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Parents' Death May Help Some Make Life Changes

March 26, 2009 07:30 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
After mourning the loss of their parents, some adult children make positive life changes, pursuing passions and interests with renewed vigor.

Parental Loss Could Be a Blessing in Disguise

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Losing a parent is undeniably a tragic event for many adult children. But when dealing with the death of their parents, many people 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.

In her book "Death Benefits," released last year, therapist Jeanne Safer explored this idea, 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." 

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Safer includes many of the positive benefits in her book, writing that no other event in life has such potential 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.

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

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