Again I apologize for not getting to comments yet. Life intervenes. I also want to be clear (because I haven’t read the comments for a while) that this post is not in response to anything in particular on the blog. It’s just some thougths I’ve had rattling around.
Recently I learned that the mother of a friend had died. She was not young and neither is he (the friend, I mean.) This isn’t a tragic death of a parent snatched from a young child’s life. But still, it is the loss of a parent–something I too have experienced–and it makes me think.
Both of my parents died after I was 45, long after I had left home, after I had become a parent myself. Still, finding myself an orphan was surprisingly important to me. But probably I shouldn’t have been surprised. I think it is quite common for adults to find the death of the last parent an important milestone.
So I think about what that loss is. It isn’t about immediate care and comfort–or wasn’t for me. As I say, I was long out of the house and into the details of providing care and comfort for my own children. I didn’t talk to my parents every day or even every week. I didn’t share all the details of my life with them and I didn’t look to them for guidance with any frequency. So what did I lose that mattered so much?
If felt to me (and I still think about it this way) that what I lost was some part of the truth about my childhood. I have such partial memories of childhood–snatches of a birthday party here or a vacation there. I have odd photos of groups of people in what I know to be our backyard. But I don’t really have the story. I’m struck by this because I can see that I hold the narrative threads for my own children’s childhood. They are in the same position vis-a-vis their own childhood’s–they remember a birthday party held at a particular place, but just barely.
I didn’t spend a lot of time during my parents’ lifetimes asking them about that vacation we took when I was 8 or spending Passover with the extended family for several years running. And suddenly when they died I realized that all that was lost forever. No one else was there and no one else can fill in the blanks for me now. It’s all gone–irretrievably gone. (I’m an only child–but I wonder if the memories of a sibling who was also a child would be the same anyway.) This is really the loss I feel most deeply–the loss of my own past.
Of course I cannot speak for everyone. I’ve had conversations about this with a few friends, and they too feel this loss, but whose to say it’s not an idiosyncratic sample?
But of course what strikes me here (as I tie all this to the blog) is that the critical loss here is the loss of the people who were there–the people who raised me, who organized the birthday parties and the vacations. And I don’t see that it matters at all whether they were genetically related to me or not.
What’s striking to me is that the loss I experienced here–the loss of my parents–is entirely about the loss of the functional, hands-on caretaking parents. Maybe this experience is unusual, but somehow I don’t think so. I think there is something unique and extraordinary about taking on the role of social/psychological parent–no matter how you come by that role–and I think we need to honor it, value it, and ultimately mourn the loss of the people who did it for us.
(Just to be clear, I don’t mean to say here that there isn’t value to the genetic connection people feel. That’s a different question I’m not addressing here.)