Breaking the final taboo, psychotherapist Jeanne Safer reveals the previously unexplored opportunities for growth that adults can discover after a parent dies and the grieving stops.
Although five percent of the population loses a mother or father…few of us are psychologically prepared for the experience in later life. Death Benefits explores the uncharted territory each of us enters when a parent leaves us, and offers a blueprint for positive change in every aspect of our lives. Death Benefits demonstrates through powerful stories (including the author’s own revelatory experience) how parent loss is the most potent catalyst for change in middle age and can actually offer us our last, best chance to become our truest, deepest selves.
Safer challenges the conventional wisdom that fundamental change is only for the young; and that loss must simply be endured or overcome. Filled with moving and engaging stories of real men and women re-imagining themselves after a parent’s death, it is a fresh, impassioned, and sophisticated look at self-transformation in later life.
“It’s not all bad news. Writes psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, PhD in her taboo-breaking first sentence, “The death of your parents can be the best thing that ever happens to you.” That’s not a no-more-tears prescription: it’s a strategy for getting a payback from your pain. Safer tells how a midlife orphan can sort through memories, salvaging what heals, packing away guilt and resentment, perhaps even unearthing a legacy of love.”
-O: The Oprah magazine
“Equal parts anecdotal, autobiographical and self-help, Death Benefits offers readers a new way to grieve—and grow in the process.”
-AARP Bulletin Today
l feel less alone since my mother died. It is shocking and comforting to realize this. I think of her every day. I use her flfty-year-old KitchenAid coffee grinder and her Italian dishes, hand-painted with mushrooms. Her photograph, handsome and dramatic at age ninety, sits above my chair in my office. I look at the arrangement of paintings and ethnic textiles on my walls, the original way I dress-sometimes I notice the expressions on my face, the phrases or tones of voice I remember her using-and I see her reflection, probably more often than I did when she was alive. I speak of her frequently, usually with admiration; curiously, I never find myself speaking to her, even in dreams. But I have gradually and reluctantly come to know that something awiiil I was prone to when she was in the world, something utterly at odds with my forceful, even optimistic, nature is fading: a certain hopeless dread that comes over me, a steep descent into panic when I feel sick or helpless that I can’t remember ever being free of It would grieve her to be implicated. I know its diminished hold on me has to do with her absence.
A Death Benefit, as I’m defining it in this book, is psychological, not financial. Any insight, positive change or new perspective you discover or create as a result of losing a parent is the most precious “inheritance” you can have. Death Benefits can be manifested physically, emotionally, spiritually, or in a combination of these. They can be obvious or subtle, internal or expressed in your relationships—including especially your relationship with your dead parent; this relationship doesn’t cease to exist just because one of the partners is no longer alive. I believe we are all entitled to these gifts of wisdom and maturity, but that too few of us “collect” them because we don’t realize they’re possible, we feel too guilty to pursue them, or we don’t know how to go about it. I’m trying to change that.
Many people have the misconception that to admit that your life has changed for the better after a parent dies is almost sacrilegious—“like dancing on my mother’s grave,” as one of my interview subjects put it. It’s hard for them to imagine that losing a beloved parent (or one with whom one has a complicated, but not entirely negative, relationship) can change your perspective on the world. In fact, the transformations you will read about in Death Benefits are the result of effective mourning, not a substitute for it. They happen after the grieving stops, sometimes years later. And you can prepare yourself to receive them years before.
No other book has ever proclaimed aloud what Death Benefits says: that adults’ lives can actually improve when they lose their parents. It breaks a powerful taboo. Not only does the book give many inspiring examples of astonishing changes that people were able to make in midlife and beyond (the time when most people think change is impossible), but it provides systematic, comprehensive instructions on how you can follow their example and “reap” your own benefits. You can start at any time; in fact, you can (and should) begin process while your parents are still alive, so that you can prepare emotionally for their loss—and you never should stop. Most books on bereavement are intended to help mourners work through the acute pain and grief of loss immediately after a death. This one is your handbook for the rest of your life.
Reading Death Benefits and will show you that the death of a parent need not just be a loss that diminishes your life; it is also an unprecedented and unexplored opportunity for personal development, an experience that enables you to understand the parent/child relationship in an entirely new way, and to make choices and changes that you never thought possible. Losing a parent can free you to go in new directions now that you are truly on your own. You will learn exactly how to conduct an inventory of your parent’s character in the same way that you sort through their possessions, determining what to keep and what to discard. It can help you develop habits of thought that facilitate continued insight and personal development—and may make it possible for you to have a posthumous relationship with your parent that is more sustaining than the one you had when the person was alive.
Two simultaneous experiences, one personal and the other professional, prompted me to write this book. When my mother was diagnosed with incipient dementia at the age of 87, I was determined to come to terms with our relationship and understand and communicate as much as I could before time ran out. The knowledge that I might soon lose the ability to reach her at all gave the task special urgency, and that got me started. At the same time, several of my midlife patients lost a parent, and I witnessed their struggles—the things left unsaid, the efforts to make sense and to accept what could never change. To my astonishment and theirs, I also saw that every one of them came out of the mourning process a different person—and a more fulfilled or creative one. Their experiences embodied death benefits, and inspired me to discover my own. The combination produced this book.
Writing about my mother’s death and coming to terms with the meaning of her life and our relationship as a result, was one of the most intense and important experiences I’ve ever had; my husband accurately described me as “possessed” during the process. Even though I’ve written autobiography in three previous books, I never felt what I can only call the force of revelation before; I’d wake up in the middle of the night with memories, and find myself weeping with pride or sorrow—and sometimes both at once—as I realized and wrote about the significance of things she had said, or made critical connections that explained why she acted the way she did. As a result, I feel I know her, deeply and truly, for the first time in my life. It is an experience I am eager to share, and to help others find with their own parents.
Even though I knew from experience that good things could happen to people as a result of losing their parents, I was astonished by just how powerful the phenomenon was, and how varied the benefits were. I was touched by the courage and the candor of my subjects. It was gratifying to see how profoundly they were able to change and grow at a time in life when we assume that most people get stuck in their ways. What probably moved me the most was witnessing how so many of them came to terms with seriously—sometimes even fatally—flawed mothers and fathers, and to discover genuine sympathy and empathy with them.
I was fascinated to discover the death benefits occurred in all kinds of parent/child relationships; they were independent of what kind of person the parent was or what kind of relationship the bereaved adult child had with the parent—or even of how much time they had spent together. There are opportunities for growth in every one.
People have two kinds of reactions when they hear the title of my book. Some laugh with delight and immediate recognition (and sometimes relief), and then share a personal anecdote; others are taken aback and draw in their breath, as though I’ve said something scandalous. Very few people are neutral! Readers have told me that they cried, particularly when they read about my mother, and, I’m delighted to say, many said that the stories made them think about their own parents in a new light—even some whose parents had died thirty years ago.
When you write about something that is so taboo, some people are naturally shocked or even outraged. They assume you’re saying that people should be happy that their parents are dead. A recently bereaved child—particularly one who is ambivalent about a parent—may be in too much pain to consider possible positive consequences until the loss has been worked through. The outrage often changes to appreciation when people actually read the book.
Writing this book has had a revolutionary impact on my own life, and on my work as a psychotherapist. It has helped me understand and change things I’d struggled with for years. I appreciate the power of will and choice in our own destinies more than ever before. I am overjoyed to have discovered death benefits for myself, to realize how to keep cultivating them for the rest of my life—and to show others how to find them.
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“I just now finished reading your book Death Benefits. Wow. Every woman should receive this book at the age of 18 even if she does not read it until much later in life. ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ Or rather, ‘an ounce of understanding/awareness is worth a pound (or a thousand pounds) of confusion, heartache and stagnation.’
Thanks for making your insights, and those of your clients and friends, available to everyone through your books.
This is the first time I have ever reached out to an author in any way.”
WHAT READERS ARE SAYING
“When I first saw the title of your book Death Benefits and the words “How losing a parent can change an adult’s life—For the better,” I was a little taken back. But I felt comforted to know that someone out there could relate and that other people might understand the same thing I felt and continue to feel on a daily basis. I sat down and read your entire book in one sitting. Thank you for writing such an honest book. It has helped me see things in a different light. My day has gotten a little brighter, and I am grateful. I hope to read more books that you have written.”
“Thank you for your wise words. My parents died recently, and seeing their death as an opportunity to become fully authentic in the world struck a cord. I feel their presence, but it is very free and very light, different then my experience when they were alive. I think hanging on to the negative aspects of how they saw the world or me is really not in accord with the way it feels now. I like the idea of examining their legacies for the ones that promote health and well being and letting the rest go. I have passed Death Benefits on to my 4 sisters.”
“Dear Dr. Safer,
I just found you online and immediately ordered three of your books (The Normal One, Forgiving and Not Forgiving, and Death Benefits). Just reading your website has provided more validation than a lifetime of therapy and support by extended family and friends.”
“Your book Death Benefits is so profoundly truthful that at first blush it almost seems obscene.”
“I have read lots of books and written lots of book reviews, but have never contacted an author until today. I recently read your book Death Benefits and I am so grateful to have found this resource. It has helped me immensely so I needed to let you know how much your book has touched and helped me. I lost my dad about 2 months ago. I have been angry with him since 1990 due to his alcoholism and treatment of my brother, mother, myself, and his own body that I was completely ambivalent about his death and everything involved with it….I set out to figure out why I was so unhinged with grief. I went to a few grief counseling sessions (not helpful) and read no less than 10 books about death, dying, and grief (also not helpful).
Then one day I was at the library and found your book. When I got to page 35, where you wrote “Appreciating and admiring her did not cancel out how difficult it had been to be her daughter, especially for the last quarter century when so little felt real” I was so happy to have found someone who understands, who gets ME and doesn’t just throw religion and stages of grief at me. I felt very strongly that I needed to thank you for putting your experience and research onto paper. I’ve said lots of words here, but do not have quite the right words to describe how helpful your book has been.”