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.
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.
Q: What death benefits that people experienced surprised you most?
A: I was surprised by people who were able to get divorced after their parents died. Getting married made more sense to me, but I didn’t expect divorce. It just confirms that our parents have so much more influence than we realize. Imagine a man staying in a terrible marriage for 39 years because his father said to him, “A man stays with his family.”
Q: Many of the people in your book who underwent major life changes as a result of their parent’s death were in their 40s, 50s or 60s. Do you think that people resist the idea that they can still change dramatically in their midlife?
A: Definitely. Our whole culture is so youth-oriented that nobody even really thinks about the transformations that can happen during the second half of life. One of the positive messages in this book, and in this whole way of thinking, is that you can change until the day you die—even on the day you die.
Q: So people in midlife underestimate their own ability for change.
A: Well, in the second half of life, you’ve come into your own to some degree. You have a more formed personality and identity, very often you have children yourself, you can relate to a parent more, you’re not as dependent. As an adult, you have tools within you that you didn’t have when you were younger. The only thing standing in your way is the internalized notion that change is for the young.