The Last Goodbye: When both parents die, middle-aged children must adjust to a new stage of life in which they become adult orphans

By Lise Funderburg


A few weeks ago, Janet Pincus’ father died. She had looked after him for 15 years, ever since her mother passed away. Pincus, now 54, had helped him through heart attacks, a pituitary tumor and gallbladder surgery. Two days before he died, he drifted into consciousness long enough to open his arms to his daughter, rock her in them and make one request. “Just stay with me,” he said. That was their last conversation. Since his death, Pincus has tried to keep occupied. In the quiet hours, after a day spent teaching kindergarten and before her husband gets home, she sinks into deep sorrow and longing. “It’s a hole, and it doesn’t go away,” she says. “I never thought about being orphaned until my rabbi said it.”
What could be more natural — or inevitable — than death, especially when it comes at the end of a long, full life? How simple a trajectory that is, and yet the death of older parents often blindsides their children, no matter how much time they have had to prepare. “It takes a lot of adults by surprise,” says Patty Donovan Duff, a registered nurse at the Bereavement Center of Westchester in Tuckahoe, N.Y. “Our society says, ‘Your mother had a very good life; she was 70 years old.’ Yes, but you’ve lost your mother.”
As baby boomers travel through middle age, many will become parentless within this decade. Already, a quarter of 50-year-olds have lost their mothers, and half have lost their fathers. In a society that continues to shy away from speaking openly about death, it appears this group may not be any better prepared than previous generations for what experts say is a profound, life-changing experience.
When parents are gone, so are the prime archivists of your life. “My father watched my first steps,” says psychologist Alexander Levy, author of The Orphaned Adult: Understanding and Coping with Grief and Change After the Death of Our Parents. “He paced the floor the first time I took the car out at night.” The role parents play is beyond measure — and even reason. “Even people who’ve murdered a parent go through this debilitating and confusing kind of loss,” says Levy, who has observed interviews with young killers.
Philadelphia writer Jane Brooks felt terribly isolated when she lost her father in her mid-40s and, not long after, her mother. “In 16 months I went from being a daughter to being an orphan,” says Brooks, now 54. “I was just shattered.” Not only had she lost her last guardian of childhood memories, but she also suddenly felt childlike and needy, with no one to go to for help. “I was a single, working mom, and this was not a feeling I was proud of or wanted to share,” she remembers. As she interviewed others who had lost parents for her book, Midlife Orphan: Facing Life’s Changes Now That Your Parents Are Gone, Brooks realized that she was not alone in her conflicted feelings.
Inheritance, for instance, is often steeped in deep ambivalence. “Overnight you inherit what took your parents a lifetime to accumulate,” Brooks says. “It’s uncomfortable and bittersweet.” Her inheritance helped her financially but also came with strings attached — albeit self-imposed. “My mother was extremely frugal,” says Brooks, “so sometimes when I spend money, I think she would be horrified.”
Settling estates can also stir up family feuds. “The distribution of the parental estate becomes the last statement of who Mom and Dad loved best,” says psychologist Levy. “And it can be manifested in the most ridiculous objects: some spatula, perhaps — but it’s the one Mom cooked pancakes with every Sunday morning.”
Heirlooms, though, can also realign the remaining family. “In some cases, siblings rearrange the hierarchy of the family around the object,” says Levy. “Whoever got the dining room set becomes the host for family dinners.” Whether dinners or other family rituals will carry on, though, is up to the surviving children. “I think my parents were the mortar between the bricks as far as the family goes,” says Paul Kane, 39. Seven years ago, he and his three siblings lost both parents within six months of each other. “After they died, we, as individuals, had to make more effort to get together,” he explains. “There wasn’t that scaffolding anymore, that structure within the family that had given direction to things for 40, 50 years.”
Generally, how siblings relate before the death of their parents is how they will afterward, according to Duane Bowers, interim executive director of the William Wendt Center for Loss and Healing in Washington. The death of parents simply reinforces existing patterns.
That has been the case for Thomas Lynch, who has buried many of his Milford, Mich., neighbors as well as his mother and father. Lynch’s 30 years of working at the family-owned Lynch & Sons Funeral Directors is the underpinning of his recent book of essays, Bodies in Motion and at Rest: On Metaphor and Mortality. Lynch says his parents’ efforts to instill a sense of family loyalty paid off, and the complicated task of settling the estate among nine siblings (“And the IRS was like 3-1/2 brothers more,” jokes Lynch) proceeded with mutual trust and respect. His siblings also turned to one another for solace. “There is a sense that we are orphaned, but we are not alone,” he says. “My brothers and sisters are the only people in the world who know how it feels to be bereft of these parents.”
Amid the sorrow, Lynch says, were unexpected gifts. “We had to make room for the rituals, ceremonies and liturgies that my parents were always responsible for.” In the process, he saw his siblings in a fresh, more adult light, and he even rediscovered his parents. “When I look, for instance, at my sister,” he says, “I see my mother’s wisdom, sensibility, faith and her great tolerance for the imperfections in others. ”
Such losses often bring new opportunities for reassessing one’s life. “Even in midlife people still defer to their living parents,” says the Bereavement Center’s Duff. “There’s freedom to explore without parental approval how one votes, careers, the expression of sexual preference, marriage, religion,” adds Levy. There is also, for many of the grieving children, a heightened sense of mortality and of being fully — and solely — responsible for one’s life.
Profound re-evaluations are not unusual, says Ken Doka, a professor of gerontology at the College of New Rochelle in New York and an ordained Lutheran minister. For adults, their older parents’ deaths dovetail with a life stage in which the children are already noticing the physical signs of aging. Mid-life introspection, Doka says, “is like a Janus mask, with two faces looking opposite ways: ‘I’ve lived this much, and now I have this much more to live.'”
The swirl of emotions that stem from losing both parents is typically negotiated through a tremendous channel of grief, which friends and family — even the adult orphans themselves — sometimes greet with limited tolerance. “This is a quick-fix society,” says John DeBerry, bereavement coordinator for the Palliative Care and Home Hospice Program at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “Society says keep busy and you’ll feel better.”
When Anne Reid’s mother died in August, her siblings joined her at the family apple farm in Virginia to help with the funeral arrangements. Afterward, everyone headed straight back to work. “My brother’s a college professor, my sister’s a schoolteacher, and I had to process the apples,” says Reid, 62.
Ira Byock, a palliative-care physician in Missoula, Mont., and author of Dying Well: The Prospect for Growth at the End of Life, says intolerance is institutionalized. “What are most leave policies for loss of a parent?” he asks. “Three days? In the workplace, people expect you to grieve for a week and then get on with it.” DeBerry says too many people think grief is something to move past. “Grieving comes and goes just like the waves in the ocean,” he explains. “Do we ever get over missing someone we love? The goal is not to get over it or recover from it but to reconcile to it.”
For the last 18 months of her life, Henry Roy’s mother lived with Roy in Philadelphia. They were in and out of hospitals frequently, and he says he put his emotions on hold in order to care for her. When she died in February, he went on autopilot, arranging her funeral and cleaning out her St. Louis, Mo., apartment. “I still feel like I haven’t addressed it,” says Roy, 47, of her death. It took him six months to clear out the bedroom he’d made for her, and he has yet to go through the belongings that fill his third floor. “I keep saying that I will,” he says, “but those are her things; I don’t feel like I have the right.” Toward the end, when his mother needed to gain weight but had little appetite, fast food was Roy’s best chance at getting her to eat. Passing a Burger King now can reduce him to tears.
What would ameliorate grief, Byock suggests, is if, given the chance, we all faced impending deaths more directly. Byock has found that one stunningly simple conversation has helped people tremendously. “To complete relationships,” he says, “people have to say these five things: ‘Forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you. And goodbye.'”
Though much of loss is anchored in the past, some people who lose their parents lament a future they will never share. Stuart Chapin’s father died when he was 25, his mother five years later. Chapin, now 40, considers what their relationship might have grown into had they lived until he’d passed his 20s, which were so consumed by a desire for independence. “I, like my parents, have sat up with a sick child. I, like my parents, have juggled mortgage payments. You receive when you are young. . Now you are in a position to share the experience of being an adult, and there is no one to share it with.”
Yet what Chapin regrets more than the end of his relationship to his parents is that his son will never know them as grandparents. “He’s now three years old and missing out on the experience of aging,” says Chapin. “I remember touching my grandmother’s face — the papery skin, the strangeness and yet beauty of that. My parents will only be a story to him,” he says. “I will tell the story with as much love and art as I can, but he won’t be able to create his own story.”

— With reporting by Deborah Edler Brown/Los Angeles and Polly Forster/Washington