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


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