It’s natural for parents to die before their children, that’s the way it’s supposed to happen. But for those who lost parents when they were children, the parent’s age at death takes on special significance — especially as they grow closer to that age.
Let’s say a mother dies when she was 40 years, 362 days old. On some level, that age is etched into her children’s brains. It looms ahead as a day to fear, revere, or deny, but it’s always there. As the child grows into adulthood, nearing the age their parent died, their response to that age can be enlightening, debilitating, even paralyzing. It’s a strange milestone that brings up a variety of emotions and reactions. And for some reason, there isn’t much research or even anecdotal information about it.
By the way, is there a name for that date? Anniversary doesn’t really work. The "age-of-parental-death-milestone" is a mouthful. It deserves a better name. More on that later.
I contacted Maxine Harris, author of “The Loss That Is Forever,” an excellent book that recounts her 60 extensive interviews with adults who lost parents as children. Among many findings, she found that this early loss creates: “The psychological Great Divide, separating the world into a permanent ‘before and after.’” She was kind enough to speak with me and share her considerable wisdom.
RH: What happens when an adult child grows older than their deceased parent?
MH: I think there is a range of reactions; not everyone reacts the same way. Some folks approach it with real trepidation. They are afraid that: “Oh my goodness, I will not be allowed to live longer than my parent.” I interviewed people who actually had heart palpitations and needed to go to the emergency room as that day came closer.
RH: So a fear of their own death is common.
MH: I found other folks who had literally put their lives on hold. They didn’t find a partner, they didn’t have children, they didn’t settle into a job they liked because they really assumed that they would have a shortened life.
When they reached that ‘magic date’ they experienced a freeing up, now they could find that life partner, now they could have a child, because they were not going to have everything end at that particular date.
RH: It’s like a new lease on life.
MH: That’s exactly right! It allowed for certain life changes. A number of people I talked to either had children after that date or were able to make a commitment in a relationship. So that was another response. Some people, honestly, were almost awed, they would say: “Oh my, I just can’t believe I’m older than my parent.” And there were some folks who paid no attention to it.
RH: Were they in denial, or didn’t they care?
MH: They didn’t pay conscious attention to it. They’d say: “Oh, gee, that’s right, duh, I’m 42 my dad was 41.” Do I think it didn’t register? Absolutely not. But if you ask them, it did not register.
RH: So you’re saying it is a big deal, whether people are conscious of it or not. There’s some part of them that will stew on this date, this anniversary.
MH: That’s right. I think for some people it’s somewhat frightening, there’s some apprehension, there’s almost at times some guilt, you know, “I’m getting more years than she had.” And so I think it’s a complex reaction.
A colleague of mine appeared to have an emotional range that was about an inch wide. And he recognized it. I spoke with him after the date and he said: “You know, I’m now older than my dad was when he died.” And I thought to myself, here’s someone who seems emotionally collapsed, and he recognized it. This sort of confirmed for me that even if you’re cut off in other ways, this day is a biggie.
RH: What have people done to commemorate that date?
MH: I knew some who went to the cemetery to have a private and personal conversation. I think they were commemorating the event and in some way, wanting the parents to know that they were not leaving them behind. It’s as if they’re saying: “I may have many more years, but don’t think that I have forgotten you or I have eclipsed you in any way.”
RH: That’s a powerful thought: While I’m still younger than you, I have a feeling of attachment that I fear may be lost when I grow older than you.
MH: That’s right. I think reassuring the parent in a very private way reassures oneself.
But what do we call it? I ran through this whole interview without a name for the day you become older than a deceased parent. I decided to come up with my own name:
In Greek mythology, Thanatos was the personification of death. Psychology, philosophy, medicine, and other disciplines call their study of death, dying, grief, and sociological attitudes toward death “thanatology.” So thanatos fits, some sort of –versary makes sense, therefore I present: “Thanaversary.” It's a little dark, but I think it represents both the bitter and sweet of a day like this.
But I'm not the expert, so I wrote Dr. Harris after the interview to find her thoughts on a name:
MH: A good question. I have not heard of a specific name, so we can invent our own. How about calling it “A Day of Passage.” That can have many meanings, but all of them seem right.
You know what? That's a perfect name for it. You're passing through or passing by the date your parent passed away. Passing from one side of a great divide to the next.
To those who grow older than a deceased parent, I wish you a meaningful Day of Passage. And a Happy Thanaversary.