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What early parental loss means for your grieving

What do Eleanor Roosevelt, Barbra Steisand, and I have in common? It’s not celebrity (I’m out) or human rights icon status (no for me and Barbra) or even vocal prowess (not Eleanor and I, unfortunately). It’s that we all lost a father early on – Eleanor at nine (after losing her mother the year before), Barbra before she was two, and me at almost two.

Losing a parent gives you experience that no one would wish for you, leaving you with certain issues that you didn’t get a chance to learn how to handle in time. The worst of it is easy to bring up – a constant hum of anxiety about the safety of your remaining parent, and responsibility for the role you must play in creating the stability of ongoing family life. Worse case, it can include upside-down caretaking for a surviving parent who struggles. Worst case, it can leave you parenting an incapable or toxic remaining parent, leaving you the only person standing between you and ruin, and you are a child. We find that on some level, we will be raising ourselves.

Less important, but still annoying is irritation with others who don’t properly appreciate their two (or more) living, breathing parents. The temptation is to say, “Do you realize how lucky you are?” The problem is that this suggests that the unspoken next statement would be: “Do you realize how unlucky I am?” Believe me, no kid missing a parent wants to seek pity like that. We imagine that others see our difference, our lack, and that they sense the same other-ness that we see in ourselves. The fact is, I see now, that they barely noticed and little cared.

I know for sure that I came into adult life with a certain clarity about what is important and what is not. For me, any day the roof didn’t fall in was a gift. Every night was a good time to be grateful for that.

When it’s time, even though you suspect you’re not ready, you sail off into your own life anyway, because the idea of staying behind, remaining defined by your loss, is terrifying. Some of us launch timidly, watching out for many dangers, others go full speed into the rocks. Eventually, research suggests, many of us find a route to success.

A recent article “Successful Children Who Lost A Parent – Why Are There So Many of Them?” by Robert Kulwich points out the surprising statistics: that a substantial proportion of U.S. presidents, British prime ministers, poets, and other folks like Eleanor and Barbra end up on top.

If only I’d known, if only we’d all known, that early loss could lead us to self-reliance, independence, and determination. That I, and we, would be okay and able to create a life that thrums with action and meaning.

What does this say about grief? That it may call us to action too soon, but that it can also lead us to greater strength than we might otherwise have found. That pain can lead to growth, and that we can be willing students of its lessons. That early loss can be the invitation to develop resilience that will carry us through. Now, looking back, I wonder if we did know.

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