When a Parent Dies
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