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When parents die

Adult orphans face more than just mourning and moving on. In some ways, life can get better.

May 05, 2008|Melissa Healy | Times Staff Writer
  • Adult orphans face more than just mourning and moving on. In come ways, life can get better.
Adult orphans face more than just mourning and moving on. In come ways, life… (Illustration by Michelle…)

Jeanne SAFER loved and revered her mother, and braced for impact as the seemingly indomitable woman's mind and heart began to fail seven years ago. But ready or not, the end came in December 2004. Esther Safer rallied long enough to exult to her daughter, "This is my day!" then died peacefully at 92.

At 57 -- her father having died many years before -- Jeanne Safer became an orphan.

As a psychotherapist in New York City for 30 years, Safer had heard countless patients talk about the effect their parents' deaths had on them. She anticipated the sadness, the heightened sense of her own mortality, the comfort taken in her mother's bequeathed treasures. But in the months and years that followed her mother's death, she began to confront in herself, and to recall from the accounts of many patients, something unexpected, a "shocking -- almost sacrilegious" truth:

The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you.

That provocative assertion became the opening line of "Death Benefits," an autobiography-cum-guidebook Safer has written about that most momentous of midlife passages -- becoming an adult orphan. The book, published by Basic Books, is due in bookstores this week.

"The death of a parent -- any parent -- can set us free. It offers us our last, best chance to become our truest, deepest selves," Safer writes. "Nothing else in adult life has so much unrecognized potential to help us become more fulfilled human beings -- wiser, more mature, more open, less afraid."

And maybe healthier too. Safer and other health professionals point to legions of adults in midlife whose parents' deaths inspired them to lose weight, tidy up poor health habits, get help for depression or anxiety, pursue new passions and shoulder responsibility for their physical and mental well-being.

Dr. Howard Brody, a family physician for 30 years who now teaches ethics at the University of Texas Medical Campus in Galveston, remembers bracing for near-daily visits from one of his most needy, hypochondriacal patients after learning that the woman had lost both of her parents in the span of a month.

What he got instead was a lesson in death benefits.

"I was quite shocked when a new person, for all intents and purposes, walked into my office for her next visit," Brody reported. "This new person seemed much more confident and willing to take charge of her own life, and not to seek medical remedies for whatever ailed her." In her late 40s, this patient, who had long seemed incapable of taking steps to improve her life and health, had joined a church group, made new friends and appeared to be seized by a new sense of purpose.

Though virtually universal, the adult experience of parental loss has been little studied. That is, in part, precisely because it is universal, and therefore perceived as a normal process, says Debra Umberson, one of the few who have conducted research on the phenomenon. Adult children, having seemingly established their independence, were long thought to absorb the expected blow and move on to tend to relationships with the living.

Safer's book, however, comes amid an evolving view of this adult milestone. Increasingly, research psychologists and those in clinical practice see the loss of elderly parents as an event that not only touches off an emotional reaction that is real and long-lasting, it also is often the beginning of a continuing, though wholly different, relationship with the dead.

At any stage of adulthood, losing one's parents can bring death benefits, Safer says. The adult intent on making the most of a parent's loss should be willing to examine her parents' emotional legacies carefully and consciously. Doing so, she argues, will better distinguish those parental legacies worth keeping -- the ones that contribute to health and well-being -- from those that no longer serve that end. The age of the adult matters less than his willingness to do that sorting "in a mindful way," she says.

But in recent decades, profound demographic changes have made orphans in midlife the most common, and most receptive, beneficiaries of death benefits.

As improved healthcare has pushed average life expectancies up into seven decades, parents have begun typically to live well into their children's adult lives. Today, one-third of American 50-year-olds have a father still living and two-thirds still have their mother. But by the time they turn 60, two-thirds of Americans will have become adult orphans.

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