The Loss Of Parents

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

'I felt abandoned'

By Rochelle Jones
WebMD Feature

Feb. 5, 2001 -- Increasing numbers of adults are experiencing the saddest and most devastating rite of passage: The death of their parents.

With steadily increasing life spans, it's easy for children, even grown ones, to think they will always enjoy their parents' protection. Little research has been done on the impact that the loss of parents has on grown children. But it's an issue that is commanding new interest -- and spawning many yet-to-be-published research papers -- as the nation's estimated 77 million baby boomers face harsh reality. Anecdotal evidence suggests they are ill-prepared to cope.

Like many adults with supportive parents, Paul Wood, a successful public relations executive, shuttling between high-tech clients in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, believed his parents always would be there for him. When his mother and then his father died in the mid-1990s, he was shattered. Until then, he had believed his life was under control.

That was before he spent nearly a year crying himself to sleep. He was depressed and unable to connect with family and friends. "I felt totally abandoned," says Wood, 37. "I felt that I was space walking without a rope, just floating out there in space. It's impossible to describe or imagine if you haven't been through the experience."

While it may be the natural order of things for parents to die before their children, "the baby boom generation is unwilling to accept the inevitability of death," says Lois Akner, a New York City social worker who since 1984 has been conducting workshops on parental loss. "I have clients all the time who say, "If my mother dies,' and I say, 'What do you mean, 'if''?"

Victoria Secunda, author of Losing Your Parents, Finding Yourself (Hyperion), says, "When your parents die, you lose your emotional foxhole. You no longer have the opportunity to go home when you lose your job or your boyfriend dumps you."

In mourning the death of parents, baby boomers confront other life changes as well. Parents are curators of the past who keep children connected with siblings, distant relatives, and the neighborhoods where they grew up. If the parent-child relationships have been difficult, the hope that they may improve is lost forever. More troubling still, baby boomers must confront their own mortality.

"It's like getting a boarding pass to death," says Michael Leming, PhD, a sociologist at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. "You realize that your flight will be the next to take off."

The good news is that, once the grieving period begins to fade, many boomers report an unexpected freedom: The ability to pursue their own dreams without the need to seek parental approval. Audrey Gordon, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Carbondale and an expert in grief, says that despite her professional expertise, she was overwhelmed by loss and regret when her parents died. But a year later, she realized she was free to plan her life in a way that previously was impossible.

"I was always the caregiver. I always had to be there. Now I can go places, travel, move. I'm freer. There's no question about it," she says.

Indeed, in her research, Secunda has found that many of her 100 study participants reported positive consequences of parental loss. They became more self-reliant, reordered their priorities, and often changed careers. Of the 50 who changed careers, 69% said it was a direct result of their parents' death. A nun left her convent, entered graduate school, and embarked on a whole new career. Others said they were able -- without guilt -- to leave high-paying careers in law or medicine, for which their parents had paid educational expenses, and work for nonprofits.

"It's a final opportunity to grow, to think in the best possible sense, of what is in your true best interest," says Secunda.  "If you don't do it now, you never will."

Although his grief remains, Wood acknowledges that he has grown. He has realized that work is not all of life. He spends more time with his four siblings and his friends. He volunteers for numerous charitable causes.

"I know now that life is short, that the loss of parents tears the fabric of your soul," Wood says. "But I also know that there's new meaning in my life because of their deaths."

Rochelle Jones is a writer based in Bethesda, Md. She has covered health and medicine for The New York Daily News and The St. Petersburg Times.

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