NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Grief: Who Are You After Your Parents Die?

I'm continuing a theme about grief for the loss of both parents that I began recently (see my articles: Grief: The Emotional Impact of Losing Both ParentsYou Continue to Have a Relationship With Your Parents Even After They Die, and The Emotional Pain of Clearing Out Your Parents' Home After They Die).  In this article, I'm focusing on changes in how you see yourself after your parents have died.

Grief: Who Are You After Your Parents Die?

As I mentioned in prior articles, nothing can prepare you for the loss of both of your parents.  For most people the experience of feeling like an "orphan" can be devastating--no matter what kind of relationship you had with your parents.

Relationships, including relationships with your parents, are a complicated mix, rather than being "good" or "bad."  So, when the last parent dies, adult children's feelings can also be mixed: Sorrow for the loss and a sense of relief that they're no longer suffering and there is no longer a need to worry about parents.

Who Are You After Your Parents Die?
Your primary identification as a child is as your parents' child.  This identification continues through adulthood, although usually in combination with other identifications: husband, wife, mother, father, friend, teacher, and so on.

So, at the point when you have lost both of your parents, you can feel that part of you has gone with them:  You're no longer anyone's son or daughter--at least, not in the here-and-now.

Most people don't anticipate the loss of this identification, and after their second parent dies, they struggle with loss and question who they are now that their parents are no longer around.

Much also depends upon the separation-individuation process that children go through.  This is a process that starts in childhood and progresses through adolescence when children identify more with peers than with their parents and strive to be their own person.

But some people struggle with the separation-individuation process for a variety of reasons, as I will demonstrate in the fictionalized vignette below.

Depending upon the individual and the quality of the relationship with the parents, this can be a time of doubt and soul searching.  For other people, it can be liberating.  For others, it's a combination of doubt, soul searching and liberation.

Fictional Vignette:  Who Are You After Your Parents Die?

Ida was an only child.

Throughout her life, she had an ever-present awareness of the sacrifices that her parents made to come to the United States from their native country where they were harassed and oppressed because of their religion.

As a child, Ida wanted to be a writer, but her parents were vehemently opposed to this.  They wanted her to be a teacher or an accountant, preferably as part of a union so her job would be protected.

They told her many times of their own struggles when they came to the US as immigrants--how they were looked down upon for their clothes, their traditional food, and their foreign ways.

They both went to college in the US, studied hard and chose "practical" careers.  Her father became an engineer and her mother became a teacher.

Not wanting to disappoint her parents, Ida became an elementary school teacher, like her mother.  She loved the children and the feeling that she was making an impact on their lives.  But she still longed to write.

Being a teacher gave Ida little time to write.  She often came home feeling exhausted from a full day at school.  Here and there, she wrote short stories that she told no one about, especially her parents, who would have ridiculed her for wasting her time.

When she was in her mid-20s, she got married to another teacher she met at a union meeting.  They had two children, and soon after that Ida had even less time to write, other than a few occasional snippets.

Although she was happy with her husband and family and she liked working with the children, she still longed to write.  She felt she had many stories in her head.

When both of her children were in college, Ida had more time to write the short stories that were in her head.  So, she would spend a couple of hours a week secretly writing.

Grief: Who Are You After Your Parents Die?

She still carried her parents' voices in her head that writing was a waste of time and she should spend her time on more "practical" matters.

Over the years, Ida had written several short stories that she would have liked to have published, but her parents' ideas about the impracticality of writing were so ingrained in her mind that she remained in conflict about it.

When Ida was close to retirement, her father died unexpectedly.  It was such a shock to her mother that she became emotionally incapacitated, and Ida and her husband took her in.

After her mother moved in with her, Ida was even more surreptitious about her writing.  Sometimes, she would get up early in the morning before her husband and mother got up and spend a half hour writing.

One day, her husband walked into the kitchen unexpectedly while Ida was typing on her laptop.  Ida became so startled that she closed her laptop abruptly.

When her husband asked her what she was doing, she responded with hesitation that she was writing a short story.

Rather than being disapproving, as Ida expected, her husband was thrilled and asked her why she was so secretive about it.

When Ida explained how disapproving her parents were about her desire to write, she was delighted that her husband encouraged her.  He even offered to take over more of the household responsibilities so she could have more time to write.

But even with the extra time and her mother spending more time in her own room, Ida continued to feel conflicted about writing.

Although she knew that she was an adult and her parents could no longer tell her what to do, she still felt a sense of disloyalty to her parents when she wrote because she felt she owed them so much.

When she spoke to her husband about this, he suggested that she speak with a psychotherapist who could help her to sort out her longstanding issues related to her parents and writing.

Soon after Ida began therapy, her mother died.  Although Ida knew that her mother's death had nothing to do with her attending therapy or her writing, she still felt guilty, as if she had betrayed her mother by talking about her in therapy.

Gradually, Ida began to work through her grief and these related complex issues in therapy.

Over time, her therapist helped Ida to grieve the loss of her parents.

Her therapist also helped Ida to understand that she had not achieved sufficient separation-individuation from her parents as an adult due to her sense of obligation and guilt about their sacrifices.  As a result, Ida was overly identified with their ideas about who she should be instead of trying to be the person that she wanted to be.

Developing her own sense of self was neither quick nor easy.  After Ida retired, her therapist encouraged her to join a writing group so she could be around other writers who might be struggling with similar issues and who would be supportive.

Grief: Who Are You After Your Parents Die?

The combination of attending her weekly therapy sessions and attending the weekly writers group helped Ida to come into her own (see my article: Listening to Your Inner Voice to Discover Your "Calling" in Life).

Although she struggled at times with her own internalizations of her parents' prohibitions, she was writing every day.

Her husband and other people who knew saw the difference in her.  They told her that she looked much younger and happier than she had been in a long time.

As time went on, Ida felt more confident as a writer and she submitted her stories for publication.  She also had a greater sense of well-being because she was being her true self and doing what she loved (see my article: Becoming Your True Self).

Losing both parents can be a devastating experience regardless of your age or your relationship with them.

After the loss of the second parent, adult children often question their identity, especially if they had problems individuating before their parents died.

The time after a second parent dies can be a time of confusion, soul searching and a search for a new identity.

For many people, it's a time to discover their own voice and their true selves.

Getting Help in Therapy
The mourning process can be a confusing, lonely time even if you have many people around you.

Losing both parents can create a sense of being an "orphan" with all the feelings that go with that.

Part of that mourning process is often coming to terms with your identity now that your parents are gone.

Many people feel freer to pursue endeavors that their parents might not have approved of when they were alive.  

Other people have so internalized their parents' prohibitions that, even after their parents are dead, they continue to feel too guilty to go against their parents' wishes.  

To go against their parents' wishes makes them feel that they are moving further and further away from parents that they are missing.

Seeing a skilled psychotherapist can help you to work through the grief of losing your parents.

An experienced therapist can also help you to work through guilty feelings about finding your own voice and being your own person (see my article: The Benefits of Psychotherapy).

If these issues resonate with you, rather than struggling on your own, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who can help you to overcome your struggles so you can have a greater sense of well-being (see my article: How to Choose a Psychotherapist).

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to work through grief and their own individuation process so they could lead more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about it, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.