what will I do without my parents?
October 13, 2008 9:48 AM   Subscribe

I can't stop obsessing about my parents' mortality. Yes, I will probably seek therapy at some point, but for now it would be nice just to hear how others have dealt with this.

I'm 32, my parents are in their late 70's. Their health is on the not-great end of normal for their age, and I am terrified of what is going to happen to me after they're gone.

We are extremely close, but there's a lot of guilt involved. They adopted me when I was 10, before that I was in foster care for a few years and before that I was in a pretty abusive situation that I barely remember. Though my parents were always careful to make sure I didn't feel as if I 'owed' them anything, my adopted siblings (20 years older than me) had no such qualms. They have always seemed cold and distant, and when I had some drug problems in my early 20's, that turned to straight-up dislike and resentment that hasn't abated in spite of the fact that I have been sober and financially stable (and haven't taken a penny off of our parents) since I was 23. I can't imagine that I will have any sort of relationship with them at all after our parents are gone. I wouldn't even be surprised if they try to contest the will to exclude me (our parents are fairly well-off) or if they tried to stop me from taking any mementos or family heirlooms, even the ones that my mother has specifically promised me. The siblings have made it pretty clear that the money my parents spent on my drug treatment was more inheritance than I ever deserved to begin with.

Every time the phone rings late at night, I go absolutely cold. I am driving myself crazy with this - when my parents are gone, I will have no family left at all, and I am afraid that I will just fall apart completely.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I dealt with these feelings through therapy, yes. And mostly what I learned was that really what I was feeling was guilt -- guilt that I wasn't enjoying or making the most of the time we have. So I've learned to do that, in hopes of making sure there's no regrets after they're gone. It's very hard.
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:53 AM on October 13, 2008

I have been sober and financially stable since I was 23.

You overcame a drug problem in your early 20's, a seriously abusive situation before you were 10, and foster care? You'll be ok.

Firstly, it's unlikely both of your parents will be taken from you in one fell blow. Secondly, new people will come into your life who will form your new family. There may well be some of them around already, if you take a look.

On some level, this happens to everybody, and there's no reason to think you can't handle these transitions, which are normal. The fact that your elder siblings are horrible is just one of those things. A lot of people manage (and prefer) to live life without contact with un-loving relatives and instead in the company of loving friends and lovers, and, maybe, their own kids.

I think you should seek therapy to cope with the anxiety you feel over these issues, however. Good luck!
posted by tiny crocodile at 9:59 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

First of all, your siblings are wrong, no matter what they think. You are as much your parents' child as they are. It's obvious your parents love you and care about you - so losing them will be a blow.

However, as one who has lost both parents (birth parents), I can tell you we all live with loss and regret, no matter what our family situation. The fact that you are adopted is probably not nearly as critical as the fact that you are so much younger than your siblings. You're a usurper. You have nothing in common. That would be true even if you were your parents' genetic offspring.

Do spend as much time with your parents as possible, whether in person, or on the phone. Send cards. Let them know how much they mean to you now. They will not live forever, so show them love and gratitude. That will ease your pain later.

The point of parents isn't to create perfect children - it's to produce productive adults. That process if often long and drawn out. It's seldom easy (is it ever easy?). Kudos to you for fixing your life, and to them for supporting you in it.

I have siblings and cousins - the question of entitlement to family things has nothing to do with blood. Things that have been in your family for generations maybe should mostly go to your siblings, especially if you want to have any kind of relationship with them later (legally, that should be specified in the will - I doubt your siblings can break it just because they don't want you to inherit), but things that were your parents should definitely be divided equally. And the money, of course, should be divided equally. A case could be made that your siblings had 20 more years than you did to receive your parents' largess.

While your parents won't live forever, they might surprise you and last a good long while, in spite of their infirmities. Value the time you have with them. Concentrate on now. And yes, cultivate good friends. Create your own family. That is the best way to cope.
posted by clarkstonian at 10:18 AM on October 13, 2008 [2 favorites]

I got this way for a while, after my father had surgery and then a very difficult recovery. I got the phone call in the middle of the night telling me to rush to the hospital because it didn't look good.

Long story short, he ended up being fine. But I obssessed for a year or two at night when I would go to bed, waiting for the phone to ring again. I really went bonkers, I couldn't sleep, I kept thinking about death. It was awful. It was a spiritual thing with me, though, and I think it was a little PTSD.

I finally am better, but it took a couple of years. And I had to unplug the phone for a while, and turn off my cell.

Your siblings are a treat though, families are sometimes crazy-making.
posted by chocolatetiara at 11:36 AM on October 13, 2008

I think about this a lot, too. I am 32 also, and my parents are in their mid-60s, and neither is very healthy. I am an only child with no extended family to speak of, and I am unmarried and childless. I worry a lot about how alone I will feel, family-wise, when they are gone. Unfortunately, I have no advice for you about how to deal with that worry. But what I can recommend, and what has eased my mind a bit, is that you don't waste time on petty arguments, spend time with them now, and make sure they know how much you care. I don't want to look back with regrets when my parents are gone, or wonder if they knew I loved them or if I could have been a better daughter. So, I'm doing the best I can now to minimize that possibility, and it provides me with some comfort.
posted by amro at 11:42 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

I can relate to many of your feelings...even though I had other friends, I always remained very close to my parents, and my Mom has pretty much always been one of my best friends. When I was around your age, several of my friends (whom I'd known since grade school, and was friendly with their families as well) lost a parent, and it not only saddened me but also frightened me. I realized that Mom and Dad won't live forever. But they'd always been there; what would I do without them?? A co-worker of mine at the time didn't help when he commented, "You're about that age..." "What age?" I asked. "When your friends' parents start dropping dead. When I was 36 I served as a pall bearer four times in one year." Talk about uplifting. Part of what helped me eventually get over this anxiety was my Mom's attitude. Whenever I'd discuss my fears with her, she'd laugh and shrug and say "Oh, for Heaven's sake, nobody lives forever. Just look at it as now all my (meaning her) problems and worries are over."
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:44 AM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sadly there's nothing that can prepare you for that phone call; but what I do know is that when it happens your coping mechanisms take over instantly. This applies to dealing with the immediate shock, the impending grief and legal battles with relatives.

As for what to do in the meanwhile, I agree with those who have said 'Make sure you have some good friends to who you can turn' and 'Make the most of the time you have with your parents'. And try not to let the inevitability of human mortality consume you.
posted by highrise at 12:02 PM on October 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

Wow, this is timely, for me. It was almost a year ago that my dad passed away. He had me when he was 60, so I'd always been aware & petrified about his eventual death. I'd always imagined it would be this horribly traumatic thing that I wouldn't be able to handle. It was definitely hard, but I was surprised at how I was able to "be present" - be there for my mom and sisters (and I didn't lose my sobriety either, which was at 5 years then). I don't have any family of origin issues like yours, but I'm certain that plenty of non-adoption siblings experience these weird dynamics. As with most things in life, all you can do is try to do the next right thing, or at least, try to not make it worse. You can't make other people change, etc... I agree with what other people have said: try going to a counselor; and strengthen your support network. Losing your parents will be challenging, but don't underestimate your ability to face it. Keep in mind, also, that it probably isn't going to happen today or this week. Living in fear of the future isn't much better than living it in the past.

posted by wowbobwow at 12:05 PM on October 13, 2008

In regards to the will, you might want to take some time to sit down and have a discussion with your parents about your fears that your siblings will contest the will/not let you have what your parents want you to have. See what they have to say about the situation. Perhaps they will decide to have a discussion with their other children to make sure your siblings know your parents wishes.
posted by All.star at 12:14 PM on October 13, 2008

You can't know how the future will be. Anything that you think or that is said here is just conjecture. When I start to believe stories that I have about things that don't exist, I can get pretty tied up myself. My own fears come from this. And I always experience suffering when I let those fears of an unknown future dominate the present. So I just tell myself to slow down and be present. That seems important. What is real right now?

The truth is that whenever it happens, when your parents die, they will be gone. And you have no idea how you adopted siblings will react. You can create scenarios for yourself and scare yourself with them, but that ust keeps you in the mire.

Right now, you have these two people in your life - that is the reality of it. You are close to them and you have come through some tough times together. You have a choice NOW about the kind of relationship you want with them. And later, you will have a choice about how you will live without them

But there they are right now. Right now you are not alone. Right now you are loved and you love them. Don't let your fear get in the way of now.

Give them a call.

(if it's helpful, I use Byron Katie's work and meditation for these kinds of fears. It helps me be really present to what is here now).
posted by salishsea at 12:33 PM on October 13, 2008

My parents are both dead; my mom died when I was 26, my dad when I was 33. (I am now 41.) My mom's death, while expected, was 3 months from diagnosis to funeral. My dad died unexpectedly while traveling overseas.

Even if you expect it, as with a protracted illness, the moment itself is almost always unexpected and you will cope with it as you would cope with any other stunningly traumatic surprise. In another thread about youthful grief, many of us recommended two books: Motherless Daughters and The Orphaned Adult (whether you're male or female, the underlying themes of Motherless Daughters might be helpful no matter the gender match of the griever and the lost parent). Therapy helps; in your case, you sound so anxious about the possibility of death that therapy for anxiety issues might allay some of the thought circles.

As for the practicalities, I firmly believe (although I suppose some would consider me impolite) that families should talk openly about wills, bequests of items, who will be the executor, and other issues. I think it's cruel to leave survivors in the dark until they have to deal with both grief and legal/tax issues at once, especially if one of the children is to be the executor, or (worse) multiple executors are named. Given how you describe your siblings, a family meeting with a mediator experienced in inheritance issues and law might be a useful thing for everyone.

This: when my parents are gone, I will have no family left at all. Yes, this is the core, isn't it? I am eight years into this. It gets better, though some moments it catches my heart sideways and I wonder where this fresh grief originated. All I can tell you is that you appear to have emotional strength beyond that of many people, and that when this time comes, you will muddle through it. It won't be fun and a lot of it will hurt, but believe me, if you can, that the reality of it is not nearly as awful as the imagining and fantasizing about it.
posted by catlet at 2:09 PM on October 13, 2008 [5 favorites]

This thread is full of good advice. This is what I got out of what you wrote: It seems like part of the whole bundle of anxiety includes the idea that when your parents are gone you will feel/be unprotected from your siblings - not only will you have no "people", but they will even cut you off from the artifacts that would have allowed you to maintain some kind of connection to the past and you'll be completely adrift. Totally understandable, from what you wrote. Perhaps addressing this issue with your parents (the idea of you feeling at the mercy of your siblings or that they might treat you unkindly) and ironing out those details will take the edge off the underlying fear so you can more fully enjoy your stable, sober, happy time you have now.
posted by amethysts at 3:35 PM on October 13, 2008

One of my older coworkers lost his mom last year. His dad had died previously. He was talking to another older coworker about "how it feels to be an orphan for the first time" not long after. Hearing that hit me hard. I'm 40 and my parents are not in good health. I stress about the same things that you stress about a lot. I'm an only child, so it's a mixed blessing. There won't be anyone to argue with, but there won't be anyone to really share the loss when it happens, either.

I asked my wonderful boss (more like an uncle than my blood uncles) the other day how old he was when his dad died. He was a year older than I am now. Both of my parents' input are part of my basic identity, so losing either one is going to hurt. I love and like my parents a lot, now that I'm an adult especially. When I pointed out to my boss that I'm an only child (he has siblings), he took my hand (I've already mentioned he was wonderful) and told me he'd do whatever he could do to help, and he will.

The family you end up with is the family you make, regardless of your birth circumstances, I think. I've already taken on other "brothers and sisters" that don't depend on blood or paperwork. Extended family is what you make. Otherwise, my son and daughter would have never had any "aunts and uncles" from me. And believe me, those Aunts and Uncles are real.

Maybe your older siblings will rally with you when the challenge happens. I hope so. It may become a bonding experience of sorts. Otherwise, please surround yourself with your own "family" who love you and will be there for you. I've introduced a lot of my local "family" to my parents, and it's been approval and respect all around.

Please excuse all the "quotes." It's hard to explain various relationships sometimes.
Much love to you. MeMail if you feel like it. I'm a little older and not in the exact same place, but I have the night fears often, too.
posted by lilywing13 at 12:21 AM on October 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have you talked to them about this? Your fear might be assuaged slightly if you were to talk to them. Why? Well, you certainly seem filled with love and gratitude for them. Perhaps your fear is an extension of an unmet need to express that love and gratitude? Humiliate yourself a little to pour out your gratefulness--even cry!
posted by jefficator at 8:07 PM on April 21, 2009

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