When People Aren't Exceptions

adult orphan elisabeth kubler-ross grief midlife parents Apr 24, 2019

It seemed innocuous enough.

It was one of those internet articles shared in a Facebook group I’m in. The article focused on emotional changes that happen in your life when your parents are gone. Having buried both of my parents, I was interested in what the author had to say.

Some of it was just plain malarkey, like “You no longer feel like your accomplishments matter.” Yes, I miss being able to share accomplishments with my parents, especially my dad who was easily impressed.

 (As my mom declined I started taking meals to them more often. One night I brought roast beef and potatoes that I’d cooked in the Crockpot. My father said it was delicious and asked where I’d gotten it. I told him that I’d made it. “You know how to do that?” he asked, his voice full of wonder that I could accomplish such a thing.)

Even without my parents, though, I’m proud of what I do. I have friends and other family members with whom I celebrate. My accomplishments matter very much to me. Maybe even more than they used to when my parents were here.

Some of it was just said poorly, like “You break down a lot.” I’m not sure that’s a helpful perspective. Much better to say that grief catches us by surprise.

My mother and I used to have a ritual of visiting the day after Christmas sale of a local clothing store. She loved buying things for me and, well,  I loved having her buy things for me, so it worked out well. She died that February, so when Christmas rolled around I figured I could keep the tradition going. Having saved up my money all year, I went to the sale.

Over the course of the year the store had moved, so it was a different looking store in a different location. Still, as I walked in, the tears started rolling down my cheeks and I had to leave. Grief breaks through in unexpected times and places.

Here’s the biggest issue I had with the article. The writer made the huge (and unfounded) assumption that everyone had parents whom they would miss. “This is what you’ll feel,” he proclaims, and it’s just not true. Not for everyone.

Some people are relieved when a parent is gone because it means the emotional abuse and manipulation will end. Some people are glad because they no longer have to worry about their addicted parent trying to steal from them to support a habit. Some people are glad when a parent is gone because it means that their rapist is no longer walking this earth. Some people are sad, not because their parent is gone but because they never had the kind of loving parent every child ought to have.

Here’s why I was so bothered by this article. It makes one kind of experience (having had good parents) normative. It is assumed.

Why should I worry so much about the exception to the rule? One, because there are no rules. And two, no person deserves to be an exception. Every person’s experience is normative for them.

Part of the power of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ Life, Death and Transition workshops was that she created a space in which everyone’s experience could be heard, no matter what that experience was. That space could be powerfully transformative, as people moved from feeling like something was wrong with them (for feeling like they did) to realizing that their feelings were perfectly normal given the situations out of which they’d come.

One of the tasks of midlife can be saying goodbye to your parents. If that’s your task, know that your experience gets to be whatever it needs to be.

And you’re not the exception.