Too Good to be True; Lessons in Gratitude

Queen Elizabeth II died this week at age 96. Her son, King Charles III, age 73 (almost 74), ascends to the throne in times that are challenging and not all that unlike what his mother faced on her ascending to the throne back in 1952. I extend my deepest sympathy to the King and his family, his siblings, their spouses and children on his mother’s passing and send thoughts and prayers to the British people.

King Charles has, for the first time in his life, experienced what it means to no longer have a mother or father to look to for advice or comfort. What is interesting to me about this is how the loss of a parent impacts our lives differently depending on how old we are (as the child) and how old our parent is.

What is the Parent-Child Relationship When both Are Adults?

There are many factors at play here. These include the health of the parent at the time of his/her death, the health of the child, the expectations of the role(s) being played by the parent/child, and the nature of the parent/child relationship over time.

The British Monarchy offers an interesting case study of this phenomena. Queen Elizabeth lost her father when she was only 24; her mother lived to 101. Charles, Anne, Andrew, and Edward had both parents across their entire developmental lifespan.

Century of Change

For those born in the early years of the 20th Century, most could expect a parent to die by age 60-65. In those times, “children” typically took on the role of parenthood in their early to mid- twenties. Assuming they had children early in the marriage, a parent could expect to become a grandparent when they entered their 50s. That left them 15-20 years to be a grandparent.

Role expectations were fairly defined during these developmental stages. Broadly speaking, the parents’ job was to provide food, clothing, shelter, moral guidance, and education. The job of the grandparent was to support the parent in terms of childcare, possibly economic support, and moral development. The levels of involvement differed by culture, class, economics, and location (e.g., rural or urban). If a parent died, it was expected that the grandparent would step in.

A Personal Case Study

My maternal grandmother died when I was 10. She was 66 years old. My grandmother’s role in the family was the Matriarch. She hosted the family events and enforced rules of behavior. My memories of her are associated with cooking, playing the piano, and being made to feel special. That, of course, reflected my developmental stage.

On her passing, the roles my mother filled in the family changed. While she was still daughter to her father, at age 43 she became his domestic coordinator, providing meals, seeing to having his home cleaned and laundry done, as well as remaining mother to me and wife to my father.

My Father’s Death

Four years later, my father died. This event changed my mother’s status to widow and my status to child of a single parent. My grandfather took over the parenting role and filled that void. I added duties of cooking, cleaning, and personal care for my grandfather as I entered my teenage years.

My father’s death came many years before his mother, an unexpected and unwelcomed experience for her. She grieved his death in her own stoic way, but after his passing, was never really a part of my life or my mother’s, except for exchange of holiday cards and letters. This illustrates the too frequent experience of families where relationships dissolve due to unresolved issues passed from one generation to another, what I call “dark legacies”.

When Did I Become an Adult?

I find it interesting that you are considered a “child” until both parents are gone.  If you follow this train of thought, because we are living longer and longer, many of us remain children well into old age. Of course, “child” here is defined in terms of relationship, not developmental stage. In my case, I remained a child until my mother’s death at age 89. Chronologically, I was 55. King Charles, now 73, was a child until this week. And Queen Elizabeth was a child until she was 81.  

Many cultures have ceremonies that denote the transition from childhood to adulthood (e.g., Quinceañera or Bar Mitzvah/Bat Mitzvah). Yet, the parent/child relationship has its own dynamics across the years. Queen Elizabeth frequently consulted her mother. Charles, on the other hand, apparently did not enjoy that close, collaborative mother/son relationship.

Cross-Generational Relationships

I did not come to appreciate the very special nature of my cross-generational relationship with my mother and grandfather until I was much older. My memory is that we settled into roles that adapted to meet our emotional, economic and social circumstances. These roles changed as my grandfather’s health declined.

My relationship with my mother experienced many ups and downs as I matured, moved away and married. As I did not have any children of my own, she never had the chance to become a grandmother, something I suspect left her feeling very disappointed.

Roles and Functions across Time

An oft-made observation is that the parent becomes the child over time. This can certainly be true, especially when there are cognitive changes or physical limitations that require support and assistance be provided to the aging parent. But other roles are less clear.

What is involved in “mothering” an adult child?  What does it mean for an adult child to “parent” their aging parent?  The lines are blurred as the child becomes an adult; a different relationship can develop out of mutual support and respect, as well as interdependence rather than co-dependence.

I chose to maintain both geographic distance and emotional distance from my mother as she aged. I wanted to respect her desire to remain independent, while also coming to terms with my own enmeshment with her that had its roots in the roles and responsibilities we took on because of the deaths of our respective parents.

Psychological family dynamics color all relationships, and may prove to be impediments to sharing in the care of an aging parent or accepting help from an adult child. Duties and responsibilities may change depending on gender (sons take care of financial issues, daughters take care of emotional issues), birth order (eldest makes the decisions), and/or favored status (good child/bad child).

Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child

I experienced a distinct shift in my sense of belonging and continuity after my mother died. While she was alive, even though I took on the role of “parenting” her in many ways, I still had a mother. That support and link to shared memories was severed on her death.

I am feeling my mother’s absence more acutely perhaps, not just because I remember her taking me to see Queen Elizabeth when the Queen visited Chicago in 1959, but because tomorrow, September 12, is my mother’s birthday. While I cannot say for sure, I suspect that those of us who have lost both parents can identify with King Charles, at least in terms of what it means to finally be an adult.

2 responses to “The Queen is Dead. Long Live the King!”

  1. Barbara A Mahon Avatar

    Nice analysis Mary. I was glad to understand some of your history in personal pain,and respect your willingness to be vulnerable. And finally adulthood is taking full responsibility for our own happiness no matter the past. I do not identify at all with the royal family experience only as the shared human experience without the overlay of roles. Elizabeth was steadfast with authenticity in her work. Her death signals the end of an era. There is no leader now rather each as our own wisdom and goodness allows in connection with other beings. Blessings, Barbara

  2. LINDA LYON Avatar

    Hi Mary, Thanks so much for sharing your relationships with your parents and grandparents, and how feelings and responsibilities change as one ages. There are definitly different experiences between parents and children as aging progresses and life happens. This can be treasured memories, huanting moments, and wishful thinking of things that could have been said or done. Life is what it is and one continues to move through and learn, and take new steps. Hope September 12th was filled with gratitude and positivity. Your writing is a wealth of knowledge. Linda

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