From the book Death Benefits by Jeanne Safer. Excerpted by arrangement with Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2008.
Parents die much later in their children’s lives than ever before, so most adults now have the opportunity to discover and to cultivate death benefits, as I had the good fortune to do—if only they know where to look and how to go about it.
Just a few decades ago it was unusual for a midlife adult to have a living parent, but now an overlap of 50 years or more is common. In the 21st century, people tend to be 35 to 54 years old when their fathers die and between 45 and 64 when their mothers die. Fifty percent of the population has lost both parents by age 54, and 75 percent are orphans by age 62; parents die as we age. This time frame is in itself an advantage not only because the relationships last so long—far longer than most marriages—but also because the large overlap means that by the time we lose them we have become adults and often parents ourselves; finally, we can empathize.
Curiously, the increased longevity of the parent/child relationship has not been accompanied by an increase in research about what happens when it ends. Though by far the most common type of bereavement, parent loss in adulthood is the least studied; the death of spouses, of young children’s parents—even of older parents’ adult children—get much more coverage. Sigmund Freud himself, who called the world’s attention to hidden aspects of family dynamics, wrote astonishingly little about the subject; his most important contribution was the brief essay, “Mourning and Melancholia,” written early in his career and never expanded. There is virtually nothing else on the topic before 1980, and only three scientific papers on midlife women’s loss of their mothers had been published as of 2002. Aside from self-help books aimed at bereaved baby boomers, the neglect continues.
Why has a phenomenon that profoundly alters the lives of 11.6 million adults every year—5 percent of the population of the United States—generated so little interest? The assumption that midlife loss of a parent is so common, so much “in the natural order of things” that it is uneventful, is widespread. Why bother studying something so obvious? Such literal-mindedness rationalizes and fuels avoidance. Anxiety over our own mortality is the real reason nobody looks too closely at the demise of the older generation; if we did, we would have to face the fact that we are next in line. And though Freud wrote little about death and grief, he endured quite a lot of both in his life, beginning with the death of his young brother. The terror the topic generated was too much even for the man who fearlessly explored sex and aggression.
Since parental death is considered so normal and predictable, people are shocked and unprepared for the intensity of their reactions when it happens. Few adults expect to feel unmoored, depressed, shaken or numbed—let alone relieved—by the loss parents who may seem peripheral to their current lives. As a result, they have to negotiate this major psychological transition without knowledge or guidance.