Q: That must surprise some people.
A: Many people assume that if you have a parent who you loved, there is only a sense of loss and a depletion of your life when they go. I am certainly not saying that isn’t true. In fact, I believe that mourning is essential to being able to get death benefits. But all parents are a mixed bag. The best parent is going to have some bad qualities, and the worst is going to have good ones. What I feel is that, by cultivating receptivity, getting over your inhibitions and knowing what to look for, anybody can—and should—get these benefits. Certainly you need to be willing to think about yourself and your parent in a different light. And as long as you’re willing to do that, I think the really wonderful news is that this is available to all of us. You know, just like Social Security! It’s emotional security.
Q: What do you tell those people who feel guilty or disloyal for considering their parent’s death in a positive light?
A: Well, I think this is what every parent would want for a child. First, it can be tremendously consoling to realize that something good can come out of your deepest losses, and you owe it to yourself to explore the possibilities. Coming into your own, growing into full adulthood and taking responsibility for your own character and mature choices feels wonderful. And many times it makes you closer to your parent, and it helps you resolve your relationship. I want people to realize they have permission to thrive, permission to change, permission to grow, permission to reconsider their parents, and consider the possibility that when a parent is dead, you can know them better.
Q: That’s a compelling point, but it’s also hard to wrap your mind around the idea that you can know somebody better when they’re dead.
A: It’s because when they’re alive you’re embedded in your relationship with them. You have certain kinds of reactions that have been honed over 50 years, and suddenly, that voice isn’t there. I wrote in the book—and this is only partially tongue-in-cheek—that once your parents die, there is no parental home to feel guilty about not visiting anymore. When you never again feel guilty about disappointing a parent, just imagine! It’s like sprouting wings.
Q: What can people whose parents are still living learn from this book?
A: People can start this process while the parent is alive, and it’s not sacrilegious. Asking questions about your parents—things like, “Who is my mother? Who was she as a daughter? As a wife? As my brother’s mother? As a friend? As a woman?” Considering who your parent was, or is, as a person in all these other roles in their life really clears your head. It’s like walking up on a height and looking down—it gives you a wider view.
Q: Don’t we always hear that it is healthier to resolve issues with our parents and say the things we want to say to them before they die?
A: Obviously it’s better if you can work things out with parents before they die, but there’s something about death and even the recognition that somebody’s going to die that allows people to understand things toward the end of life that they weren’t able to earlier. Even though a person may try to resolve things during his or her parents’ lifetime, it’s amazing how different the perspective is after the parents die. You can see them in a different way when you’re not speaking directly to them, and it opens up your relationship with them.