By Barbara Levy Gradet, LCSW
Losing one’s parents in middle age is a very common passage but one that has only recently gotten serious attention. Conventional wisdom has been that losing our last parent is a very profound experience as it forces us to confront our mortality in new ways. Those of us who are parents ourselves certainly hope and expect to predecease our children as the normal order of life. Our parents hoped and expected that to be the course of their lives, as well.
So why should it be especially difficult for us to lose our parents when we have expected all our lives to experience these losses? And why does our own death seem to be closer when our last parent dies? Does it make a difference that, due to improvements in health care, most of us have had or will have our parents for many more years than previous generations?
Many authors have written eloquently about this life passage that is now impacting the Baby Boom generation. Even with our parents living longer than their parents did, middle age, or at least our new definition of middle age (50s through 60s) remains the time when most of us will lose our parents. Like everything that affects Boomers, becoming middle-aged orphans is the subject of many books and articles.
Alexander Levy, in his book, The Orphaned Adult: Understanding and Coping with Grief and Change After the Death of Our Parents, explores how relationships change after our parents die, the importance of grieving, and what we can learn from this experience. Virginia Ironside, in her book, You’ll Get Over It – The Rage of Bereavement, writes, “When my father died and I was suddenly parentless, I felt pushed into the front line. My father, the buffer zone between myself and death, was gone. Now I was in no-parents land with snipers all around me. I was next.” Jeanne Safer, author of Death Benefits, has a different perspective to share. She writes, “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 goes on to say, “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.”
So who is right? Is losing your last parent a difficult passage, fraught with grief and feelings that you are no longer protected from mortality? Or is losing your last parent a freeing experience that allows you to become more fulfilled?
No one can answer this for anyone else. As grief is experienced in very personal ways, losing your parents means different things to different people. I can only speak for myself. I became a middle-aged orphan two years ago with my mother’s death. And my experience brings me to the conclusion that each of these authors is right, to a degree. I do miss my parents every day. I do feel next in line but don’t find myself dwelling on this, since both of my parents lived well into their nineties. I am aware that the relationship I have with my brother is changing and we need to make sure that we remain connected — despite our parents no longer being here to be our primary bridge. And I do feel some freedom from the many years of caregiving responsibility, though I never felt that to be a burden but rather something I was privileged to give back to my parents.
I doubt that my personal experience is unique, that is, experiencing a complex set of emotions, sometimes contradictory ones. The experience of becoming an orphan can bring sadness, loss, change, and relief. And each of these emotions is okay.
If you are experiencing the loss of your parents or any loss, you don’t have to go it alone. Call Jewish Community Services at 410.466.9200. We can help.
Barbara Levy Gradet, LCSW, Executive Director, Jewish Community Services, Baltimore, MD
To learn more about how JCS can help you solve life’s puzzles, visit www.jcsbaltimore.org or call 410-466-9200. Jewish Community Services is an agency of THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.