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Death and Dying in an Age of Family Fragmentation: The New Alone

By Elizabeth Marquardt
January 27, 2008

Not long ago, I had dinner with a friend whose mother had recently remarried, to a man who had never had any children. Though she was happy for her mother, my friend also found herself bothered by a thought she couldn't shake. If her mother were to die before the new husband, she wondered, would she herself be expected to care for this man she barely knew?

My friend isn't alone in her uncertainty. Because of profound changes in how Americans organize and sustain -- and often break up -- our families, our nation will soon confront a never-before-seen shift in how we die and whom we'll have around us when we do. And the likelihood is that on every level, we will be dying much more alone.

Reduced birth rates, widespread divorce, single-parent childbearing, remarriage and what we might call "re-divorce" are poised to usher in an era of uncertain obligation and complicated grief for the many adults confronting the aging and dying of their divorced parents, stepparents and ex-stepparents. And compared with the generations before them, these dying parents and parent figures will be far less likely to find comfort and help in the nearby presence of grown daughters and sons.

"Children of Divorce Care for Parents Less" read the headline of a UPI article last September that reported the results of a study revealing that divorce predicts a significantly lower level of involvement among adult children in caring for their aging parents. The study's lead author, developmental psychologist Adam Davey of Temple University, contended that it wasn't the divorce itself that led to this estrangement but rather "what happens afterwards, such as geographical separation."

But in a study of grown children of divorce that I conducted with sociology professor Norval Glenn at the University of Texas at Austin, we found that the divorce itself has a lot to do with how parents and children get along. The grown children of divorce in our study were far less likely to report that they had gone to either or both parents for comfort when they were younger. When they grew up, they were more likely to have strained relationships with their fathers and mothers. Most of the 18- to 35-year-olds in our study still had relatively young parents, but some had already confronted the illness and death of one or the other of their divorced parents. They struggled especially with whether and how to care for estranged fathers who were ill and often living alone, men who had done little for them but who now badly needed help from, well, someone.

It's hard when a divorced parent you weren't close to dies. But it's even harder when the sole parent you were extremely close to passes away. In the course of the study, I met two young adults whose mothers, who had raised them alone after divorcing, had recently died. They were consumed with anger -- at God, at their fathers, at fate. They were full of questions: Why did my "good parent" have to die while my "bad parent" lives on? Am I an orphan now, even though my father is still alive?

It became clear to me that in a divorced family, the parent who has recently died may have symbolically "died" a long time ago for the surviving parent, while for their child, both parents have been very much alive. When parents are married, there is the possibility of shared grief. A father loses a wife at the same time that a grown child loses a mother. Shared grief offers comfort and can draw remaining members of the family into a new kind of closeness. By contrast, adults from divorced families grieve the death of a parent alone. Even if the surviving parent is kind and loving, that grief cannot be shared in the way it could be if he or she had still been married to the deceased.

When a divorced parent dies while the child is young, the pain of divorce-plus-death is compounded further. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, a significant number of children of divorced or single parents lost the person who was essentially their only parent, while others lost a parent they had already lost once to divorce. A New York Times article reported the story of Hector Tirado Jr., a New York firefighter with five children ranging in age from 6 to 11. Tirado had separated from his wife three years earlier, so for his children, their uncle said, his death was like "losing their father twice."

The situation with stepparents is even more complex. In his study, Temple University's Davey found that aging stepparents were only half as likely as biological parents to receive care from grown children. "Society does not yet have a clear set of expectations for stepchildren's responsibility," he observed.

You can say that again. All stepchildren and stepparents forge a relationship in their own way. Some become deeply attached, some are virtually strangers, many fall somewhere in between. Even when stepchildren and stepparents are close, the deep ambiguity of the relationship can make losing a stepparent to death or divorce a profoundly lonely experience for the child. A friend told me about a colleague who had recently nursed her beloved stepmother, a woman she had grown up with, during a long illness. Even as she mourned her stepmother's death, the woman was mystified and hurt by the lack of support she had received from many friends and co-workers, who'd wondered why she would go out of her way to provide long-term, hands-on care to someone who was "only" a stepmother.

Her story was all too familiar to me. When I was 13, my beloved stepfather took his own life. He and my mother had been divorced for several years, but from the time I was 3 years old until they separated when I was 9, he had been my in-the-home father, a man I'd fallen in love with not long after my mother had. His death was devastating for all of us, but my immense grief, which stretched through my teenage years and into my 20s, was made all the more lonely and isolating because almost no one around me -- friends, teachers, many members of my extended family -- recognized that I'd lost anyone of importance at all.

As the generation that ushered in widespread divorce ages, an epidemic of such lonely grief may well sweep in behind it. Much of the expert literature on death and dying implicitly assumes an intact family experience. It assumes that people grow up with their mothers and fathers, who are married to each other when one of them dies. Some scholars are beginning to investigate aging and dying in families already visited by divorce. But most scholars and the public still give scant attention to the loss of other parent figures or to the deeply complicating, long-lasting effects of family fragmentation.

Nearly 40 percent of today's adults have experienced their parents' divorce. Increasing numbers of younger adults were born to parents who never married each other at all. I am certain, because I'm one of those living it, that the painful contours of the new American way of death will be discovered and defined by my own generation for years to come.

Elizabeth Marquardt, a vice president of the Institute for American Values, a nonprofit pro-family organization, is author of "Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce."

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