The Adult Orphans Club: On Losing a Parent

We still don’t talk much about death. But when Susan Wyndham’s mother died she found comfort in talking to other people who had lost a parent, as a way to understand her grief. Some of those conversations developed into her new book My Mother, My Father: On Losing a Parent, with essays by 14 writers including Helen Garner, Thomas Keneally, Mandy Sayer and David Marr.

In a Lunchbox/Soapbox address delivered last week, Susan drew on her own and other contributors' experiences. How do we handle the death of our parents? How does it change us? And how might we do better?

Susan Wyndham and her mother Shirley. Right to left.

Susan Wyndham and her mother Shirley

If you’re like me, you grow up believing that your parents will live forever.

Even as an adult you simultaneously take their presence for granted and somewhere in the back of your mind dread and deny the knowledge that one day they won’t be there and, for better or worse – and perhaps both – your life will change forever.

It was only after my mother died, in August 2011, that I really confronted this momentous rite of passage.

I realised that if we’re lucky – if we outlive our parents – it’s an almost universal experience that most of us ignore or underestimate until it happens. And I thought we should consider and talk about it more and learn from it what we can.

That’s why I gathered together 13 other writers in My Mother, My Father to examine some aspect of their experience of losing one or both parents. Although each of our stories is quite different, there are also many similarities.

I’m not an expert and I speak only from my own experience and what I have now absorbed. But I know that the death of your parents brings you face to face not only with dying, but also with your whole relationship with your parents, with the rest of your family, and with yourself.

My own story in a nutshell: My parents split up before I was born and I was raised by my brave, loving, divorced mother, who devoted herself to me and to working to support us. We were very close and as a child – and for a long time as an adult – I believed she was invincible.

Mum also had a deep religious faith that was central to her life and though I did not share it once I’d developed into a tough old boot of a journalist, I respected the certainty and strength she drew from it.

We were possessive of each other and yet we grew apart in other ways, as parents and children have to do: I worked, I moved overseas, I married, I travelled. I was not always around as much as Mum would have liked.

This pull between independence and responsibility, between love and frustration and guilt, intensified as Mum reached her 80s and needed me more in that gradual reversal of the roles of parent and child.

I wasn’t very good at looking after her – or not as good as I’d like to have been; I was frightened and impatient and in denial. But Mum gently, forcefully guided me through what I had to do as her last days approached.

When she became unwell she remained at home with help from a visiting nurse, but she did not want to see a doctor or go to hospital even though I would anxiously suggest it every now and then.

I had to accept her choice and stand by her – literally stand by her bed for most of the last 24 hours. Even then I wasn’t really accepting what was happening and I was, finally, asleep when Mum died in the early hours of a cold winter morning.

So along with the shock of her death, my regrets hit me almost immediately:

Why hadn’t I stayed awake?

Why I hadn’t I been more aware of what was happening?

Why hadn’t I talked to her about all the important things we now couldn’t discuss?

Why didn’t I say the simple words ‘I love you’ at the end?

Why wasn’t I able to save her?

I had never before suffered the intense grief I experienced for the next few months. My mind spun, my body ached, my tears erupted without warning – in conversation, in bed, in the supermarket. My own life felt foreshortened and empty. And I couldn’t see how I would ever recover.

Not everyone is hit so hard but I’ve learnt that it’s pretty normal.

But here’s the positive part of my story. You do recover. You do learn to live with that big absence. You grow up. You learn to understand and empathise with other people. Perhaps you become a stronger, kinder, wiser person. Not necessarily, but you can work on it.

Time helps, of course, and I felt myself coming out of the depths in bumpy stages. By the second anniversary of Mum’s death, in August this year, I knew I was over the worst.

I still miss her, I still wish I’d done some things differently, I still sometimes wonder who I am without her as my mirror and cheerleader and guide. But I can stand back from those sad feelings and the memory of her suffering and remember her as a whole person, and also see myself in focus again.

Some of the things that helped me:

Basic steps such as paying her the respect of following her instructions for the kind of funeral she wanted, delivering her eulogy without falling apart, talking at length to her old friends, settling her affairs.

I created small rituals for myself such as wearing a diamond ring I had given Mum for her seventieth birthday, which made me feel closer to her.

I dedicated an old Moreton Bay fig tree to her in Sydney’s Centennial Park, where we had spent happy times together – much better for her and for me than a tombstone in a cemetery – and I secretly, illegally scattered her ashes in the hollows of its roots with my aunt and cousin.

I sold her apartment, which was more of a repository of unhappy memories from her last few years, so it was a great relief to be free of it.

I carefully sorted through her papers and books and other belongings, reading notes and letters and diaries that brought her voice back in a most immediate way.

And I wrote about her. This book, My Mother, My Father, grew out of the many conversations I had with other people whose parents had died or were dying and who understood what a difficult and interesting phase of life it is.

As a baby boomer, of course, I am surrounded by such people. We recognise each other as dog owners and new mothers do, and that has been a tremendous support.

I decided it was worth sharing some of our stories with a much wider group and found that most people I asked were eager to do so. For more than a year, though, I was barely able to write a word. I couldn’t make any sense of my churning emotions.

But as the deadline approached I made myself sit down and write and suddenly the story – a story I knew, about people I knew very well – poured onto the page. And when it was done, my mind and body stopped churning; well, if not stopped, certainly slowed and calmed down.

I’m told by many of the other contributors that writing had a similarly cathartic effect on them.

So whether your parents died recently or long ago or are still alive but inevitably ageing, I recommend thinking, talking and perhaps writing about them as individuals, about their place in your life and their influence on you as a person. Express the bewilderment, the sorrow, the anger, the relief, the memories – whatever you are feeling and thinking. You will at least feel less alone and you might learn something important.

I’ve learnt a lot from working on this book, first of all from the contributors. From David Marr and Margaret Rice and Nikki Barrowclough and Linda Neil, for example, I learnt that the medical help I would have liked my mother to accept might have eased the passage of death for her but that it is not infallible nor always predictable.

I didn’t find an ‘ideal’ way of dying among our stories. It seems to me that for our parents – and for ourselves – we still need to work on enabling people to end their lives with greater comfort and dignity in the circumstances and the ways that they want, whether it’s at home, in hospital or in a nursing home or hospice. That’s another long discussion.

Caroline Baum and Susan Duncan, who write about parents still alive, reminded me that the loss of a parent is not an event but a process that can be drawn-out and dramatic – as in the case of Caroline’s father who slips into dementia, or create time for resolving old differences – as with Susan’s mother, who in her nineties remains stubborn, competitive and funny, and could just outlast her daughter.

You might be pleased to know there is plenty of humour – often poignant or dark humour – in this situation. Mandy Sayer writes about having a swig of her father’s morphine and after her mother’s funeral being asked by the priest, ‘What are you doing later? I have some lovely red wine back in the rectory.’

From Tom Keneally and Helen Garner I learnt that even in your seventies and even when your parents have been gone a long time, you remain their child. Whatever the underlying feelings between you and them when they were alive, they will be the feelings that erupt when they die.

Tom describes himself as ‘infantile’ in the way that his misses his mother’s praise: everything this famous writer did was a clumsy effort to please her and without her he feels a loss of purpose.

For Helen there is still the guilt she feels for being a difficult daughter who fought with her father and was dismissive of her mother. ‘Oh,’ she writes, ‘if only she would walk in here now.’

For Helen and David Marr there’s the sense that our parents become a tangible presence in our appearance and behaviour. ‘Her ghost is in my body,’ says Helen. David has a reassuring ‘sense of growing into them’.

From Kathryn Heyman, I learnt that the death of a violent and long-absent father is as painful – even more so in a way – as the death of a loved parent with whom there is no unfinished business.

From several of the writers I learnt that too often death hunts in a pack. Soon after her father’s death Kathryn also has to deal with the sudden death of her beloved father-in-law. Margaret Rice and Nikki Barrowclough both have their grief compounded by the death of a brother soon after their mothers die.

As an only child I was curious to learn from several writers how the death of their parents reshaped the relations between siblings for better or worse, subtly or dramatically.

Most of us, of course, have to face the deaths of both parents. The second shoe has to drop. My father is 88 and battling on but growing frail and my heart breaks at his courage. I wonder how I will feel when he too is gone and I am truly an orphan.

I’m trying to apply some of the lessons I learnt with Mum – to talk about old wounds; ask questions; listen to his repeated stories and try to remember them; tell him often that I love him and not let any minor irritation overshadow that; offer help but not feel like a failure if he doesn’t take it.

But really I’m still just me with all my faults, and Dad is his own bundle of strengths and weaknesses and we will bumble our way through to the end.

I learnt from Tom Keneally that the independence that made our generations of parents strong can also be their downfall because they are stoical and stubborn and taciturn.

I learnt from our small sample that lung cancer – often but not always the result of smoking – is the great killer of those generations.

Grief takes different shapes and sometimes creeps up on you. Tom was struck down by depression six weeks after his father’s death which, he says, ‘seemed to shatter the interior of the earth I stood on’.

Gerard Windsor did not feel a great sense of loss when his father – a distinguished doctor – died. As many people do, he felt a certain liberation from his father’s influence. But years later he sought justice for his father’s reputation, almost as a debt he owed.

As another generalisation, I observed that among the contributors the women write with unashamed emotion while the men tend to intellectualise their grief or joke or otherwise distance themselves from it.

The lessons continue, too, as readers respond to the book warmly, even passionately, in ways that sometimes surprise me.

For example, my younger half-sister told me that reading my story made her think about how her children would one day cope with her death. She felt galvanised to write down for them – as my mother did – a record of her memories and her love for them.

Among the most pleasing reactions I’ve had is the news from an old school friend who lives in England that on reading our stories she immediately booked a flight home to visit her mother.

And a neighbour told me tearfully and gratefully that her 44-old daughter, after reading my essay, had picked up the phone just to tell her mother she loved her.

So there you are. The death of our parents is not an unjust or unbearable tragedy like losing a child or the traumatic death of someone too young. But it is one of the hardest and most inevitable losses we face.

I’m not Pollyanna and I don’t have a prescription. But I have learnt that we do survive, which for a while I could not imagine. It is not all sadness, and there are steps you can take right now to feel more in control.

Remember we’re all in this together. We’re all members of the adult orphans club, or one day will be. And knowing that, paradoxically, I found the greatest help of all.