Saturday, September 09, 2006


Something I came across in a newspaper several years ago sometime after my mother upped and left to join my father in the Great Cancerless Home Up Yonder. It dealt not just with the usual trappings of bereavement but with transitions I'd had to make, something that no one had ever really talked to me about. Maybe they didn't know, maybe they didn't feel they could quite properly address the issue, maybe they figured I'd just work it out on my own somehow. Fact is this article spoke to me. I've treasured the clipping for all these years, even taking a printout for a friend who'd also lost a second parent....

Sometime ago, a cousin of mine lost her father. Seriously ill for several years, he had deteriorated in his last year to being little better than a vegetable. Confined for months to a hospital bed and unable to swallow, see or speak, the poor man led a wretched existence. To see him on her daily visits to the hospital brought nothing but pain. Emotionally wrapped up as she was in his illness, she prayed fervently that he may be spared any further torment. Yet when her prayers were finally answered, my cousin was devastated. Even her mother’s unexpected death a few years earlier had not affected her so deeply, though she was particularly close to her. How then was one to explain the intensity of her emotions at her father’s death when, to all intents and purposes, he had not been around for a long time, and when she herself had hoped for a merciful release both for him and for the rest of the family?

Apparently, according to psychologists, her reaction was a very normal one. The death of the last surviving parent can trigger unexpectedly strong feelings even in adults who have stood on their own feet for a long time and shouldered the responsibility of looking after their own children. Nor does having dealt before with the death of someone close to them alter the situation. And the reason, we are told, is that they are faced with making the transition to being part of the oldest living generation in the family. It is a subtle shift in roles that carries profound implications, though these may not always be consciously recognized.

A friend who has lost both parents once explained to me how she felt. “I started thinking of my own mortality,” she said. “The death of my father, and then my mother suddenly made me realize that I no longer had all the time in the world to attain my goals.

“But it was another aspect of the situation that affected me more. You always imagine that your parents are indestructible, that they are a permanent part of your life, that they will always be around to care for you, and this has nothing to do with being dependent on them or being in close touch. In fact, even when there is a reversal of roles, and the child looks after the parent instead of the other way around, with your parents alive, you feel there is always someone there for you. When you lose one parent, you still feel you have the other to turn to. But the death of the second parent forces you to relinquish the psychological security you have always had, and take up the responsibility of becoming the older generation. It is a particularly distressing prospect to face.

“For many, parents represent a connection to the larger family and its past through memories and stories that you now must make sure does not disappear. You find yourself reassessing your relationships with members of the family, and very often this results in making the effort to become closer. You find yourself providing the cement that holds the family together, that till recently just the existence of your parents did. And finally you accept the fact that both your parents have gone, and left you to take their place.”

It is now almost a year since my cousin lost her father. She is still coming to terms with being part of the older generation, but perhaps it will not be too long before she accepts the transition she has to make.

– Pakshi Vasudeva,
The Telegraph, 18 August 1995


  1. Quite insightful... !!
    But then lots of things can't really (or shouldn't really) be prepared for... its best if somethings hit us "in the face" and not earlier...

  2. I suppose so but it would still be ever so helpful if someone could provide a kind of running commentary when things go off-boil, this is what's happened and you'll feel this and you should do that because this is what'll happen next if you do that etc etc. But then again, I suppose it's the unexpectedness of things that teach you best. And the best lessons are those that you learn on your own...