11/17/2010 09:00 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Seismic Shift of Losing Both Parents

It's hard to anticipate how it feels to have both your parents gone.

"The death of the last of one's parents is one of life's great divides," wrote the late Willie Morris after he'd gone home to Yazoo, Miss. to bury his mother. He stood in his childhood home one last time, sure that he could hear his mother playing the piano, his father's footsteps on the porch and the barking of all the family dogs.

"It brings back one's past in a rush of tenderness, guilt, regret and old forgotten moments," he said, "tortures one with the mystery of living."

Recently, a number of my friends have lost their last parent, something that I went through more than a decade ago. For some, it was a relief, an end to watching a loved one peacefully or torturously "close up shop," as one put it. Others were shocked to get a phone call that a seemingly strong mother or father had just checked out.

However the end comes, you can't know just how it will feel to be the child left behind. Even for those long estranged or shut out by dementia, the departure of parents severs an old and primal tie. A generation disappears. A hierarchy ends. The platelets underneath us move around.

Any family death shifts the dynamic for those remaining; the chess pieces of parents and siblings rearrange themselves, sometimes in unexpected ways. Some voids refill, others seal shut.

But the second parent's death leaves extra baggage. Sons and daughters may feel orphaned, abandoned. Or set free, of parental judgment and criticism. (After my father died, I finally got my ears pierced, free from my parents' notion that doing so suggested moral laxity.)

But all of us must feel more vulnerable than before. Gone is the shield that seemed to separate us from our own old age and death. Gone is any illusion that we will always be strong and vital. Now we are next in line; through no effort of our own, we've stepped up.

The loss of parents also intensifies memories of that primary family and our place in it. Old scenes flash before us. Willie Morris asked himself, "What did all those moments mean? Was there any meaning to them at all?"

I'm reminded of a time a few years ago when I dropped by our old house, where my parents lived for 50 years. The owner invited me in. I was glad for her when I noticed improvements. The high-low carpet was gone, the 1970s wallpaper stripped off. But when I spotted my brothers' initials in sloppy white letters still there on the basement steps, I felt grounded, connected, relieved. There was graphic proof that we'd been there, staked our claim. For a moment, that life seemed real again.

As years pass, the memories and losses weave their way into the fabric of our lives. We adjust, gracefully or not, to the "elder" role, on the far side of the divide. Each of us does it in our own way, but unless we die before our parents, none of us escapes it.

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