Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Losing Your Parents

It's been said that you are always a child at heart until you lose your parents. Losing one or both parents means taking a big step up the generational ladder, and redefining your role in the family. It means different things to different people, depending on what the relationship with your mom and dad meant to you. Were they supportive? Disinterested? In your corner? Critical? Available? Busy? Inspiring? Self-Absorbed? Strong? Needy? Missing? Based on your unique relationship with each parent, losing them may bring up a whole spectrum of feelings.
Your loss is also impacted by your age at the time of the loss of each parent.

In 1994, Hope Edelman wrote the excellent book Motherless Daughters about some of the feelings a woman can experience after the loss of her mother. Losing the connection with a mother you were close to can be a huge loss, which has to be processed. Over time, one can begin reinvesting the emotional energy from that strong relationship to others in your life. In doing so, you successfully work through grief, and get to the other side. If you were not close, or, worse, if your mother was destructive or toxic, losing her means the end to ever hoping you are going to have a better relationship.

I have often found in my counseling work that the loss of a parent or the last parent is a significant life event. It is a watershed moment that marks the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one. It makes one reflect on aging, mortality, and about life's meaning. The loss of a parent can spur spiritual growth, ego softening, and reflectiveness. It is a critical time when people need to be able to count on their support system: a partner, close friends, adult children, siblings. It seems people never forget kindnesses offered at these critical moments of loss. It seems that one of the few mistakes you can make is to do and say nothing, and fail to acknowledge the loss.

This week, I had the pleasure of reading a new memoir by writer/grief therapist Claire Bidwell Smith, called The Rules of Inheritance (Hudson Street Press, 2012). The book chronicles Smith's life, feelings, and experiences as she loses her mother during her first semester in college, when she is 18. Later, Smith loses her father at age 25. She feels totally alone. There are several poignant, but insightful things about Smith's book. She realizes over time that she was so busy individuating and resisting her mother at the end of adolescence that she couldn't fully grieve losing her until some years later. Sometimes our own developmental stage at the time of the loss makes it difficult to fully process. One especially misses a parent at key developmental moments in your life (graduations, wedding, birth of a child) when the parent is not present to share in the joy and be of support with new challenges.

I was also struck by Smith's self-reflection that by losing her mother first, she ended up knowing her dad better than she ever would have otherwise. They grew closer through sharing the tremendous loss of her mother, and learning more about her dad's story, including traveling back together with him to the village in the Czech Republic where her dad was shot down from a fighter jet in WWII. After growing close to her dad, his loss leaves her with words I found haunting, as she writes about becoming 'nobody's most important person.' Smith's chapters flip back and forth through time, much like our memories aren't always organized in chronological order. Instead, the chapters represent, and are book-ended by, quotes by Swiss grief expert and psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross. Chapters in Smith's book are themed around the stages of grief, such as anger, sadness, denial, bargaining, and acceptance.

Claire Bidwell Smith's book, The Rules of Inheritance, bares her own grief process with us as the reader. There are very personal and heart-wrenching moments, such as when, during grad school, Smith is forcing herself to feel and work through the grief with a deep, long cry in the bathtub each night that is years overdue. Smith comes all the way back, finding her way through and past the pain all the way to the other side of it. She realizes, and now helps others realize some profound but simple things. It's okay to feel sad. There isn't one right way to grieve. Grief is an individual experience, as unique as a snowflake, or a fingerprint. Grief takes time to fully process. There are stages, but they are not neat, orderly, or predictable. You have to walk through grief and experience it to get to the other side. Grief changes you. It makes you, hopefully, more present, more tender, and more able to discern what's really important, and what's the stupid stuff. There can be joy and lightness again later, when you work your way through the journey of grief.

Sorting out our grief, understanding the meaning of that person in our life, and what we take forward with us, has to be the point of growing through life's inevitable losses. Smith writes with great pain about her emptiness after the loss of both parents at such a young age. Later, there is a fullness and joy that Smith feels as she partners and becomes a mother herself, recreating a sense of connection and being somebody's 'most important person,' and it seems all the sweeter for the journey she has traveled. Loss, if understood, makes us more tender, more human, and more able to value loving those who are living. Grief opens us up in a beautiful way, if we can get all the way to the other side of the journey.

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