Vote 2020 graphic
Everything you need to know about and expect during
the most important election of our lifetimes

The Death Of A Parent Can Both Immobilize And Inspire

Illustration for article titled The Death Of A Parent Can Both Immobilize And Inspire

Jeanne Safer was 57 years old when her mother died, reports the LA Times. Her father had died many years before and Safer is now an "adult orphan." But she soon discovered a "shocking — almost sacrilegious" truth: It can be awesome when a parent dies. "The death of a parent — any parent — can set us free. It offers us our last, best chance to become our truest, deepest selves," writes Safer in her book, Death Benefits. In fact, the first line of the autobiography slash guidebook is "The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you". By the by: Jeanne Safer is a psychotherapist.


But Safer is not alone in her belief that a parent's death can be liberating. Researcher Debra Umberson maintains that it's a catalyst. "A lot of people change very deliberately. And sometimes unconsciously, they change in ways that they think their parents would admire, or to become more like the person their parent would want them to be," Umberson says. "Sometimes people incorporate the good parts of their parents in ways that are very constructive for self-growth."

Of course, we're talking about adults here: When a child loses a parent, there's very often a "double whammy" effect on her mental and physical health, Reuters reports. Dr. David Brent of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine studied 140 families in which one parent died prematurely and suddenly from suicide, accidental death, or sudden natural death. He found that parents who die suddenly are likely to have higher-than-expected rates of psychiatric disorder. Plus: Mood, alcohol and substance abuse, and personality disorders mean increased mortality — not just from suicide; also from accidents and cardiovascular diseases. "It's not the same as blaming them for having died," Dr. Brent says. "We know the risk for cardiovascular disease is about eight times higher for people with depression or bipolar depression."


How do you digest this information when your father left for work one day when you were 17 and never came back, having had a heart attack on the subway while taking your little sister to school — as mine did? Very slowly. My mother is amazing, but my relationship with my father was (is) definitely incredibly strong. I find more and more that the things I'm passionate about — writing, music, photography, obscure films — are the things he really liked. It's safe to say that his death was the worst thing that ever happened to me. It's not surprising at all that Dr. Brent found many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among children who had lost a parent (and none among the children with two living parents.) It's a damaging, life-changing, scarring, jarring experience. When is the right time to lose a parent, anyway? Jeanne Safer may feel liberated, but her mother died "peacefully" at the age of 92 (after declaring, "This is my day!") Not all of us are so lucky. Some adult orphans may feel ready for self-growth, but surely many just feel a dull, unyielding ache?

Adult Orphans: When Parents Die [LA Times]
When Parents Die, Some Children Suffer Doubly [Reuters]

Share This Story

Get our newsletter



My father died when I was about 3 and he was the whoppin' age of 21.

Childhood coping mechanisms are psychologically amazing. I told my mom I wanted to live in an orphanage (I wanted to leave her before she left me), I would scald my hands under dangerously hot water (very common, apparently: the kiddie version of cutting), I continually say "I love you" every time I leave my house, even to run to the store...

Between the ages of 20 and 21, I had minor panic attacks every time I had to get in a car (my dad died in a motor vehicle accident). It did not strike me that I did this at the same age my father was that he died until I'd been doing it for about a year and a half.

when I turned 22, I felt OLD. Very old, because from that point on I was experiencing a life stage my father had never reached. My brother, who was born a month after my dad died, is 22 and is going through a major depressive episode. I can't help but think the two items are related.

So, long-short answer: no matter when you lose a parent, it fucks you up. Majorly.