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This week, I saw the brilliant new play on Broadway by Tracy Letts, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of August: Osage County. The play is called The Minutes, and the opening lines, indeed much of the entire plot, turn on the death of the main character’s mother.
I shouldn't have been surprised. I’m in what I’ve been calling The Season of Dying Parents.
It may be because I lost my own father last fall. Or my age. Or that there’s a pandemic going on, or a war. Or that every week brings yet another heartfelt Facebook post about the beautiful life and lasting legacy of another of my friend’s parents. I love reading these posts even more than obituaries of famous people because they’re a reminder that even the most unheralded of lives have great drama and impact.
But when I speak with these friends in person, another, less commonly discussed theme emerges: the loss of the parent rearranges the dynamic among the adult children. The particulars change—The death brought up old tensions! The death brought us closer! The death brought out some secrets! – but the theme is always the same.
Our relationship has changed.
The impact of losing a parent on adult children is not a topic that’s been robustly researched, but it’s not been ignored, either. Geoffrey Greif and Michael Woolley of the University of Maryland make the point that given the typical human life span, a sibling relationship is likely to be the longest relationship in most people’s lives. The death of a parent often jostles that relationship because a central focal point has been lost. “Regardless of siblings’ relationships, the experience of the dying process and subsequent death of a parent can reverberate through the sibling system, causing siblings to reexamine their relationship with each other.”
In essence, the rules of the family get rewritten.
Dmitry Khodyakov of the Rand Corporation and Deborah Carr of Rutgers point out that the death of a parent is often distressing to adult siblings because it removes “one of the most enduring and emotionally significant bonds that individuals maintain over the life course.” Two of the biggest impacts: 1) The death forces the surviving children to confront their own mortality and reconsider their position in the family; and 2) If the parent dies after a lengthy illness, the adult siblings have likely taken on different roles in that care, which often produces resentments, strains, and sometimes expectations for compensation.
Bonne Lashewicz of the University of Calgary and Norah Keating of the University of Alberta and Swansea find some good news in how children approach their aging parents: Most adult siblings feel a sense of shared “ownership” over the care of their parents. “The terms filial obligation and filial responsibility have been used to describe a combination of love, duty and the desire to reciprocate for their upbringing on the part of adult children.” Also, older parents are less likely to expect equal filial responsibility. “Parents have different expectations for care from adult children who are not employed, who do not have children of their own, and from sons compared to daughters.”
But the authors find worrying news, too: Sibling expectations for sharing care responsibilities do not necessarily translate into reality. Factors such as personality, gender, and proximity to the care recipient, affect how much children contribute. Also, women “are more likely than men to provide care to their aging parents and to coordinate care among siblings.”
So how can adult children avoid these pitfalls? Here, based on research, are four tips:
1. Acknowledge the Pitfalls
People might expect that a common family loss might compel family members to support one another, but that’s not true at all. People grieve differently, on different timetables, focusing on different aspects of the death. Acknowledging and encouraging those differences is key.
As Greif and Woolley point out, educating adult children both before and after the loss of a parent about what potentially lies ahead for their sibling relationships should be part of the grieving process. The more you “normalize the feelings that siblings encounter,” the more you reduce the chances that those feelings will explode into a larger rift.
2. Make Sure You Have Advance Directives
More than two-thirds of older adults today die of long-term illnesses, from cancer to congestive heart failure to Alzheimer’s. Khodyakov and Carr found that when terminally ill older adults have not made their care preferences known, conflicts are more likely to erupt among their children.
Adult children are also often called on to convey a dying parent’s wishes to their health care providers, especially when the parent is widowed. “A child’s successful performance as a parent’s health care advocate may be facilitated when the parent has an advance directive.” Such directives include treatment preferences, living wills, and guidance on burial versus cremation.
3. Give Everyone a Clearly Defined Role.
Lashewicz and Keating make the unexpected point that larger families don’t necessarily have an advantage over smaller families because there’s a greater need for coordination and thus a greater opportunity for tensions. Larger groups may be more susceptible to within-group alliances such as ‘‘two against one’’ or “sisters against brothers.”
“Compared with one-on-one disagreements, disagreements between ‘‘camps’’ that lead to groupings of siblings working in opposition to each other, will likely be more complex and difficult to resolve.”
The best way to avoid these problems: Whether it’s caretaking or funeral planning or estate management, assign each sibling a specific role that plays to their strength and gives them agency over one aspect of the process.
4. Lay to Rest Past Tensions
There is some hopeful data in the research. Lynn White of the University of Nebraska and Agnes Riedmann of Creighton University report that some siblings do grow closer following the death of a parent because the parent was often the chief source of tension among the siblings. Mom is not here to like you better anymore, so we can finally realize that we actually like each other equally!
Also, the later a parent dies, the less tension that death tends to generate among the children. By then, the parent’s passing is more anticipated, the adult siblings have had longer to prepare, and the entire experience produces what Khodyakov and Carr call “less intense psychological distress.”
And that may be the best news of all: After all, the Season of Dying Parents may be long, but the Season of Surviving Siblings will be longer.
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