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A parent's death offers a chance for growth

Make room for yet another addition to the bookstore's bulging Self-Help section. In Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult's Life — For the Better, psychotherapist Jeanne Safer shows how the death of a parent can provide a unique opportunity for psychological, emotional and spiritual growth in the mid-life child.

Indeed, the author calls such a passing the "last, best chance to become our truest, deepest selves."

Parents can sometimes loom larger than life. And children of every age are apt to make decisions based on what parents expect — and often demand.

One of the men interviewed in this book became a lawyer to gain the approval of a distant, authoritarian father. After his father's death, this man, then 47, returned to his original love: music. He eventually closed his successful law practice and is now a jazz drummer.

Safer, author of The Normal One, Beyond Motherhood, and Forgiving and Not Forgiving, conceived of this book following the death of her 92-year-old mother, who was perceived as a fiercely independent, charismatic woman. But Safer writes that she had felt overpowered by her mother.

During — and following — her mother's final illness, Safer writes, she came to a deep understanding about their troubled relationship.

In addition, Safer interviewed 60 mid-lifers who radically changed the direction of their lives after a parent's death. Those interviewed got married, got divorced, wrote successful novels, returned to school, pursued new careers.

Mid life is a time when most people think change is impossible, yet these people blossomed in astonishing ways. For example, one teacher enrolled in acting school in her 50s and began a career on stage.

This book is not about rejoicing in the death of a parent but rather about channeling one's grief to forge new beginnings. And, Safer assures us, profiting from a parent's death is neither disloyal nor incompatible with grief.

From the "Deathspace," as she refers to it, one can take a panoramic view of a parent's life. A parent becomes a fellow human being, less powerful and mysterious, more like a peer.

Safer points out that you should use the guidelines she provides to begin the process of reaping "death benefits'' while your parents are still alive, so that you can better understand them and begin preparing yourself emotionally for their loss.

This optimistic book breaks a powerful taboo. It may be used as a guide through guilt, grief and — dare I say it? — rebirth.

St. Petersburg resident Alice Graves holds an MFA in creative writing and has taught writing in college. Contact her at


Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult's Life — For the Better, by Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., Basic Books, 226 pages, $25.

A parent's death offers a chance for growth 06/23/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 23, 2008 2:54pm]
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