Orphaned in middle age

Relationships: A book about the pain aging boomers feel at the death of their parents has hit a nerve.

January 09, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Just as Jane Brooks finishes reading, a man in the audience stands up to tell her his father died one week ago. He says he feels like a kid; he can't stop crying. "It's very hard," he says, shaking his head.

Another man, middle-aged and wearing glasses, asks to speak about the death of his own parents. "It's been six years for me," he says. "I wouldn't be able to stand here and talk about it if it had been more recent."

A woman jumps up to tell Brooks she fears the day she faces such grief. Her husband, she says, is jealous because both her parents are still alive.

This isn't group therapy. It's a book signing at the Barnes & Noble Booksellers in White Marsh. But Brooks has grown accustomed to such public outpourings.

She's not a psychiatrist, but a writer who has struck a nerve. Her book, "Midlife Orphan" (Berkley Books, 1999), explores what it's like to lose one's parents -- leaving a person, even in middle-age, an orphan in this world. "Everyone wants to share," says Brooks, 53, a divorced mother of two children, ages 17 and 21, living in suburban Philadelphia. "People have this need to talk about it. I have to be a listener. That's the most I can do. Usually, that's all people want."

Her book is an exploration of her own experience -- she lost her mother in 1993; her father had died two years earlier -- and those of 52 fellow "orphans" she interviewed along with assorted grief counselors and therapists.

The focus is on the loss of a second parent. Although losing any parent can be difficult, "when you lose a first parent, you're still somebody's child," Brooks says. "When the second goes, you're looking at your own mortality."

If this sounds self-indulgent, well, guilt is part of the experience, too. Middle-aged people aren't supposed to fall apart when their parents are gone. That's part of what makes it so hard to deal with the grief, she says. "Once in a while, a person will write to me and say, `Stop whining,' " Brooks says. "Whether it's baby boomers whining or not, it's something people want to talk about. We shouldn't feel guilty about wanting to do that."

What Brooks' research revealed was that people underestimate the impact of losing a second parent -- not only the grief it can cause, but the sibling conflicts, the unresolved issues and the feelings of anger, guilt and loneliness that can be stirred.

When Rose Ann Gerardi lost her 78-year-old mother to ovarian cancer in 1994 while her father was disabled by Alzheimer's disease (he died in 1996), she suddenly felt like a lost child -- alone and isolated. "If they had been 100 years old, it would have been as great a loss," says Gerardi, 52, of Media, Pa., a married mother of two adult children whose experience is chronicled in Brooks' book. "I still feel it," she says. "No matter what happened to me, I always had my mom to talk to. There was always this person who gave me her total, undivided attention. It was a devastating loss."

Joseph Sole, 52, meat department manager at a grocery store in South Philadelphia who is also quoted in the book, says he still feels a twinge of pain when he sees children talking with parents. Although he's been without parents for a decade, there's still an "emptiness," he says, that "you can't describe." "My mother was someone to call up and brag about your kids," says Sole, whose own son and daughter are now 27 and 23 years old. "When she died, it was such a vacuum. You really do feel like an orphan."

Brooks, a former teacher with a master's degree in education technology from the University of Maryland, knows these feelings well. When her mother died six years ago, she was so overwhelmed by grief that she worried that something was wrong with her.

She was reluctant to talk about her pain. She grew up in a family where such personal feelings weren't discussed. But while traveling in Nova Scotia a few months after her mother's death, she met a married woman in her 30s who had lost her parents the year before and described herself as orphaned. "People understand a prolonged grieving with the loss of a spouse or child," Brooks says. "They expect it to be over pretty fast with the loss of parent. Well, I discovered it just doesn't work that way."

In talking to other mid-life orphans, she found the deaths of parents often stirred up quarrels among the surviving children. One survivor recalls it as a "wake-up call about greed" when he watched his siblings grapple over their inheritance.

A woman, whom Brooks quotes under the pseudonym "Donna" in her book, recalls driving to her late parents' house "feeling like a thief" for taking a silver tea service, a painting, some dishes and a vase before her sister could take them.

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