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