‘Death Benefits’ – When Tears of Grief Give Way to Sighs of Relief

“The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you.”

But you didn’t hear that from me.

Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist and author of “Death Benefits,” arrives at this unexpected conclusion in her autobiographical book about becoming an adult orphan at age 57.

I became an adult orphan at 32. Had I read Safer’s findings more than eight years ago, before I was “orphaned,” myself I’d have probably thought her sentiment to be preposterous, unimaginable, and even cold. But today, having been an adult orphan for more than eight years, not only am I unfazed by her sentiment, I can relate to it.

Do I miss my parents? I do…so much, it hurts at times.

Do I wish they were still alive? Absolutely.

Has my life improved in some ways since I became parent-less? In some ways, yes.

“Death benefits” happened to me.

Many of the thoughts and feelings I experienced after losing my last surviving parent were overwhelmingly confusing. Some of the feelings concerned me so much, I was afraid to voice them at all, even to my own siblings. In search of answers, I recently turned to the all-knowing omnipotence of Google, searched “adult orphan” and this LA Times article appeared on my screen. Much of the article read like the story of my past eight years of life, since becoming an ‘adult orphan’.

I even wondered if perhaps my own parents had somehow sent the article to me from beyond, as if to say “it’s okay to feel this way.” As soon as I could I downloaded the book and eagerly read account after account of people who have experienced parent-less-ness.

From tears of grief, to sigh of relief…

Thanks to Safer, her book, and this article, I no longer have to feel guilty and isolated about the thoughts and feelings I’ve been ashamed to admit:

Becoming parent-less was incredibly terrifying, traumatizing, and amazingly liberating, all at the same time.

After my mom died in 2004, intense, painful grief consumed me for several years. However, after a few more years, some very unexpected feelings began to surface. For years I struggled with the mixed emotions. There must be something severely wrong with me…  How can it possibly be normal to feel anything but sorrow and grief after your parents die?  How can you actually feel better in some ways, after your beloved parents are gone?

I wondered if I was having these feelings only because of the unique, imperfect, sometimes conflicted relationship I had with my mother. It was not easy to be the daughter of a devout Catholic, clinically depressed, widow with alcoholic tendencies. Safer, the author of Death Benefits, also admits to a conflicted relationship with her mother. However, her book also includes interviews with nearly 100 other adult orphans, each of whom describes a variety of ways his or her life improved after being orphaned.

Like all of us flawed humans, my parents weren’t perfect; they had their issues and faults. But they were basically good people who sacrificed a lot for their kids. And, they’re the only parents I’ve ever had. They brought me into this world. I owe them my very existence.

There is no reason for me to be glad they are gone. (And I’m not.) So why can’t I shake this feeling, that in some ways, my life is a little better somehow, without any parents?

Could it be that the absolute worst thing that ever happened to me, could also be one of the best things to happen to me? Not only were my emotions and my experience normal, apparently they are perfectly natural, according to the book’s author and other experts interviewed for the LA Times:.

“Adult children, having seemingly established their independence, were long thought to absorb the expected blow [of losing their parents] and move on to tend to relationships with the living. Safer’s book, however, comes amid an evolving view of this adult milestone. Increasingly, research psychologists and those in clinical practice see the loss of elderly parents as an event that not only touches off an emotional reaction that is real and long-lasting…” “The death of a parent — any parent — can set us free. It offers us our last, best chance to become our truest, deepest selves. 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.”  — Jeanne Safer

Maybe I’m not such a horrible person, after all. Maybe I really don’t have a heart made of cold hard stone. Maybe I’m just a “normal” adult orphan.

Seven year itch.

For me, a shift in my attitude and emotions happened about seven years after becoming parentless, which is a common time frame, according to studies cited in the LA Times article. It was then when I truly started to feel differently about everything, almost overnight. After seven years of grieving my mother’s passing, and after what seemed like a lifetime trying to make sense of my dad’s death during my childhood, I just wanted to live my life, for once. For the first time ever, at age 40, I felt like my life was my own. Not my mom’s, not my dad’s, not my brother’s or sisters’. I just wanted to move on, hold on, and live, as much as possible, like never before.

In contrast, those first several years after losing a parent, especially the last surviving parent, are extremely trying. Some studies have shown that during those initial years, it’s common for adult survivors of a parent’s passing to be very depressed and adopt bad, destructive behaviors such as excessive drinking, overeating, and other recklessness. But then, the self-destructive emotions gradually turn into productive thoughts:

“…With their parents gone, many adults keenly sense that they are ‘next in line’ for decline, disability and demise. That often concentrates the mind on what’s right, and wrong, in their lives — what traits and behaviors have served them well and which would better be abandoned.”

“I’m next.” 

Certainly, with my parents now gone, I’m the next to go,” I’d fear. So why not take that extra drink, or eat that extra dessert? Why bother exercising? Why bother with anything, really? What does it matter?

“I’m next.”

For years, the thought continued to gnaw at me. I wasn’t getting any younger. But eventually, after the passage of much time, the same fear that made me give up, later made me want to take better care. I finally decided it was time to make some drastic changes, so I did.

Today, eight years into orphan-hood, it’s not about being next in line to die. I now realize I’m next in line to live. It’s my turn, at last. I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. I don’t have time to wonder what my life would be like if my parents were alive today … I have my own life to live, after all.

Is losing your parents the “best thing that ever happens to you,” as Safer concluded? I don’t know that I’d go that far in describing the upside of becoming parent-less. However, depending on your circumstances, there are some aspects of life as an adult orphan that will improve more than you’ll ever want to admit, until long after you experience it yourself.  I hope you don’t become parent-less any time soon, as the ‘death benefits’ of being an adult orphan certainly do not make up for the void that exists where your parents once lived.

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