Unless there has been terrible abuse, no child wants his or her parents to die. It is a huge loss at any age…but parents also cast a big shadow for most children. Whether estranged, disengaged, or deeply loving, they set expectations, render judgements, impose their opinions, interfere, and are generally a looming presence even for adult children. This can be wonderful. It can be annoying. It can be destructive. But it is inescapable as long as the parent is alive.
-Ezekiel Emanuel

In his highly controversial article Why I Hope to Die at 75, Ezekiel Emmanuel writes not only of the wish to avoid a long, protracted death, but also the desire to allow his children time to fully bloom into their own lives while they still have good years left themselves. When our parents are alive, our relationship with them can define our view of ourselves and how we fit into the world, even if we are estranged. Parents' choices, and actions, can still deeply impact us, even as we function as independent adults in the working world and in our own families we have created through marriage or friendship. As long as our parents are alive, we will, in some ways, live in their shadow. But when they die, we have a chance to truly author our own lives, to take the reins and rewrite our own personal narratives.

Anticipatory Grief

Losing a parent is a deeply sad experience. No matter the nature of our relationship with them, they brought us into the world and gave us life. We exist because of them. For many of us, as we witness our friends’ parents dying, we may become more and more uncertain of how we will navigate this huge life event for ourselves. Whatever our relationship with our parents, we consciously and unconsciously know their death will be life changing. As our parents age, anxiety about how their decline and death will play out may build. For some, a diagnosis of terminal illness may actually come as a relief. Jennifer told me “I loved my father so much, but in some ways his cancer diagnosis gave me a road map to our last years together. I had been anticipating his death more and more as he (and I got older), and at least with the diagnosis I had a sense of how things might play out, the time left, and what I could do to be most helpful.” What had been an undefined, looming event became clearer, and, although tragic, moving from an unknown to a known trajectory made his last years feel a bit more manageable.

Are You an Orphan?

In his book The Orphaned Adult, Alexander Levy writes “Being someone’s child is such an important fact, from the very beginning of our lives, that it is the basis of our most identifying characteristic – our names. Each time we introduce ourselves, without even being aware of it, we say “I am someone’s child.” He goes on to say that after his parents’ deaths, “I no longer “belonged” to anyone in the unique way that a child forever belongs to his or her parents…In adulthood, parents are like the rear view mirror of a car, making it safe to operate, as we head into the unknown, by providing a glimpse of where and who we have been so we can better understand where and who we are becoming…When parents die, the experience is not as much like no longer finding a mirror in its accustomed location as it is like looking into the mirror and seeing nothing. How is one to navigate with the unknown ahead and nothing behind?“

If we had a happy, or even somewhat happy childhood, we will have memories of parental love that buffer us even later in life, helping us to feel validated and accepted. If we had an unhappy childhood, it is likely that those memories and feelings continue to be close to the surface even as we have created new lives and found love and affirmation elsewhere. But when a parent dies, those ties, both good and bad, will die to a certain extent as well. Without a supportive parent to connect with, we may feel alone and scared, even if we are well supported in other areas. The death of a parent with whom we had a fraught relationship means the end of the possibilities– even if they are remote – of reconciliation and connecting with unconditional parental love. We are on our own, left to cope with the old feelings and figure out how we will move forward into a new future.

A Chance to Rewrite the Narrative

Within all the sadness and potential regret, there is an opportunity to retell ourselves the story of our lives. Our parents can’t make choices that affect us any longer. The circumstances of their lives will not factor into how we spend our days, time with our families, or moods. In a certain way, at the point when our parents die, a new life begins, one in which we have more autonomy than ever before. We can take control of the narrative.

Moving Forward

When my parents died, I realized that it was possible for me to celebrate the love and good experiences of my childhood, and intentionally decide to let go of the conflicts and disappointments. I could rewrite my own story and see my parents in a more objective light, deciding which experiences to keep and which to let go of. In this powerful position, we can offer forgiveness to our parents if we want to, knowing that the forgiveness will be on our own terms. Having this freedom ultimately enabled me to feel more connected to my parents, rather than less.

Parent loss is a seminal event that will likely change the trajectory of the rest of our lives. It is extremely complex, no matter how loving our relationships were. It can be a new beginning for us, one that may feel frightening and will certainly be discombobulating, but can also be tremendously freeing. Acknowledging the many different emotions that will arise – fear, sadness, anger, regret – and looking towards the future as a new beginning takes courage, but can ultimately render us more whole and integrated than we were before.