About 20 years after our last meeting, I shared brunch with a girlfriend of my college years. We were then in our early 40s.
Her Chicago mom died a year before, and I offered some memories I had of her late parent. Janet’s eyes moistened, and she said, “No one knows mum anymore.“
She told me that after her move to the East Coast in her early 20s, she’d lost touch with the friends of her youth who were familiar with her family. Now, no one but Jan’s husband and her sister shared the recall of her folks, and the spouse was no fan.
As a result, something was missing beyond the woman’s presence. Once someone departs, they still occupy a living memory space that continues so long as any “rememberers” live. The unreality, loneliness, and despair attached to the misfortune are magnified when few witnesses remain.
That nonphysical library of recollection houses stories, funny and sad, and knowledge of the good and bad — a repository of the essential players and their experiences in the place and time they were all alive.
While sharing memory space with sisters and brothers may mitigate the hardship, it tends not to erase it. The demise causes an unpredictable number of potential changes. Few adult children see this coming.
They’ve known mortality was inevitable, but the suddenly silenced voice creates new realities unless a prolonged illness happens first.
Here are a few possible transformations involving relationships among the offspring.
1. We do not all respond identically to the death of a loved one. Some are stoic, some overwhelmed, others relieved. For example, adult children who did not resolve differences with the deceased may wish they had spoken earlier or made one last effort.
2. Differing reactions to the passing can cause siblings to think a brother or sister is making too much of the event. Or exposes less pain than is proper.
3. Sibs can also become closer in their mutual sadness and the process of offering and receiving comfort. In the most benign of circumstances, they show kindness and convey the sense that death demands the best of them because life and their loving attachments are all they have.
Recognition of the shortness of life and the significance of setting aside grudges can bond these witnesses to the life just gone by.
4. Some offspring recognize the importance of sustaining the memory of the departed one. Shared recollections and family jokes form a portion of their inheritance, an automatic bequest to survivors. Efforts to preserve that legacy might gain energy.
5. For those who share the extremity of the loss, reliance on the other for support presents a challenge. Imagine two swimmers beside each other, both sinking. Moreover, dealing with the details of funerals, memorials, unpaid bills, and managing the estate and the division of property tends to take precedence.
Attention to such practical and legalistic considerations holds the potential to disappoint those who interpret a sibling’s soldier-like necessity as a disrespectful lack of emotion. Alternatively, those who feel at sea can experience gratitude toward an individual who relieves them of a piece of the dark weight pulling them down.
Siblings process their internal complexities at different speeds. Anger and denial present themselves dramatically. Devastation creates slowed motion — the sense of walking as if in a fog, out of touch and forgotten by the rest of the world
All this carries surprise. Some who were weak might discover strength. Sibs who lived a life of authority may be bowled over by the tragedy.
6. There is still more to the family’s cleanup, reassembly, and repair than tasks uncompleted by a late parent. Caretaking if the senior was already in decline should be included in any accounting.
The challenge is more formidable if animosity between siblings exists concerning “who didn’t do his part” in taking on oversight of the failing sire.
No less is the resentment carried if they consider themselves a child disfavored by either a parent or a sib.
Feelings emerge about an unpaid indebtedness owed by those who did little or nothing for the folks, including phone calls or visits. Of course, whether and how much gratitude is due resides in “the eye of the beholder.“
The extent of those unfairnesses and the need for acknowledgment, thanks, and compensation depend on one’s perspective. If one of the folks survives, this further complicates what must be done to sustain the widow or widower.
7. Inequity of a different kind occurs if one of the parties removes heirlooms or other material things such as jewelry, paintings, and objects of unique meaning. Conflicts arise when verbal promises or understandings of “who gets what” haven’t been put in writing, were changed or ignored after wills were written.
8. A respected and respectful family head, often by his presence alone, enables civility in his children’s actions and reactions toward each other during his lifetime. Once departed, old differences between his offspring may erupt, and more recent ones emerge. In a sense, the authority figure kept everyone in line.
9. Multiple possibilities exist for the “afterlife” of the brood.
For example, if the parent set one child against another, his absence as an instigator of bitterness gives the siblings room to reduce or repair past difficulties.
Another possibility includes drifting apart from the family of origin. When the elder functioned like glue holding his descendants together, it is common for the sticky substance to disappear along with his life.
The physical distance between the adult children creates little chance for complete involvement of everyone in all the details of putting an earthly life to rest. Moreover, shared mourning must surmount one more hurdle when family members soon need to return to faraway locations and their lives and responsibilities elsewhere.
Similarly, focusing on the next generation and living in-laws can loosen the bonds between brother and sister. Sibs now have one less reason to get together on holidays.
10. Imagine a group with leaders and followers, funny and serious members, optimists and pessimists. Include whatever other characteristics you have noted within family groups. The removal of one such person might provide an open space, a type of vacuum in the form of an empty slot to be filled.
Think of what follows as an attempted corporate takeover, either a happy enhancement of the family’s togetherness or a ruthless change of ownership. Relationships and alliances shift and reshape themselves while adjusting to the recent vacancy.
If not well managed, a kind of game of musical chairs can make one or another feel left out or disadvantaged by the loss of status and influence.
11. Finally, the departure of a parent marks an end, not only of his literal availability but of a continued sense of him as a guiding, almost eternal protector and comforter.
When soldiers sustain severe wounds on the battlefield, it is common to hear them calling for “mother.” This unconscious notion of one’s progenitor as a stabilizing life force takes on godlike qualities beginning in childhood — the ability to assuage injuries and heal them with a kiss or a hug.
Obviously, if mom or dad died at a point after aging rendered them unable to occupy such a role, the disappearance of this security needn’t be so disturbing. Yet our perception of those we have depended on from the start doesn’t always agree with their aged capacities.
We carry the psychological desire for a devoted and unconditionally loving caretaker who supports us throughout our lives. Ideally, the parent figure has our back, cheers us on, and will “be there” when the chips are down.
Instead, the new reality tells us we must bolster our own confidence and take on the world with less help, a lonelier task now than before. It also informs us of our place next in line, moving toward the end of things.
If the upbringing we received is adequate and our will strong enough, we will grow into the job mom and dad held, providing reliance and a model for our own children.
Meanwhile, the connections among siblings can be thrown into the air like a deck of cards. The rearrangement can be painful, disorienting, or beneficial.
Much depends on what they do with it.
How do I know? Apart from my experience working with families, I also came from one that needed some work, as most do. I have two stalwart brothers, and we try hard to show respect and affection, sharing memories along the way. Our parents continue to “live” in the hearts they left behind.
I consider my fellowship and love for Ed and Jack a responsibility, a necessity, and one of the most important things I’ve ever participated in, not simply for them but for myself.
The Stein family of my generation is not finished yet.
Of that, I think Milton and Jeanette Stein would be pleased.
The top photo is The Gribith Brothers and Sisters by Misterbowls. It is followed by Cold Sunset in Wyoming, 2022 by Laura Hedien. Next comes Brother and Sister, 1974, the work of Phongpaseuth.
The oldest photograph is a portrait by Berget of Andrew Winberg with Brothers and Sisters in Warren, Minnesota, around 1903, now housed at the University of Washington. Finally, a late 1959 picture of my family of origin. Jack, myself, and Eddie from left to right. Behind us, Dad and Mom — Milton and Jeanette Stein.
All of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons with the exception of the Stein family and Laura Hedien’s wonderful shot: Laura Hedien Official Website.
Thank you, Laura, for your art and your permission to feature it here.
Nothing is simple about losing parents. My husband had eight siblings, I had four. We all experienced our parents differently. Mostly good, for which I’m thankful, but there were some complications that ironically have gotten ironed out over time. I guess we’ve matured! Like your family picture. I can picture your mother getting you boys dressed appropriately and hair combed!
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Yes, I imagine the hair combing was a chore. Too many moving objects! Time sometimes does iron out complications. Those of us who have experienced that are fortunate. Thanks, Lois.
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What a wonderful and helpful post. I can see my family in this – especially in #8.
And I really enjoyed the picture of your family. I’m sure Milton and Jeanette are beyond proud!
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I’m glad you enjoyed it, Wynne. Most of us could write a book about the “aftermath.” As to afterlives, I will have to defer to those who have the secret code.
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After my mother died, and there were no parental figures left, my family of origin fell apart and we went our separate ways. Even though we live in the same general area, we rarely see one another or communicate by phone or text.
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A common story, Nancy. Late-life reconnections do happen, but I’d hesitate to make any predictions. I hope you have made peace with it.
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Thank you for this timely and insightful post, Dr. Stein. I do believe that you’ve covered all the possibilities of family life after a parent dies. I was living in Brazil when my father died. Only our youngest sibling, living in the USA, returned to Guyana to take care of Dad’s funeral and attend to business matters. In what I believe to be her means of self-preservation, my mother had mastered the art of “[setting] one child against another,” resulting in alienation among her children. Dementia in the final years of her life has now rendered her vulnerable to the ones she most feared of taking advantage of her. I’ve had several years of mourning her loss as a mother. I now prepare my heart for the fallout of our ‘afterlife’ when she passes.
A sad story of one person’s lifetime and now, of the irony of creating animosity within those who can do her harm. It sounds like a hard part of life for you, Rosaliene. I am sorry for the continuing complicated sadness.
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It is, Dr. Stein. Your insightful posts have been a blessing in helping me to navigate the complexities of our dysfunctional family relationships and for finally being able to say “enough” to the emotional abuse. Healing is an ongoing process.
My Mom passed March 25….. so raw… so painful.
Thank you for your article.
I am sorry to hear of this, Laura, and you have my condolences on your mother’s death. I know you said she was in decline only a few weeks back. I will contact you separately later.
Anything I can do to help, Rosaliene. I am glad I’ve helped a bit.
Thank you for this insightful and compassionate article. A dear friend recently lost his father, and this post helps me see and understand the dynamics in his family, whom I am close to. I have been considering sending this to him, but fear overstepping boundaries.
You are welcome. It is a touchy and complicated subject. I suppose one might ask the friend’s permission to send it, but even that might not avoid risk. Good luck with whatever you decide. You sound like a compassionate friend.