The global COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the fore the importance of quality end-of-life and bereavement care, and it has served to bring to light issues around death, dying, and bereavement that have tended to remain hidden from view.
We have researched the private realm of end of life and explored first-hand experiences of parental death that were up close and personal. We want to highlight how death impacts personal lives.
One key strand we and others have researched is the impact of deaths that are considered ‘ordinary’, mainly the loss of a parent or parents in late middle age. Increasingly, contemporary bereavement research has directed its focus on complicated and prolonged forms of grief albeit within a time-limited frame. While fears of medicalising normal grief might be justifiable, in some ways ‘ordinary’ deaths have been overlooked. For example, the death of a parent during childhood and adolescence has received considerable research attention, perhaps precisely because this is a less common experience in contemporary western societies.
Consequently, while death in old age is considered timely, natural, and unproblematic and as such, deemed less worthy of the label ‘tragic’. The process of categorising deaths as timely or natural is socially constructed and relies upon certain assumptions within a given culture or society about who is expected to die and when. Further, this categorisation of timely and untimely death underpins what bereavement researchers refer to as a ‘hierarchy of grief’ (Doka 1989). For instance, bereavement literature may often claim that the death of a child is the ‘worst’ type of bereavement, whereas the death of an elderly parent is to be expected and part of the natural life course. Key to this type of construction is that the grief expressed following a death is expected to be in proportion to the social importance and significance of the death.
For people with parents and those who identify significant others as parents, timeliness may be irrelevant to offspring as they face a life transition from an adult with living parents to an adult without, midlife experiences of parental loss are no exception to the social complexities of grief. Indeed, as those living in western societies increasingly have their first experience of bereavement later in life, people may feel just as unprepared as at any other stage in the life course. The death of a parent holds its own specific challenges and can present unique existential and ontological dilemmas and questions as it removes the ‘buffer against death’ (Moss and Moss 1984). More practically, becoming the ‘next in line’ can involve taking on new roles and responsibilities, previously held by the deceased parent. In sum, this experience of transition can be compared to a ‘rite of passage’ where bereaved adult children find themselves shifted to the top of the ancestral hierarchy bestowed with a new sense of identity, along with duties and obligations.
We are also interested in how the role of children in end-of-life care was framed by social expectations of what that role might involve – and how there was a premium on getting it right. Uneven trajectories to death created decision points and sometimes, dilemmas within families. Anthropological literature has long highlighted the difficulties surrounding the life-death boundary, with which researchers are very familiar. These accounts of being deeply involved, show the extent to which prior knowledge helps – and the significance of the parental buffer between life and death for the surviving children.
As academics, researchers, and practitioners working in end of life and bereavement we are trained to maintain distance from research participants and the data we collect. When conducting fieldwork developing ‘reflexivity’ involves identifying and acknowledging one’s own emotions and position as a researcher. However, when it comes to experiences of death and grief, the personal and professional can often intersect in ways that are not always clear-cut.
When the understanding that grief is a 'taboo' persists, then writing openly about an experience like bereavement enables people to connect with otherwise hidden and silenced stories. For some, to write about the experience of grief may be both a way to express the 'unsayable' of death and to make public what is felt to be private. Furthermore, parents and what we inherit from them are deeply intertwined into who we are and what we become – whether our parents are present or absent. Our story is their story and vice versa.
The pandemic has challenged many taken-for-granted assumptions around how to care for people in end of life and bereavement. Perhaps, as stories about people dying in hospitals, hospices, or at home without vital family and community support continue to be shared, a new focus on the significance of parental death will emerge.
Doka, K. J. (ed.) (1989) Disenfranchised grief: Recognising hidden sorrow, Lexington,
Mass: Lexington Books.
Moss, M., & Moss, S (1984). The impact of parental death on middle aged children. Omega 14(1), 65–75.
Pearce, C. and Komaromy, C. (eds) (2021) Narratives of Parental Death, Dying and Bereavement A Kind of Haunting. Palgrave: London.