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The Death Of A Parent
1003 Posts
I was not sure if this should go here or in the caregiver forum so I am posting here. Please move if needed. I lost my wife to cancer a year ago and just found the enclosed article in some of her things. She was a social worker all her life, and I keep finding these treasures from her work. I think she actually had this article given to her years ago when she lost her Mother. But as I read it, it seemed like something that would be very worthwhile to share here with others. I am enclosing the article just as it reads. I do not know the exact sources except what is in the article. I hope this helps get a productive conversation going for those who have lost a parent to cancer. Please feel free to pitch in here.

Death Of A Parent
by David Larsen, Las Angeles Times

For an adult child, the death of
a mother or father can mean the
irrevocable end of their childhood

"It happens without you even consciously thinking about," 44 year old Earnestina Higuera said. "Maybe you'll be driving to work months afterwards, and suddenly you start crying in the car."

For Art letherman, 60, "Whenever I use his old power table saw, the memories come back, such as when I was young, and he would take me to the beach."

"Almst a year later, I still have dreams about hime," said Gina Pack, 32. "In one dream, I was standing next to him at a party and I was so glad that he had recovered."

"Dont let them tell you that time makes it better," 39 year old Jewel Novack said. "It doesn't."

All of these adults are talking aboutan almost universal human experience: the death of a parent. It would probably come as a shock to hear that the experience that has so imprinted their lives has been relatively ignored by social scientists who study the human condition.

But where much attention has been paid to how a parent's death affects a child, and there is study after study describing the grim fall out from the death of a child, and what it means to lose a spouse, there seems to be far less concern about the more common event of adults who are finally "orphaned" by the loss of a parent.

"In our society," said Andrew Scharlach, assistant Professor in the University of Southern California School Of Social Work, "it is more legitimate to talk about the problems of taking care of an elderly parent, than to talk about one's feelings for that parent after their death."

"Thats something of an anomaly," said Scharlac "inthat while a person can have many spouses, or many children, everybody gets only one mother and one father."

As one woman said tearfully to a USC researcher after her surviving parent died, "Im no one's little girl anymore." She was 59 years old.

Higuera had the privilege of living parents for more than 40 years. Then, three years ago, she said that both had died within a little more than a month of each other. Her 84 year old father had suffered strokes, but most shocking to Higuera and her two sisters, it was their 80 yr old mother, with no signs of illness, who had died first.

"When she said she didnt feel well, we took her to a hospital. Three days later, she was gone. Our father was in a convalescent home, and we never told him, but we could tell he knew," she said. "And all three of us were present, releasing him when he left. We told him Mom was waiting for him. There was no response, but I feel he understood. He finally let go."

To this day Higuera said she is grieved by these circumstances of her mother's death; its what some scholars call "residual grief."

"Being with my father when he died was so important," Higuera said. "I think one of the tings we all fear is dying alone. I still hurt because I wasnt there for my mother. It seems as if that regret will always be around."

With Higuera, as with many children, there was an initial reaction. "After the deaths, I moved back from my apartment, and into their house. The bedrooms are in the rear of the house. At first, I couldnt set foot in those rooms. I made the living room my bedroom. That lasted for about a month."

Higuera, whose mother died Feb 20th, her father, March 24th, said that "at first I went out to Rose Hills Memorial Park on the 20th and 24th of every month. I also went there on their birthdays, on Mother's Day, on Father's Day, Christmas, etc. This went on for the first year or so."

"Now, I just go on their birthdays, and Mother's day, and Father's Day. With time, it becomes easier to not have to go through the ritual. I know this is part of letting go."

Eighteen months ago, Scharlach embarked on a study of this little examined, but much experienced part of everyone's lives. Two hundred and twenty people responded to a newspaper brief seeking adults who lost a parent one to five years previously, and all of the respondents did fill out questionaires. Scharlac and his assistants are conducting in-depth interviews, with 100 of the participants, and the study is still in progress. But Scharlac says that these preliminary findings have emerged:

1) intial reactions to a parent's death included difficulty sleeping, working, keeping up, with normal activities, and getting along with certain people.

2) One to five years after a parent's death, at least 25% of the respondents indicated that they still cry or become upset, when they think of the deceased parent.

3) Other, oft-cited residual reactions included finding it painful to recall the parent's memory; and feeling that it was unfair that he/she has died.

In an interview, Scharlac related other impressions from his study:

"That last contact with the parent remains for many people, a metaphor for the entire relationship. People tend to add meaning to that, that may not in fact have had anything to do with the situation. The person may feel that dad accepted them as he never had before - even when that may not have actually been the case."

Novac's mother died in 1983, her father in 1984. Seven months later, she separated from her husband, and in 1986, the divorce became final.

"After both of my parents were gone, I developed insomnia. Only two or three hours of sleep per night, I still have it."

"For a long time, I distanced myself from everybody. I didn't want to see anybody, or have anyone around me. I withdrew," she said.

Preliminary research results show that the death of one remaining parent has a particularly profound effect on adult children," Scharlach said. Some of the more common responses to that final chapter are as follows:

1) an overwhelming sense of feeling orphaned.
2) the sense that one no longer fits the role of "the child" that they not only have suffered the deaths of their parents, but had also lost "the child within."

"For almost everyone, the issue of their own mortality came into focus. Now they were going to be next in line. It seems that as long as a parent is alive, there is someone between us and what we fear. We are symbolically protected;" Scharlach said.

"With the passing of both parents," he said, "there comes a realization that time is limited. Some end up feeling an urgency to prioritize all aspects of their lives after this."

It also came out in the study that after both parents have died, interactions between adult family members often don't stay as they once were.

"If a pattern of closeness had already been established, surviving siblings often do draw closer. There is an increased sense of family unity, of connectedness, and a need for mutual sharing. If, on the other hand, there were conflicted relationships between siblings, before the deaths, then this kind of gap seems to widen after the parents are gone."

As one woman said in an interview, "My brother wasn't around. He wasnt there for my parents, or for me when they were alive, and we needed him. Now that they are dead, I dont really care if I have anything to do with him again."

Surviving adult children who are not especially connected to their siblings, or who are older children, the associate continued, sometimes establish more intimate relationships with persons who were close to their parents, such as an aunt or an uncle.

Many children think about doing it but fewer ever do. The ones who do are usually glad they took the time, said one person:

" Six years ago it occurred to me that my other and father were getting along in years, and I thought that before something happens, I wanted to tell them how much I appreciated them as parents, I sat down and wrote them a letter, four pages long."

The fact that the son had done this has in a way, softened the melancholy memory of the last meeting with his father, age 84, debilitated by strokes, and living out his remaining days in a convalescent hospital. "It was six weeks before he died, in April of 88," he said. "My wife and I went up to see him. But after about 20 minutes, he said he wanted to go to sleep. I felt depressed all the way home."

It doesn't matter how old you are, you are still affected by a parent's death.

Take the following example, one lady is 66, her Mom died at age 89. Her Dad died at age 100. The imapact was different for each of them. "My mother had a stroke five years before she died. I lost her a little at a time. At the end she could not walk or talk. I think the quality of life is important.

My father had been in excellent health. He took no medications. His mind was alert. He was a happy person. The end came very quickly. He developed prostrate trouble, and finally, pneumonia. When he was in the hospital, he asked me: "can you take away the oxygen please/" "I told him I couldn't do that." He said "My time has come - why prolong the suffering?" He eventually signed a paper authorizing the hospital people to discontinue the oxygen, and they did."

Not without great emotion, this lady said she especially misses her father:

I find I miss him when I want some counsel, when I want help in making a decision. He was very important in my life," she said.

<<< the end>>>
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1003 Posts
A number of years ago, I lost my dad to Leukemia. I will share some of that experience here as it relates to the above in another post.
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