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Parentless Parents: Being a Parent After the Death of Our Own Mom and Dad

Parentless Parents

In so many ways, having children—no matter how difficult raising them is without our parents—makes grief more manageable. What is it about being a parent that makes being parentless easier? I think there are a number of factors.

You Can See Your Parents in Your Children

When her mother died, Jayne Jaudon Ferrer says she’d just look at her sons and feel better. She’d get the same calming effect from spending time with her nephew. “My son, Jaron, has a dry wit that reminds me of my dad. My brother’s son walks exactly like my daddy did, and has his ears. It’s not the same as having a parent, but it’s like a piece of him is here. Here’s this configuration of DNA—it’s not in the same form—but at least [there’s] some tangible piece of that person there for you.”

Tarah Epstein Baiman feels the same type of warmth when she looks at her son, Jesse. “My husband and I are both dark. Jesse is fair-skinned with blue eyes, like my dad. When I look at Jesse, I see my dad and it’s an incredible comfort to me,” she says.

I’ve had to work hard at this kind of thinking. For much of their lives, when I looked at my kids Jake and Lexi, I sometimes saw only what was missing from mine. Jake has my dad’s redheaded complexion, and that resemblance made me sad. Slowly (and not altogether smoothly, I admit) I’ve been trying to change my way of thinking so that similarities that once brought me pain now bring me pleasure. For example, Jake is a social animal just like my mom. While some children drop their best friends from year to year, Jake keeps adding. The fact that Jake seems so much like my mom in this way makes me happy. And likewise, when Lexi paints, draws, or sculpts a house of clay, instead of thinking how sad it is that my dad’s not here to see his architectural talents passed on to his granddaughter, I now try to focus on how great it is she even has some of his abilities at all.

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You Can Share Stories with Your Children About Your Parents

Nearly 60 percent of all parentless parents say being able to share memories with their children makes them feel better about having lost their parents, including school secretary Cindi Hartmann in Michigan. “You know, your friends don’t want to hear that,” Cindi says. “Your neighbors and coworkers aren’t going to want to hear that. Only through the eyes of a child can you laugh at those things again and relive them a little bit.”

If your children knew your parents, as Cindi’s did, you may also feel comforted when your children proactively share their memories of your parents with you. “When they start the conversation, it makes me feel really good. I might be standing there and one of the kids will come in and say, ‘Hey, I was just remembering when we were at Nanny and Poppa’s house.’ Or ‘Poppa would have been on the golf course today, it’s such a beautiful day.’ My girls are just two more people who knew my parents intimately. I couldn’t imagine being parentless without them.”

Even though they never met her parents, Sandy Taradash says her children and grandchildren also make life without her parents easier. “A couple months ago,” Sandy told me enthusiastically over the phone, “I told my grandson a story, and one day, out of the blue, he looked at my daughter and completely repeated the story. I just wanted to laugh and cry all at the same time,” she said. “Because those stories will just keep going and going.”

You Can Experience the Holidays Through Your Children

Christine Haynes couldn’t bring herself to put up a Christmas tree when her daughters Ramsey and Jour’dan were infants. She didn’t spend much time decorating her house when they were toddlers either. The Maryland mother just couldn’t get into the holiday spirit, and when friends would ask why she didn’t put up a tree, she’d fire back that Santa Claus would come whether she bothered with a tree or not.

“Part of me just didn’t want to commit,” she explains. “I had a tree growing up and my mother would decorate it. It would be awesome and fabulous and it would take up the whole, entire apartment. I think part of me just didn’t want to celebrate.”

It wasn’t until the girls were seven and two that a Christmas tree finally went up in the Haynes household. And that December, for the first time in a long time, Christine felt as happy as a little girl who’d been reunited with a lost doll. Just seeing her daughters marvel at the lights eased some of her pain. “It took me out of the stew that I usually sit in and helped me focus on how happy they were. They were like, ‘Mama, it’s so pretty!’ I was actually so preoccupied with how excited they were I didn’t pay attention to the loss.”

And similarly for Judy Kalvin-Stiefel, the onetime bodybuilder turned public relations executive, there’s no doubt in her mind that the holidays are easier because she can share them with her daughter. “I enjoy it because I enjoy her. I enjoy making her happy and making our own traditions. I enjoy it,” she says finally, “for the sake of who we are now.”

You Can Redefine Family

When Richard Rivera, a dad from the Bronx, turned forty, his wife threw him a surprise birthday party. At one point during the celebration he pulled his daughter, Indi, aside, and while looking around the reception hall packed with his closest friends, he said, “Take a look around. All of these people love you. They’re all family.”

Richard had a fantastic time that night and says he felt blessed to have so many friends in the same room and the same time. Richard’s sense of peace, though, comes from how he’s redefined the word “family.” He believes you shouldn’t limit your definition of family to people related to you by blood. “I’ve lost both my parents, but we’ve kind of substituted them in. I have all these really good friends.” In fact, he’s always encouraged his daughter to call his dearest friends “Tio” and “Tia”—the words for aunt and uncle in Spanish. But that night of his surprise party, overcome by all the love he felt around him, Richard couldn’t resist telling her again.

Lynn Burkholder shares Richard’s flexible definition of family. She, too, looks to friends to make up for some of what she and her son have lost. “I guess for me, I’d rather seek out people my son can have relationships with here and now. It’s not that I don’t want him to know where he came from. I want him to understand his lineage. But because my parents died so long before I had Michael, I would rather focus on what’s available to him now.” And Christine Haynes found a surrogate grandmother for her daughters. Christine met Osha in church, and she’s now such a big part of her daughters’ lives they call her Grammie Osha. “If her real grandchildren are invited to something, she invites my girls,” Christine says. “She’s awesome. She just loves them.” It was Grammie Osha who pushed Christine the hardest to put up that Christmas tree.

You Can Find Hidden Blessings

And then there’s what Jayne Jaudon Ferrer managed to pull off in South Carolina. Jayne comes from a very large family—her mother had seven sisters and a brother and her father had seven brothers and a sister. And after Jayne’s mother died, she made it a point to get her sixty first and second cousins together. “We held reunions at her house for six or seven years. That was such a source of comfort because you could just feel her presence in the house. Most of the cousins have lost at least one parent, and when we’re all together in one house we can see and feel our parents in each other.” Jayne says these reunions would never have been meaningful to her if her parents were still alive. Of her cousins, aunts, and uncles she says, “They’re my hidden blessing.”

Surprisingly, my stepmother, Cheryl, has become my hidden blessing. She may live two hours away, but she babysits so often that she knows the location of Jake and Lexi’s every school activity, what they like for dinner, and where I keep their class lists. And it was Cheryl who jumped at the chance to help with the kids when I went to Mexico.

Jake and Lexi are so close to Cheryl that they argue about whose turn it is to go to “Grandma Camp.” Grandma Camp isn’t really “camp” at all—it’s just two or three days when Cheryl alternates bringing Jake and Lexi up to her house for some special one-on-one time. The highlight of Grandma Camp, by far, is the Hunt Club—a group Cheryl joined after Dad died. No hunting actually takes place—it’s really just a kennel that houses dozens of professionally cared for beagles and foxhounds, and you can’t help but smile when you visit. As soon as you enter, the dogs start yelping and bouncing up and down as if their hind legs are made of springs. On any given day, members take about thirty beagles out at a time for long, vigorous walks in the countryside. Most of the dogs aren’t on leashes, and they learn to obey verbal commands and stay together as a pack. The most obedient compete in shows up and down the East Coast.

The fact that Jake and Lexi go to Grandma Camp, or call Cheryl “Grandma” at all, is still somewhat unbelievable to me. If you had asked me how I felt about Cheryl when my mother was still alive, especially when she married my father, I would have told you I hated her. In my juvenile view, she was the only person responsible for my parents’ divorce and I vowed never to forgive her.

You Can Forge New Relationships

At first, Cheryl and I started becoming close out of necessity. She liked having grandchildren and I liked having the extra help. Jake and Lexi were the buffer that made being close easier. We also reached out to each other because we are both living connections to my father. She sees my dad in us, and she is one of the closest links to my father I can offer my children. And over time, dare I say it, I actually began to like Cheryl—even after the kids went to bed. My parents’ deaths freed me to like her. And now I love her.

Thanks to Cheryl, Jake and Lexi can hear stories about me when I was a child. She was there for most of it and remembers. And thanks to Cheryl, I have new words dancing around my brain, too. Instead of names for cancer drugs and surgical procedures, my vocabulary now includes the names of all those beagles. There’s Wyatt, Whiskey, Wombat, Wiggy, Winter, and Willow. And Yogi, Yukon, Yahtzee, Yingling, and Y’all. And, my favorite litter, the T’s: Tulip, Tender, Truffle, Tornado, Truman, Tilson, and Teapot. One afternoon when the puppies were jumping all over us and licking our faces, I asked Cheryl, “Do you think Dad would have been into the beagles?”

“Are you serious?!” she laughed, pulling her mouth away from Wombat’s face. “He would never have done this. He would have joined me once or twice, but he would have gotten bored. It wouldn’t have been his scene at all.”

You Can Be a Parent to Yourself

The most surprising relationship I’ve developed since my parents died, however, is the one I’ve cultivated with myself. For the longest time, just like Colleen Orme in Virginia, I wanted to be rescued. I wanted my friends to care for me more than they did, and I expected my husband Mark to anticipate my needs, even take my parents’ place. But he can’t. My friends aren’t my mom and Mark isn’t my dad and my parents are never going to fly back into my living room with their capes and magic rings and make everything better. What I’ve learned is that I can no longer go through life just being a mother, wife, writer, and homemaker. I need to take on one more additional role. I also need to be a parent to myself.

If Mark and I want to go out to dinner and see a movie, I stop feeling sorry for myself and call a babysitter. If I want to take the kids to an event my parents would have enjoyed but Mark has no interest in, I take Jake and Lexi and give Mark the afternoon off. And on Mother’s Day, I give myself permission to spend the day the way I want to. All of this represents a sea change in my thinking. I used to wake up Mother’s Day and hope Mark would surprise me with a gift certificate to get a massage or give me “permission” to skip Mother’s Day with his mom so I could take a class at the gym. I’d invariably get disappointed if he failed to read my mind, and start missing my parents even more. Surely they would have given Mark a friendly poke to treat his wife to a few hours of free time. Surely they would have coddled me the way I so desperately long to be coddled. But the truth is I don’t need to wait for anyone to treat me to anything. And I don’t think my parents would have wanted their daughter to rely solely on somebody else to take care of her needs, either. My parents, after all, taught me to be self-sufficient.

You Can Make Yourself a Priority

By putting my oxygen mask on first, I am able to be a less bitter daughter-in-law and a more patient and tolerant mother. I am able to embrace Mark’s parents and understand how lucky we all are to have them. It is a blessing, not a curse, to be surrounded by his family, and I am the only person to blame for the distance that once existed between us. I am the one who pitted my in-laws against the memory of my parents. I’m the one who made a contest of a situation that required no competition. Not feeling the need to keep score is freeing. Absence and presence can coexist.

This new outlook cuts down the friction between me and Mark and makes me a better wife. I can stay focused on the present, and my thoughts don’t always leap to the past. And when Mark and I cuddle in bed at night, I can be there with him, fully, in both body and mind.

You Can Gain Faith in Yourself

Over time, I’ve gained clarity in other areas as well. I had been so preoccupied with imagining what my parents would do and say at every turn that I all but forgot to have faith in myself. It wasn’t until I came across the book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children that I truly came to accept that my mom and dad would never have been able to answer all my parenting questions. Author Ann Hulbert traces the history of parenting advice in the United States and shows how each generation gets caught up in a particular brand of expert opinion. In the late 1890s and 1920s babies were put on unyielding feeding schedules and mothers were warned not to play with, cuddle, or kiss their children lest they become too soft. Contrast that to the modern orthodoxy of “on demand” nursing and how often today parents are accused of being overly involved and indulgent.

Understanding that parenting advice always changes has been liberating. My parents are irreplaceable in myriad profoundly important ways, but they wouldn’t have been omniscient. And because my mom wouldn’t have been able to advise me about nursing (like most babies in the early 1970s, I was bottle fed), Mark and I probably would have hired Susan Esserman, the doula, anyway. Jake and Lexi only have one set of parents. Not my mom and dad. And not my in-laws.

Mark and I are it.

Dr. Carrie Barron, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University’s Center for Psychoanalytic Training and Research, says this realization is significant because it means I am giving myself permission to be me — a grown woman separate from my parents. She calls this separation-individuation. “Losing your parents can launch you into a deep and strong sense of your independent self if you let it. It can be deeply liberating. By working through grief and facing the good and bad in our parents, we can take what worked and what we admired and reject what we found troubling. Think of the absence as a blank canvas upon which you get to parent the way you want to parent. You are not your parents, and you have to know that, and act on it, in order to be happy. If you know who you are, the possibilities for pleasure are endless.”

You Can Let Go of Jealousy

This awareness has also allowed me to manage the pangs of jealousy I still feel sometimes when I see other children with their grandparents. And interestingly in this regard, I think parentless parents can learn a lot from Alcoholics Anonymous. Fully recovered alcoholics aren’t bothered when people drink in front of them because their old cravings no longer cause them pain. Alcoholics Anonymous calls this being “in a position of neutrality.” Certainly AA knows a thing or two when it comes to dealing with longings, jealousy, and resentment. There’s a section of the Big Book, the basic text for Alcoholics Anonymous, first published in 1939, that I think is particularly germane to parentless parents who find themselves jealous of other people’s parents:

“Assuming we are spiritually fit, we can do all sorts of things alcoholics are not supposed to do. People have said we must not go where liquor is served; we must not have it in our homes; we must shun friends who drink; we must avoid moving pictures which show drinking scenes; we must not go into bars; our friends must hide their bottles if we go to their houses; we mustn’t think or be reminded about alcohol at all. Our experience shows that this is not necessarily so. We meet these conditions every day. An alcoholic who cannot meet them, still has an alcoholic mind; there is something the matter with his spiritual status.” Likewise, parentless parents can’t live in avoidance of other people’s parents.

So how do we get to this place, this “position of neutrality”? Is there a way to wipe away the jealousy we feel when we see our friends with their parents and our in-laws with our children? The answer is tucked away in the very first sentence I quoted from the Big Book. “Assuming we are spiritually fit . . .” Happiness builds immunity.

I am the only one who can drive through the fog and embrace what’s on the other side. My children. My husband. My in-laws.

My life.

Excerpted from Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children by Allison Gilbert. Copyright © 2011 by Allison Gilbert. Published by Hyperion, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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