: marriage. I climbed the life ladder at a steady pace, as did most of my friends, but well into our 20s and 30s, when careers and/or families had been established, we would still occasionally confide to one another, "You know, I don't really feel grown-up." Approaching 40, I speculated that this was perhaps one of the best-kept secrets of life, that nobody ever really feels grown-up.
And then, all too suddenly, I grew up. The events that catapulted me over the barrier to my own maturity were the unanticipated sickness and death of my mother, followed two years later by the sickness and death of my father. When my older brother, my only sibling, died two years later, I was emotionally unmoored, adrift in the wreckage of lost love, lost lives, and my own shattered identity.
Slowly, a new self emerged, one that felt and claimed the status of grown-up. Central to that new self was a vivid, visceral knowledge of my own mortality. My sense of likely life span shrank from a wishful 99, the age of my maternal grandmother at her death, to 75, the age of both my parents at their deaths, to 50, the age of my brother at his death. At 45 I felt I had five years to live, and when I exceeded 50, I began to feel I was living on borrowed time. Days, then years, arrived as a gift, unearned, which I received with both gladness and a degree of guilt. As the predictive power I bestowed on my personal mortality math waned, what replaced it was the awareness of how vulnerable every life is, how uncertain its duration. Death embedded deep in me a knowledge of my limit, our limits, and that, oddly enough, felt like the beginning of maturity.
For a while, that knowledge seemed to separate me from many friends of my age, but more than ten years later, I am far less alone in my losses.
What I have learned from my friends is that a single death can transform your life, especially if the death is that of your mother or father. And it doesn't matter whether that parent was beloved or resented, whether the relationship was close or distant, warm or cold, harmonious or hotly conflictual. It doesn't even matter how old you are, or how old your parent was at the time of death. For most people, the death of a parent, particularly when the parent is of the same sex, is life altering.
Anyone who has lost a mother or father knows this, and yet there is little social recognition of parental death as a milestone of adult life. Even more remarkable is the near total vacuum of professional research on this subject. There is an enormous, burgeoning field of psychology called bereavement studies, but in the 814 pages of the Handbook of Bereavement Research, the bible of the field, only four are devoted to the subject of an adult child's loss of a parent.
Next: Understanding the grief of a child
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
I think that after the death of a parent, especially a mother, everything changes a bit inside of you," says Maggie Finch*, 49, whose mother died eight years ago at age 65. "You are not the same person you were before. I know that in my life there have been all kinds of external changes driven by internal searches since my mother died."
As an example of external change, Maggie says, "I had been following a career path in the theater since I was 8 years old, and after my mother died, I let go of that dream, which had been her dream for me. It was my desire, too, but I couldn't make it work, and as long as she was alive, I couldn't let it go, either. Mostly, it was a matter of not wanting to disappoint her, but it was also a matter of identity, because she was my connection to a whole hometown community that had become invested in my career. She had fanned the flames of their investment for decades. Once that connection was gone, I felt free to choose another path."
It's the internal changes, though, that seem both more important to Maggie and harder to explain. "There was a new seriousness," Maggie says, her southern accent emerging now and then through years of vocal retraining. "Certainly a new sense of my own mortality, but that's not the whole picture. It's sort of like when your mother used to choose your clothes, and then the time came when you chose your own clothes but there was still that little voice in the back of your head going, Would my mother like this? And even if the answer was Hell no, that's exactly why I'm getting it, the thought was there. After the death, you don't ask yourself the question. You're on your own.
"In some way, the pressure's off," Maggie says, in a suddenly subdued voice, "and in some ways the pressure is on. Because you have no one to answer to but yourself."
The modulation or silencing of that internal voice, the voice of parental expectation, was mentioned by everyone I spoke to. And for most, it was the voice of a mother, which is why a mother's death seemed to have the greater impact, even if the closer relationship had been with the father.
"I mourned terribly when my father died," says Sally Berg, 66, looking back a distance of 36 years, "but when my mother died eight years later, I had none of those feelings. She had never shown me any affection. I still can't imagine putting my arms around her.
"And yet," Sally continues, "I've realized in retrospect that it was her death that changed me. I had breast cancer when I was 42, and people always say to me, 'Cancer really changed your life. You survived it, then you went on to do all these things.' But it wasn't the cancer. It started with my mother's death four years earlier."
*Some names have been changed.
Next: How Sally's path changed after losing her mother
The "it" Sally refers to is her decades-long social activism, which, among other things, led her to organize some of the nation's first breast cancer support groups. "I started a group in Westchester, New York," Sally says, "at a time when patient groups were still not well received by doctors." Now she explains that although breast cancer focused her energies, it was the loss of her mother that unleashed her activism. "Within six months of her death, I went back to school to study psychology, and I began doing volunteer work at a psychiatric hospital. Pretty soon I started an organization to involve the community in the hospital's work, and I was speaking before groups. And I had always been terrified of public speaking. I wouldn't have done any of that if my mother had been alive."
Why not? "My mother always wanted me to be something I wasn't," says Sally, talking of her girlhood in Ohio. "She had these social goals for me. She came from a Catholic family, my father was an 'Our Crowd' German Jew, but she wanted me to be an Episcopalian, which I wasn't inclined to be. She wanted me to be a debutante, which I wasn't, to always be with the 'right' people, which I wasn't. And she certainly didn't want me to marry Larry. She'd never heard of his family.
"Her social attitudes were so stupid," Sally says, with a vehemence directed more at herself than her mother, "but they had a lot of power over me. I always felt the burden of knowing I wasn't doing what I should do to please her."
For both Sally and Maggie, the shedding of ill-fitting maternal expectations led not only to new career paths, it led each over time to a more appreciative, more sympathetic understanding of her mother. "Because I don't have to deal with her as such a force in my life," Maggie says of her theatrical southern mother, "I can appreciate her for herself, see her not just through the eyes of a daughter but more realistically, as a character in her own play. I can appreciate and admire her strength and her struggles."
"I feel much more sympathy for my mother now," says Sally. "Once you have the luxury of separating yourself a bit, you understand more. I can see many of the same insecurities in me that were in my mother, and seeing her more clearly, I can think, Well, it was okay for her to feel that way, and so maybe it's okay for me to feel the same way."
The feeling of being answerable only to oneself, and the consequent ability to look at one's mother through fresh eyes, to see her as the center of her life, not the arbiter of one's own, was a process—perhaps the process—that made these adult daughters feel like grown-ups. And that was as true for women who had embraced their mother's expectations as for those who had struggled against them.
Next: The pressure of expectations
Mary Murfitt, who grew up in a small Kansas town, was 29 when her mother died suddenly of a heart attack at age 71. "I adored her," says Mary, now 50. "I thought she was the perfect parent." And Mary had tried all her life to be the daughter her mother wanted her to be. "Clearly, she lived vicariously through me," Mary says.
"My mother always wanted to play classical violin, so I was trained as a classical violinist. She wanted me to go to her college, join her sorority, do the things she had done and certain things she didn't get to do."
It never occurred to Mary not to follow the course her mother charted for her. "I think because I'm adopted, and because I loved her so much, I just wanted to please her," Mary says. "When you're adopted, I think in the back of your mind you're afraid you might be given back, so you try hard to be good and to please."
For Mary at 29, this meant playing the violin and building a secure life with a good man. "When my mother died," Mary says, "I was living a semi-suburban-housewife life in New Jersey, working in a Manhattan office, and practicing the violin." She had stopped pursuing a performing career in musical theater in order to settle into the "safe" life her mother wished for her. "She wanted to know there was somebody to take care of me," Mary says.
Within a year of her mother's death, Mary and her good man split up. A year later, she fell in love with a woman. "I thought, Why not? Who cares? The only one whose approval mattered to me was my mother's." About the same time, she quit her office job to see what would happen if she put her energies into musical theater. What happened was a sustained, still-expanding career as performer, composer, lyricist, and playwright.
"After my mother's death, I felt free to explore things that just hadn't occurred to me before, because they weren't part of her life," Mary says. "I never thought about being gay. I never imagined I could compose or write. I used to think her expectations of me were too high, but now I think they were too low. Her death freed me to go beyond what she thought I could do."
Eventually, Mary came to see her mother differently. "I came to understand her limits," Mary says, "and accept that she didn't need to be perfect." Coming to terms with her "as a person, not just as my mother" allowed Mary to come to terms with another woman as well: She made a trip to the site of her birth, the Willows Maternity Sanitarium, in Kansas City, for "the better class of unfortunate young women."
"The building had been razed and the records burned," Mary says, "but for the first time, I allowed myself to imagine what my birth mother's emotions, her life, must have been like. She was only 17. I accepted it all happened the way it was supposed to happen, the way it had to happen, and that was new."
Next: Finding yourself through loss
In the United States, the most likely age of an adult child at the time of his or her mother's death is between 45 and 64. In both popular wisdom and psychological convention, these are the years of increased reflection, taking stock, and initiating change that are often called the midlife crisis. Looking from the outside, one might be tempted to attribute the kinds of life changes described by Maggie, Sally, and Mary to this generalized phenomenon. But that is not how they experienced it. And it certainly doesn't account for the experience of Louise Delahoussaye*, 46, whose testimony is remarkably like theirs, but who was only 20 at the time of her mother's death.
"I had worried about my mother dying my whole life," says Louise, whose mother had been sick on and off for years before her death at age 42 from a rare cancer. "But it turns out, if it's your lifelong fear, and it happens, and you're still standing, there's great relief and almost freedom in it. So when she died, there were unimaginable surprises.
"I would have lived an entirely different life if Mom had lived," Louise says, explaining that she does not mean a caretaker's life but the "traditional, provincial life" her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother had lived in the tightly knit Louisiana community of her childhood. "Mom was the connective tissue to that world, and she was so much the center of my life that I never would have left."
The feeling of a broadening vista followed soon after her mother's death, but it took several years for Louise to act upon it. "I got married a year after my mother died, to a man she would have adored, but I later realized that he was so much her type—and thus mine—that I had in effect married Mom. To steady myself in my grief, I had set up my life to continue hers." When Louise and her husband left the South to pursue work in New York for a couple of years, she says, "there it was—freedom and possibility. We split up, and I started to piece together a new life."
Twenty years later, when Louise reached the age of her mother's death, she says the cycle repeated itself. "Ever since Mom's death, my 42nd birthday had loomed as this immense hurdle. Getting past it was huge. But when I turned 43, I thought, Wow, I've got this whole half-life yet that is absolutely mine. There is no model for me from here on out.
Next: The pattern of grief
"I've been through a lot of changes in these past four years," Louise adds. "My second marriage began to unravel when I was 42, and I got divorced again. I suspect I may have had a softer, more certain life if Mom had lived but have no doubt that what I've gained is a life that's much more expansive, independent, and interesting, for which I'm grateful. I still miss her, maybe even more now, imagining what good friends we'd be. I used to have dreams of her being angry at me, disapproving, but I really get her now, and finally understand that we just didn't have the time to work through our relationship as adults."
Others, too, said the missing comes and goes but never fully stops. "It's when I've done something beyond what she dreamed that I miss her the most," Mary says, "like when Dolly Parton came backstage to congratulate me during the opening week of my show Cowgirls. Wouldn't that have been great for her to know?"
"If she could have seen me go to the White House and receive an award," says Sally, "there is no way she couldn't have been happy. Well, she might have wanted it to be a different president."
Ooops, didn't Sally's last line come from that internal voice? Yes, but for Sally as for the others, the voice has a different ring. It may cause a smile or a wince, at the vagaries of human nature, at the recognition of who one's mother was, but it doesn't carry the weight of judgment. Which makes Sally say, "You know, I've tried so hard not to be my mother. I don't think I'm the least bit judgmental, but I bet my daughter wouldn't say that."
If I had interviewed sons rather than daughters, I suspect the internal voice would have been a father's, but I don't know for sure. The research is not there. And perhaps the impact of these mothers' deaths upon these daughters was unusually strong because these two generations lived their adulthoods on the opposite sides of the cultural divide carved between them by the women's movement. But there is always a tug-of-war between generations, and when parents die, so does the tug of their generational or personal values, if they have not become authentically one's own. For the adult child, it seems, the sudden slackening of that rope is disorienting at first, then liberating, and eventually enlightening—as she roams untethered, sees her mother from more vantage points, and finally constructs an image in the round.
And what about me? I wish my mother could read my books, which I couldn't have written when she lived, lest they reveal too much of our generational differences. And yet I also became more like my mother after her death, more domestic and nurturing. And when my father died, I became more like him, more of a naturalist and an outdoorswoman. And when my brother died, I became more like him, more of a scientist, and more of a presence to his children. The qualities I had relied on in them I tried to make my own, and I was enlarged in the process. Am I grateful for that growth? Yes. Do I wish them back in life? Every day. But when I wish them more life on earth, I do not think of them as my mother and father and brother. I think of them as Newt and Bea and Mike, the center of their own lives, as I am of mine.