Jeanne Safer is the bearer of good news you probably don’t want to hear: “The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you.”
That’s the shocking first sentence of her new book, Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult Child’s Life—For the Better. Safer, a psychotherapist with 35 years of experience, chronicles the positive changes that occur in people’s lives as a result of becoming an adult orphan—and we’re not talking about your inheritance.
Despite the obvious morbid overtones, the message is in fact overwhelmingly positive: With proper introspection, a parent’s death can be a catalyst for a son or daughter to live a happier, more complete life. “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,” Safer writes.
The death benefits—ranging from quitting drinking, losing weight or buying a new wardrobe to getting married, coming out of the closet or converting to a new religion—are available to anyone willing to reexamine his or her relationship with a parent. Equal parts anecdotal, autobiographical and self-help, Death Benefits offers readers a new way to grieve—and grow in the process.
Safer interviewed 60 people who were adults when their parents died. She also explains how she sought out death benefits after her own mother died, and provides a list of questions to help point you in the right direction in your own search.
Safer spoke with AARP Bulletin Today about what she learned in her research. Read our Q&A with Safer below. (And check out an excerpt from the book.)
Q: What in the world do you mean by “death benefits”?
A: A death benefit is any positive effect that an adult child experiences after a parent dies and which turns out to be related to the parent’s death. One of the reasons that this has not been noticed—this is probably the first book on the topic—is that some of these things take a long time to incubate. It may be as much as a decade before you realize that you’ve changed and connect it to your parent’s death.
Q: How did people respond when you told them what you were working on?
A: There were two reactions. Some people said, “Oh, of course! Wonderful! Can I read it before my mother dies?” That was one reaction. The other was stony silence. It’s a conversation stopper or starter depending on whom you’re talking to. Usually, when I explain it a little more, people aren’t so frightened. But at one point I felt that the book should be put in a plain brown paper wrapper, so that nobody would have to worry that people thought they were reading a book about “Whoopee! My mother’s dead!”
Q: What is it about the topic that makes people react so strongly?
A: Death is a taboo. We’re never supposed to talk about it, we’re never supposed to think about it, and we’re never supposed to believe that anything good comes out of it. It’s survivor guilt. We feel that we are not supposed to be better off, that it means somehow that we don’t love our parents, that they’re not important to us. As one of my patients put it, “That means that I would be dancing on her grave.”
Q: It makes sense that people who have a terrible relationship with their parents might benefit from their passing. But can people who have loving, healthy relationships with their parents also experience death benefits?
A: Yes. You can get these benefits despite what kind of parent you had and what kind of relationship you had with them. There are examples in the book of people whose parents were disasters, as well as people who had really wonderful, loving parents.