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Coping with the loss of parents

New book titled, "Living Life to the Fullest After the Loss of Your Parents," by psychotherapist Shari Butler explains how this time of crisis can also be a catalyst for  enormous positive change. Read an excerpt.

There are few things as difficult in life as dealing with the loss of a parent. In Shari Butler's new book, "Becoming Myself: Living Life to the Fullest After the Loss of Your Parents." Butler points out that after the initial grief, this can also be an opportunity to grow and change. She discusses the book on “Today.” Read an excerpt here:

Rediscovering Yourself

God picks up the reed flute world and blows. Each note is a need coming through one of us,
A passion, a longing pain . . .
Don’t try to end it.
Be your note.
I’ll show you how it is enough.
Go upon the roof at night
In this city of the soul . . .
Sing loud!

-Rumi, twelfth-century Sufi poet

Whatever unique path you take through the stages of life — from infancy through adolescence and adulthood — you learn, inevitably, that development brings both the excitement and joy of gain and the sorrow and difficulty of loss as part of its very nature. You cannot have one without the other. For each step forward, something is — and must be — abandoned. Once you recognize this, you may even embrace it. Knowing that growth will accompany our changes allows some of the shadows to slip away from loss because of the light cast by the gains we make.

Accumulating these losses and gains along the journey, we can come to view some stages of life as being more about one than the other. One person will find that he mourns the passing of his innocence more than he values the awareness that replaces it. Another will regret the slowing of her muscles and the dulling of her quick thinking more than she appreciates the wisdom of her years. Still, we accept that the things we lose are necessarily lost to make space for the things we gain. We recognize this as a natural, if sometimes difficult, part of development — except in one stage of life. When this stage arrives, we are more challenged than at any other time in life to recognize the ebb and flow of loss and gain and to accept the natural symmetry that exists in development.

This stage occurs when both of your parents have died. As a major transitional stage in life, it gets only a nod of recognition. Rarely is it acknowledged as its own independent developmental stage, and even when it is recognized, its incredible power for healing and transformation is underestimated. Seen as a predictable developmental stage of life, becoming parentless loses its sting and instead becomes an opportunity for growth.

Imagine trying to conceive of — or learn from — adolescence if you were to view it as a single, discreet event. Instead, we know it as an unfolding — a time of trying on, discarding, and testing. Or, try to visualize what you could gain, if anything, if you were to see the shift from middle age into old age as one occurrence. Instead, we see aging as a ripening of the body and spirit, an extended process that we hope will bring us to a new level of maturity and wisdom. Aging includes a time in your life when your parents die. It is at this time that you are orphaned, because you are left without parents.

Whether or not you experience the feeling of being an “orphan,” you are one, and as an orphan you will mourn for your lost parents; you will mourn for your lost inner child, for your lost childhood. Mourning is never really finished. The same is true of “orphanhood”: It may last 5 or 50 years, but it will not occur in an afternoon. It is a process set in motion at your parents’ deaths, but it continues on, creating tidal waves of change. Your developmental task in this stage is to ride the tidal wave to your potential, rather than allowing it to wash you ashore aimlessly. It is a time to set goals. Orphanhood, far from being about death, grief, and living with loss, is ultimately a story about rebirth.

Full Adulthood
Every year 5 percent of the population loses a parent to death. That is a lot of people losing parents and becoming their own authority figures. They are thrown into what I call full adulthood. Paradoxically the coming of this stage is also accompanied by an uncomfortable sensitivity or vulnerability:

  • Feeling little
  • Feeling like crying
  • Being overly sensitive
  • Feeling lost
  • Being impatient
  • Feeling anxious
  • Feeling depressed
  • Overreacting
  • Overeating to seek comfort

Who wouldn’t admit that facing the feelings that accompany loss brings about a sense of vulnerability? Those who want to grow, heal, and transform, face themselves and their vulnerability head on. That is exactly what full adulthood is, and it offers an unparalleled opportunity to do exactly that.

Losing parents creates a change in status unlike any other — and yet it is simultaneously a chance to start anew, one that presents itself at a time when you are most likely to benefit from the opportunity. It can bring about a profound sense of disconnection or aloneness — yet it offers the potential for connection to others in ways that you have never before known, or perhaps even imagined. It may bring up unresolved issues — but it simultaneously brings about the opportunity to reevaluate and let go of many elements of your earlier life experiences —particularly those that were dysfunctional or those that created misery. Parent loss has the potential to take you to the darkest, most closed-off side of human experience as well as to the rich and vibrant opening of your full potential.

The Vulnerability of Loss and Uncertainty
Just as with any other stage of development, the gains of full adulthood are built upon its losses. When you lose someone important in your life, you gain the opportunity to access your most authentic self.  When this someone is your parent — and then when it is both parents —the loss is only multiplied because of the significance of the relationship. You lose any remaining claim to your childhood when you lose your parents; when you’re not a child, you must grow up with absolute finality. The grief that accompanies this finality sets in motion a chain of events and an emotional process that makes you sensitive. In facing someone’s death you may also face your own. However, even if your mortality is not brought to the forefront, as it often isn’t for those who lose their parents at an early age, confronting the death of a loved one creates transitions and shifts, calling into question the relationship that existed.

You will find yourself asking many questions when you lose your parents:

  • Does the relationship with my parents still exist?
  • Was it essential to my well-being?
  • Where will I go — to whom — to meet the needs that were met by the person who is now gone?
  • What will I do without the escape to my childhood?
  • Who am I now if I am not someone’s child?
  • How did I feel about my mother and father?
  • How did they feel about me?
  • Was our relationship good or bad?
  • What would I change about the relationship?
  • What did I learn from my mother/father?
  • Did they know the real me?
  • Did I really know my mother?
  • Did I really know my father?

The transition from being someone’s child to losing your parents and being no one’s child is a lifelong process. It doesn’t occur overnight, and it offers you far more than grief and loss; it offers you the opportunity to choose who you will become.

Excerpted from, "Becoming Myself: Living Life to the Fullest After the Loss of Your Parents." Copyright 2004 by Shari Butler. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of McGraw-Hill, Inc. For more information you can visit: