On Losing A Parent

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.)




7 responses to “On Losing A Parent

  1. Julie – what struck me in your words is that you didn’t say anything about your grandparents or any of that – as if your family started with your mom and dad (perhaps the curse of the nuclear family evolution). Perhaps that is a distinct difference in perspective than I was raised with. Stories of the ancestors – were just as important as stories of those present – and those stories created a clear and uncompromising evidence that who you are – is handed down generation upon generation. All four of my family trees show me that. What comes from nurture can be seen in the generations past in mom and dads trees – what comes from genetics can be seen in my mother and fathers trees. Feeling the loss more deeply in my mother and fathers trees because I don’t have the ancestors stories to make it more rich. I am ensuring the stories I know – are included in the family trees so it isn’t simply names and dates but who they were.

    • I have been thinking about this–and as you suggest, the experience I describe is partly an artifact of the isolated nuclear family. But there is, as I think you also suggest, more to it than that.

      Three of my four grandparents died before I was born. My mother never really knew her own mother who had died when my mother was 8. I never actually wondered at all about that (and it doesn’t seem that my own mother did), though now I’d kind of like to know. My father’s ancestry was more important to him–and he knew a little about it. But they came from eastern europe in the late 19th/early 20th century and there was really no way to trace anything back beyone that point–and not much desire to do so, either. Again–I’ve come to that myself more recently, and only to a moderate degree. All of which is to say that perhaps my parents didn’t raise me to place a great deal of value on the ancestor stories.

      That’s a bit of an overstatement–there was a lot about aunts and uncles, many of whom I actually knew as they were living for at least part of my life. And they had been directly important people to my parents–so it wasn’t really exactly like an ancestor story–it was more the story of my own parents’ childhoods.

      There’s also nothing in what you describe that in inconsistent with the point I wanted to make–and this is actually why I added the caveat at the end about not meaning to suggest that there’s no value to the genetic link.) There’s no zero-sum game here (though there may be in legal recognition of parenthood for a variety of reasons.) I just wanted to note the unique and irreplacable role of the people who are there on the spot, without regard for how they got to be there.

      • This is the very best group of paragraphs you ever wrote to me because the people who raise a person do matter so much and it makes no difference whether they are related to the child or not being there is going to shape their whole understanding of the world. You know how much longer a year takes when you are a child right? The people that were around when you were growing up are like double important because everything takes twice as long and when the people you grew up around are gone everything seems less real. When ever someone dies that is the only other person who experienced something with you its like that experience itself is dying too, you are the last person to remember it so it is almost like it never happened. I very much see what you are talking about and the irrelevance of genetic relationship when it comes to this.
        But I thought you said that this is not to say that there is no importance to genetic parenthood and there might be for legal parenthood for a variety of reasons….but you did not say that I just re-read it. Had you said that then I would have felt like you finally got it that I have been trying to say all this time. That it is important that genetic parents at least be recorded as parents and at least be obligated to raise their children for the ethics and fairness factor of it so that anyone who winds up raising another person’s child arrives at that position with that authority in an unquestionably ethical way. Those memories of childhood with the person are then not adulterated by thoughts that the person only had those experiences with the person as a child because they orchestrated an abandonment by the person’s bio parent, desiring to break up the person’s bio family in order to get to raise them as a parent figure. But that is not what you were saying.
        So I do put a lot of stock in lived experiences. Would you be sad to think that your children were genetic parents to children they were not raising? Like if they did not behave as daily parents to their offspring, say if they gave their offspring as gifts to strangers, would you not mind, not miss them, not think of your grandchildren out there being raised by who knows who? Would you only care about your grandchildren if they cared about them? Is that what makes a child important to a family? Is that what makes them kin? Would you feel like your family had lost important people or would they be unimportant to you if other people were raising them as their parents? If God forbid you lost your child and 20 years later got a call from a child you did not know they’d had, and they called you grandma and wanted to know all about their father or mother, would that be odd to you? Would they feel like a stranger or would you feel connected to them?

  2. It is exactly like you said. All the things I should have let him teach me how to do while paying full attention. You got me crying at my desk at work

  3. very moving post julie
    i agree with you that we should never downgrade the importance of just raising us. however it is also said that we can not miss something we have not lost

  4. I remember my grandmother wishing she could ask her mother about family stories. Her loss, years after the fact, was palpable. In my 50’s I had the very rich privilege of midwifing the deaths of both parents and my greatest unexpected loss was my anchor. I had to drift randomly for awhile before finding some sturdy bedrock for my own anchor.

  5. Celia Bodaness Broomhall

    I completely agree with you. I still think of our Passover gatherings, and the Seders & Hanukkah parties, and everything in between. I miss Eva & Dave immensly, thinking about them every day. I still want to call Da to tell him stuff, and then remember I can’t. I miss them & our family so much! I wish we were all closer & could do it all over again with our kids.
    And yes, it sucks to be an only child. The only thing worse for me is being adopted I will always have a “black hole” in my life I can not find the answers to. I have tried numerous times, can’t find any more info than I already have which is just a name & paperwork.

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