Susan Boyle Shows a Parent’s Death Can Lead to Positive Life Changes

April 16, 2009 09:42 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
Susan Boyle's stunning emergence as a star at age 47 shows how a parent's death can lead adult children to pursue passions and interests with renewed vigor.

Parental Loss Could Be a Blessing in Disguise

Losing a parent is undeniably a tragic event for children of any age. But when dealing with the death of their parents, many adults may reevaluate their priorities and put parental expectations behind them. Adult children may be inspired to lose weight, improve their health by seeking help for depression or anxiety, try new things and learn to make their own well-being a priority. 

The world witnessed a stunning example of this phenomenon this week in Susan Boyle. A 47-year-old woman from Scotland who cared for her widowed mother for ten years, Boyle, who had previously sung only in church or for friends, became an Internet celebrity after her stunning audition on reality show "Britain's Got Talent."

In her book "Death Benefits," released last year, therapist Jeanne Safer explored this concept, writing that, "The death of a parent—any parent—can set us free. It offers us our last, best chance to become our truest, deepest selves."

The Los Angeles Times reported on the release of her book, stating that, until recently, there has been little attention paid to the "adult experience of parental loss." 
Colette Douglas Home of Britain’s The Herald reports that Boyle lived her whole life with her parents and cared for her mother when her father died a decade ago.

Douglas home writes that “being a carer isn't a glamorous life. ... [e]ven those who start out with a beauty routine and an interest in clothes find themselves reverting to the practicality of a tracksuit and trainers. Fitness plans get interrupted and then abandoned. Weight creeps on.”

Regarding Boyle’s unremarkable physical appearance on the show, Douglas home called it “evidence of a life lived selflessly; of a person so focused on the needs of another that they have lost sight of themselves.”

And yet all those years,  Boyle's mother encouraged her to sing, and even suggested that she enter “Britain's Got Talent.” Boyle wasn’t able to muster the courage to do so until two years after her mother’s death.

Safer writes that the death of a parent has more potential than any other in life  to “help us become more fulfilled human beings—wiser, more mature, more open, less afraid.”
She cites the cases of those like Carolanne Seeger, a health-food store manager in Philadelphia, who said she felt the freedom to be herself after her parents died.

Seeger felt that her parents, who had a difficult marriage and not many friends, were overly dependent on her. “I didn't have the courage to go against them, so I didn't spread my wings and fly when others did,” she told CNN.

Author Debra Umberson, a sociology professor at The University of Texas at Austin, however, feels that adult parental loss can be more difficult than many realize; adult orphans have been ignored, she says, because parental loss is universal, “and therefore perceived as a normal process.”

In her 2003 book, "Death of a Parent: Transition to a New Adult Identity," Umberson says some adults may have a higher risk of depression and alcoholism, and neglect their health once they lose a parent. “Perhaps most striking is the remarkable change that adults experience in their sense of self,” she writes.

While she concentrated on the difficulty of adult parental loss, Umberson also found in her reasearch that some people did experience relief at the death of a parent. She said those experiences were most likely to occur in people who grew up with "an extremely critical parent."

The bottom line is that the loss of a parent can be a complex process for an adult, said Benyamin Cirlin, executive director at New York's Center for Loss and Renewal, in a July 2008 Healthline forum on the topic.

"The fact is, parents are supposed to predecease children. Because it's a natural loss ... many people sort of think that adults should just spend a few days grieving their parents and then get on with things, but there are lots and lots of adults who have a hard time moving on," he said.

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Reference: Coping with grief; “Death Benefits” by Jeanne Safer


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