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Review of "Death of a Parent"

By Debra Umberson
Cambridge University Press, 2003
Review by Sundeep Nayak, M.D. on Sep 5th 2005
Death of a Parent

The old order suddenly changeth, yielding place to new as it must follow the night, the day. Pardon the mixed metaphor but a parent's death invokes within fears of our own mortality, often intercepting as it does our middle adulthood when our personal pre-morbid fears are already on the rise. Middle adulthood is a prolonged period where we obsess about generativity, a rabid concern to procreate and commit to the next generation before the genetic pool runs dry as there is obviously a very real fear that it might.

A parental loss event changes everything. Adults feel closer to their own children as the sense of grief and loss brings them together on common ground, not certainly but more likely so. Children are more prone to extend support and solace at these trying times that link generations, at least in the initial months following the loss event. However, there is more loss to follow. The bereaved feels palpable vulnerability: you worry more about your children and you are more concerned about how your partner and children will be affected by your own death. It alters forever your parenting strategies, perhaps for the better. Fragile spousal relationships almost never weather the stormy grieving process, a poorly understood mechanism variously attributed to the license for release of parent-induced obligation or insufficient unquestionable love from the partner to replace the parental.

Long-term problems in relationships with one parent often become more salient and disturbing in the wake of the other parent's death with the strange absence of awareness that the surviving parent too will inevitably die. These chronic issues however may also produce parental insensitivity to the child's pain and loss -- having to cope with a surviving parent who continues to despise the deceased spouse effortlessly and permanently alienates the adult child. Siblings may react dissimilarly to a loss event, tempered by individuality of relationship with the parent and the awkwardly distracting settlement of property that often follows. Inter-sibling discordance in processing both the grief experience and economic details contribute to further souring of relationships. Life experiences, temperaments and tempers view different siblings to view the same deceased parent in different hues: each view is visionary and unique.

The death of a parent is a wake-up call to confront the reality of mortality as the adult child joins the next generation in line for death. Step up to the line. This book will not help you deal with the grieving process -- no book possibly could -- but articulates it pretty well. The strongest advice the book gives is to those who want to help the bereaved by suggesting: don't give advice, listen, and acknowledge the loss. Specifically, do not tell people how they should feel or how to grieve. It is presumptuous and upsetting.



Read more in:


q       Harris M: The Loss that is Forever -- The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father. 368 pp. Plume Books. September 1996

q       Levy A: The Orphaned Adult -- Understand and Coping with Grief and Change after the Death of Our Parents. 208 pp. Perseus Publishing. October 2000

q       Marshall F: Losing a Parent -- Practical Help for You and Other Family Members. 166 pp. Perseus Publishing. January 2000

q       Midlife Orphan: Facing Life's Changes Now That Your Parents Are Gone. 240 pp. Berkley Publishing Group. April 1999

q       Myers: When Parents Die -- A Guide for Adults. 256 pp. Penguin Books. March 1997

q       Schuurman D: Never the Same -- Coming to Terms with the Death of a Parent. 256 pp. St Martin's Griffin. July 2004

q       Secunda V: Losing Your Parents, Finding Yourself. 330 pp. Hyperion. April 2001


© 2005 Sundeep Nayak


Dr. Nayak is an Associate Professor of Clinical Radiology in the University of California School of Medicine San Francisco and his interests include mental health, medical ethics, and gender studies. A voracious reader and intrepid epicure, he enjoys his keyboards too much. He has been trying to understand the mechanism of grief for far too long.

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