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Who Are We After Our Parents Die?

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It’s hard to imagine there could be anything beneficial about losing a parent, and at some point in our lives, both of our parents.

The good news is as “survivors” we can and often do experience, after the death of a parent, many new opportunities leading to a discovery that the ultimate shape of our lives is in our hands.

When we become “orphans” after our parents have died, we have the advantage of becoming “Ourselves!” So often those we love and need have power over us and, now, for the first time perhaps, we learn that we have choices about how we live our lives. This holds truth even when a Parent/Child relationship has been estranged or tedious at best.


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As Jean Safer, PhD and an expert in research on Parent Loss, says in a book called Death Benefits, “We speak of birthrights, let’s also speak of death rights. Although I believe that becoming an orphan is a major loss, no matter what your relationship with your parent was, I also believe you can turn it into a major gain.”

When a parent dies, there is often an expressed sentiment of freedom from obligation and judgment. There is, at best, freedom to live our lives as we want to without judgment or feeling we have disappointed our parents.

Our parents are the common denominators that define our family. They are the conduits of ritual, family roles, family mores and family scripts. They are our “wisdom keepers.”

Our parents are also our judges and their judgments, while they are guides for how we live, exert great influence over us as we move through our lives.

It might be said, conversely, that offspring are not just acted upon — they certainly learn the buttons to push that evoke parental love or anger.

The balance in the parent-child relationship has many shifts over time. As we become adults and our parents age and become more reliant on us for support, there are plenty of opportunities for misunderstandings and discord and not always enough time left to resolve these differences which can lead to feelings of anger, disappointment and unfinished business.

It is possible to accomplish much of one’s maturity while our parents are still alive but in the end it becomes a necessity to become your own judge and jury.

The following suggestions are made to offer ideas that may help you to resolve some of the unfinished business in your lives with family or friends while remembering resolution does not necessarily mean restoration of what has been.

  • Mending fences with family members: For many it is important to make peace with differences and to figure out unfinished business in order to preserve the family bond. Open a conversation and figure out the subjects that are off-limits and then work on your commonalities. Without a current life together, all that is left is your history.
  • It is important to understand that our parents became parents with their own wounds, beliefs and “baggage.” Some people are lucky and understand that before a parent dies; others have to learn that afterwards.
  • It is much easier to feel empathy, compassion, pity and sympathy when your parents’ shoes are empty and you now can walk in them.
  • What happens to us is influenced by the generations that have preceded us. The potential for change is found in our response to that influence.

In other words, once our parents are gone, we have the opportunity to become aware of the choices we have in structuring our own lives without fear of judgment or dismissal.

  • When our parents die, it is surprising to learn how much growing up we have ahead of us.
  • Be receptive to accepting, without guilt or regrets, the idea that this is the time for assessing the values you want to keep and what you want to discard. Anticipate that there will be much to learn about yourself. Welcome the opportunity for discovery of who you are without your parent(s).

There is a time to reap and a time to sow

A time to hold on and a time to let go.

By Sue Rowen, M.A., LMFT