Making Peace With Parents : Families: Honest communication makes a mother or father’s death easier to bear.

<i> Patlak is a West Coast author who writes about behavioral sciences</i>

More than 20 years after his father’s death, Barney Meskin, 67, is still haunted by memories his father never left him.

“I wish I knew what my father was like at 16, how much time he spent in the Russian army, how he escaped without getting shot,” Meskin said. “These are like missing pieces of myself.”

Finding out who parents are and were, beyond their roles as mothers and fathers, is a family business that many adult children leave unfinished.

But there are knots in the ties that bind parent and child. And, if they aren’t unraveled, psychologists say, the final mourning for parents can be more painful and protracted.


“We all have to deal with our parents’ deaths eventually,” said Jan Hernandez, a clinical social worker for the national Children of Aging Parents organization. “But usually we deal with this reality very badly and with a lot of unnecessary guilt and remorse.”

When the psychological business between parent and child is not resolved, she said, “almost literally, the parent comes back to haunt you.”

But for children who make an effort to finish unfinished family business, there may be rewards. USC gerontologist Andrew Scharlach studied the grief of more than 200 middle-aged adults who had recently lost a parent. “Those who were able to make a clean slate of things by telling parents how they felt about them--what they were angry about, what made them happy--coped much better with their loss,” he found.

The things that children and their parents need to say to each other are as different as families. But they may fall into these categories: sharing family history, expressing unspoken feelings, forgiving transgressions, acknowledging the parent’s unique place in the adult child’s life and better understanding both parent and child as unique individuals.

“But whatever you would like to say to your parents on their deathbed,” urged UC San Francisco psychologist Michael Hoyt, “say it to them today.”

Despite our vision of family gathered around the parent’s deathbed, most children are not present when their parents die. A recent study by the Philadelphia Geriatric Center of 200 non-institutionalized elderly persons revealed that two-thirds had no family with them when they died.

Terese Veronica, 38, never got a chance to say goodby to her mother, who died unexpectedly last year at 81.

“I wish I had told her I loved her and thought she was a good mother,” she said. “When my mother was alive, I chose to see all the things that were wrong with her--that she was always tired when I was a kid, that she didn’t do fun things with us, that her legs always hurt.

“Now that she’s gone, I feel stupid for maintaining this coldness towards her. What’s the point of not being affectionate with my mother because I didn’t like how she treated me when I was 16?”

Said Scharlach: “Most of us go through our adult lives trying to get things from our parents that we never got from them as kids. At some point, we have to accept that we didn’t get everything we needed or wanted as children.”

Psychologists say that it helps to tell parents about childhood grudges. An adult may, for example, want to ask why a sibling seemed to receive more affection or why parents fought so much. “You won’t change history,” said Fernandez, “but you will get rid of a lot of excess emotional baggage.”

Airing grievances also may make it easier to express love for parents. Never saying “I love you” to a mother or father is high on the list of children’s regrets after their parents die, said Mark Edinberg, director of the Center for the Study of Aging at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut and author of the recent book, “Talking With Your Aging Parents.”

Writing a mock eulogy for a parent can sometimes help put grievances in perspective and connect the child with more positive feelings.

Psychologist Hoyt said the mock eulogy he wrote for his father helped him focus on what really mattered in their relationship: “A lot of things I resented seemed petty when I evaluated who this man was, how he fit into my life, and how I felt about him.”

Louisa Loveridge-Gallas, 46, whose mother died seven years ago, has parental regrets. “I wish I had focused more on my mother’s strengths,” she said. “She seemed to have an infinite knowledge of gardening and birds. I wish I’d gone on more walks with her and enjoyed the birds and the flowers and let the other things go.”

But even when children are poised to explore the relationship, parents may not be ready to enter such personal, sometimes painful territory. Hoyt suggests using practical questions--such as “Where is the key to the safe deposit box?"--as an entree to more personal queries. Hoyt also suggests asking parents directly, “Is there anything you’ve been wanting to say to me?”

A parent may simply say “No.”

But, said Edinberg, “If a parent puts up walls, you’ve met your responsibilities by putting in a doorway and knocking once in a while.”

For Ray Steinberg, 93, and her son, Barney Meskin, a support group leader for a Los Angeles chapter of Children of Aging Parents, talking about her life in the old country (Lithuania) brought mother and son together in new ways.

“Mom likes telling me about our family history because it takes her back to a time when things seemed better,” said Meskin, who is learning more about the country where he was born.

When a parent dies, adult children suffer a sudden awareness of their parents'--and their own--mortality. But, for the first time, they also may see their parents as men and women who occupied a unique place in the world.

“Many children regret that they never knew their parents as Joe and Sue, rather than just Mom and Dad,” said Hernandez. Such a one-dimensional view of a mother or father as only a parent, she said, creates an emotional distance not easy to bridge.

To bridge the chasm that, by nature, separates generations, Fernandez suggests much talking with parents and many questions: “Ask parents what they were like when they were little, how they spent their time, what were their dreams, what they’d do differently, what they wanted out of life. Parents were people first--they didn’t just spring from the ground at age 35.”

To know a mother or father as a person, researchers say, may be the last, best gift that children can give not only to their parents, but to themselves.


To ensure you leave no unfinished business with parents, experts say you should:

Explore your family’s history.

Express unspoken feelings.

Put the past behind--let go of blame and grudges.

Seek more knowledge and understanding of your parents as people.

Talk with your close friends or spouse to try to pinpoint tender or troublesome issues that you can deal with before a parent dies.

Focus on your parent’s strengths and positive influences on your life.


Are you unsure if you have unfinished psychological business to take care of with your parents. Here, according to psychologist Michael Hoyt and gerontologist Andrew Scharlach, are some subtle signs:

Are you excessively angry or uneasy with authority figures such as bosses or teachers? They often are substitute parents and inappropriate emotions directed towards them can signal unfinished business with a parent.

Are you unwilling to even think about a parent’s eventual death?

Do you feel like a child or feel as if you’re treated like one when you’re around a parent.

Do you overreact when a spouse or friend behaves in ways that remind you of your parents’ conduct?