When Your Therapist’s Mother Dies, Send Flowers and Shut Up

image credit: NPR.org

image credit: NPR.org


I have a theory.

When an adult loses a parent, what follows from that loss is a transformation– where once the surviving child was blocked, she now soars towards freedom; somehow invisible forces that kept the child locked in old patterns evaporate.  It’s as if the parent’s death allows the child to live in ways that simply weren’t possible while the parent was still drawing breath.  I’m not only talking about strained parent-child relationships; my theory covers all kinds of parent-child relationships.

I saw it happen when Elizabeth’s mom died in 2004– she started dating for the first time ever.  Then when Laney’s dad died in 2007, she moved out of her dysfunctional living situation and bought a gorgeous one-bedroom apartment.  When Jay’s dad passed unexpectedly in 2010, he re-evaluated everything, ended up quitting his law job to go back to school to get his teaching degree.

Just the other night, someone told me that the very first time he went out after his father passed, BOOM!, he met his wife at a bar.


Don’t ask me about my sample size.  I’ll admit it’s small.  I’m not a social scientist, nor I have I tested this theory on myself (and hope I don’t have to for decades).  But I still believe it.  I’ve watched friends face grief head-on and then find themselves for the first time ever in long-term relationships, new jobs, cross-country moves, creative successes.

I don’t go around whispering in grieving people’s ears, “Hey, something really big is going to shift now that your parent has passed.  Think plate tectonics.  The loss sucks, but trust me, something big is coming your way.”  I don’t even hint at it while tears are flowing and the pain is still raw.  Grieving people need casseroles, help picking up dry cleaning, and someone to sit next to them while they watch Sanford & Sons re-runs.  They don’t need my theories.

I’ll be testing this theory for the next few months, thanks to the email I got last week that my therapist was cancelling sessions because his mother had died

I’m already anticipating his Great Shift.   I can see it now: he’ll tap into his deep-but-repressed-all-these-years passion for parasailing, and he’ll close up his practice to live near the ocean.  Maybe he’ll decide to buy a villa in Italy and work three months per year, asking us to Skype in when he’s abroad.  My fantasies about what his loss will unleash in his work life vary wildly: one second I imagine him growing ever more Zen, quoting ancient philosophers and encouraging me to let go of suffering or to light more candles.  Then, I imagine him engaging in brand-new ways of being– like screaming or singing or pounding a drum–  embolden by his new status as a motherless child.  Maybe he’ll recommit to his practice (read me) and stop taking twelve weeks of vacation every damn year.

I wonder if I’ll tell him my theory and if he’ll see me watching him for signs that my hypothesis is solid.  Like science.

Mostly, I wonder if I’m right, and whether I should keep my mouth shut and just send flowers.


73 thoughts on “When Your Therapist’s Mother Dies, Send Flowers and Shut Up

  1. Whoa. I don’t know why I’m a little taken aback, but I am. I love a good theory unfortunately my sample size might be even smaller. My father lost his father when he was young (30) — though still an adult since he had been married for a decade and had two kids — and I can’t remember the Great Shift but it may have been there. Ironically the other adult I know who lost their mother was my grandmother (my father’s mother) — she was 72 when her mother was finally gone. I don’t know if your spirit can fly after that long with someone attached to it. Anyway, I love this idea and you’ve really got me thinking about family dynamics.

    • It’s bee my theory forever and I never talked to anyone about it except for one person over text and one person before I was really grooving on it. I’m pretty sure it’s bogus, but I am fixated on it.

      On Tue, Jan 14, 2014 at 11:37 AM, Outlaw Mama

  2. I can say I felt the same thing happen to me when my mother died but that was a dysfunctional relationship, so maybe more likely to turn out that way.

    Parasailing therapy would be a relaxing way to get through everything though.

  3. I think you may be on to something and it is really difficult to think about it, because who wants to admit that when their parent dies, THAT’s when they’ll really start living? I must admit, when I write, there is always the voice of my mother in my head going tsk, tsk tsk. So, I think the thing is to try and live like no one is holding you back and many times, it’s not the parent, but your personification of them in your mind.

  4. Hmmmm. I can agree that when a parent dies, something shifts. But I think it may be more of the knowledge that life is so very fleeting being pounded into them as their parent is buried that spurs a person on to things they’ve always wanted to do. The same thing happens when they have a health scare of their own, maybe a bad mammogram that turns out okay. It really hits home that their time is limited on this earth, and why shouldn’t they do those things they’ve always dreamed of doing?

    Or maybe (in my case), you wish to honor your beloved parent who has passed by living your life to the fullest in a way they’d appreciate. My Dad always urged me to “find my bliss.” Now that he’s gone, I want to honor that. But I don’t feel he repressed my wishes in any way while he was alive.

    Just my two cents. And like you said, I hope you don’t have to test the theory for a long LONG time. 🙂

  5. Great bog. I can only focus on your therapist. Wow, what kind of therapist talks off for 12 weeks a year? I bet there times when you must feel abandoned or you have some juicy issue that can not wait and he’s off for two weeks in the South France somewhere eating a fresh baguette and brie with his wife while you suffer.

  6. When my dad died just before I turned 30, my life was fundamentally, deeply changed. It was a whole series of things during that year that caused me to feel different and more adult. I think sometimes a parent’s death just makes you confront other areas of your life; you realize that life is just so short. So weird. I just wrote about my dad’s death today, and about parental relationships.

  7. As someone parentless (one dead, one never having been a parent from the start), yes, there was most definitely a shift. I’m not sure it went for me exactly as you describe, but everything certainly changed in a variety of ways.

  8. I definitely felt a shift when my mom passed. I was 29 and we had a wonderful relationship. I didn’t run out and quit my job or anything (although that is in the plan!), but I definitely stopped sweating the small stuff so much and my attitude about life changed.

  9. Such an intriguing theory. I think the same can be true for a time when someone with a judgmental parent finally learns to let go and no longer care what that parent’s opinion may be. All kinds of liberation awaits.

  10. I’ve found that the older I get, the more I realize the myriad conflicting emotions that people experience when they’ve lose a parent or former generation family members. And yes, it’s best to hug (or appropriate equivalent), say you’re so sorry for their loss, and send flowers to speak for you. Unless they ask for validation in conflicting feelings. Or not.

  11. I can see this theory holding water. My mother died 6 months before I graduated with my undergrad. She was obviously a big proponent of education and had helped proof my application essay for, what I thought was, a long-shot ivy-league graduate program on the other side of the country. I had applied and then decided I would just be honored to be accepted, but what I really planned to do was to move back to be near her, since we knew it was nearing the end. Her death was almost her last “oh no you won’t”, because a few months later I received my acceptance letter and knew there was no reason to turn it down.

  12. My father died when I was 11, so I had a pretty big shift soon after. It was called puberty. But when my godfather died in September 2011, I grieved so much that I had the overwhelming urge to write. And I started my blog in December that year. And that decision has shifted my life and my writing and opportunities in phenomenal ways. I just wish he was here to read my stuff. I think your theory has some very valid points.

  13. I hope this theory is correct. And I can see it being so. A lot of people let parents hold them back. They want to take care of their parent and be there for them. At the same time, a death, especially that of someone close whom you may have thought invincible at one time or another in your life, opens your eyes and makes you think that life isn’t forever so you need to make the most of it and be happy. I’m not looking forward to my parents dying but I know that my mother is my crutch… If I fall on my face I just call her and she fixes whatever issue I’ve made for myself. I have never had to fear being stupid and facing consequences because my mom makes them “disappear”. I know that I will be better off when I no longer have that safety met and have to fly on my own with no one to catch me.

  14. I’m not sure it would be possible NOT to have a great shift after dealing with the loss of a parent, I’m just not entirely sure the shift is always positive. My dad lost his father about twelve years ago and essentially had a nervous breakdown that lasted for awhile, but my mom lost her mother three years ago and went on to make a really excellent career change, dug deep into exercising and healthy living, and pulled her family closer than ever before. It’s definitely an interesting theory to ponder…

  15. I agree with Samantha, when I lost my mother at 17 it wasn’t all that positive either. At the time it felt like I was busting out to do all the things I never could with her watching but as I got older I have realized that time is where a lot of present issues have sprouted from. Not looking forward to what might happen when Dad goes.

  16. Well that’s quite the theory … and while I don’t have any proof one way or the other to dispute it (jeez, I’m starting to sound like a lawyer!), I can’t disagree with you. Maybe the loss makes them think about they’re own mortality and they look at lives and realize they don’t like what they see. Maybe death is a catalyst for a shift?

  17. I was planning on coming up with a really good argument against this – until I realized that just a few months after my dad died I met my husband.
    Oh well. You’re right.

  18. I think you’re right. I think that losing a parent opens you up and forces you to fully become your own person. Some people have the skills to take charge of themselves and make positive changes, and some people find out that they have a lot to learn.

  19. I’m sure you’re right; I’ve seen it too. I think it’s about the way we raise our kids. We set it up that way: Parent. Child. And then it’s never allowed to change. My monster-in-law is 82, and her Mom is 104 – and this 82 year old, it’s so obvious, is still living as someone’s child, that’s not right. Animals are supposed to grow up and be an adult at some point, the parent child relationship should end at adulthood. But then, we’d have to help our kids grow up for that, instead of making sure they never do.

  20. I don’t really see this, but maybe it’s because for whatever reason most people I’m close to either still have their parents or lost them later in life. But now I’m going to think about this and collect data.

    • That’s my scientist friend! Collecting data. I, on the other hand, take a sample size of four and convince myself of a theory.

      On Wed, Jan 15, 2014 at 10:39 AM, Outlaw Mama

  21. You’re definitely onto something Christie. My son’s favorite teacher left his job in the middle of the school year when his father died, moved to China and became a monk. Me? As devastating as I’m sure it will be when my mother passes, I know it will also be the freedom and relief you described. As truly awful as that sounds. Because my whole life, she’s had a Kung Fu grip strangle hold on my emotions. TMI? lol

  22. I think that perhaps in a situation in which one feels reliant upon another as in a therapist/client relationship the worry sets in at times like this… As a therapist who has lost sibs and a parent during the past few years I have found that my clients while I am sure were all TRULY concerned (and I mean that) about my welfare were also quite nervous about what this meant for some sort of transformative impact on our working relationship…my advice…stop worrying…send flowers.

  23. I think you are right Christie. When my father died it released me from expectations I felt I could never meet. I always felt as if i could never meet his lofty goals for me. Whether imagined or real when he died I feel like I have the freedom to just be me. I have done so much since them I never would have even dreamed of prior to that time.

  24. I think, for many of us, the death of a parent is the Last Great Milestone (TM). Our lives, from conception, are measured by events that mark their progress. After the loss of a parent (presuming “normal” progression), the last big thing for us is to shuffle on ourselves.

    • That’s how I imagine it too. A great shuffle without the parents who’ve always been on the planet longer than I have.

      On Thu, Jan 16, 2014 at 10:55 AM, Outlaw Mama

  25. I think many of us live in the shadow of our parents, especially when they’re larger than life figures or we’re people pleasers. Not that I know anyone like that…*cough*

  26. These lines… I don’t go around whispering in grieving people’s ears, “Hey, something really big is going to shift now that your parent has passed. Think plate tectonics. The loss sucks, but trust me, something big is coming your way.”
    I love it! Great write.

  27. I don’t think it matters whether the family is dysfunctional or not. Age may matter though, the younger they are (adults) the more they may allow themselves to do or try something that they didn’t while their parent/s were alive. I think it has to do with being a certain way with others and how they expect you to be (doesn’t have to be a bad thing) and when that person is gone it gives you a chance to look at yourself differently and to explore what you hadn’t before.

    Very interesting read/theory. Thanks for sharing it.

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