by Jeanne Safer
Basic Books, 2008
Review by Sue Bond on Mar 3rd 2009
Jeanne Safer is a psychotherapist of long-standing in New York. She has written three other books, about non-forgiveness, difficult siblings and choosing not to have children. In her latest, she discusses the profound psychological benefits to be gained by the death of one's parent(s). Initially this sounds rather distasteful, even shocking, but it quickly becomes clear that she is describing the process of working through conflict before, during or after the parent's death. And she is also referring largely to the death of aged parents, with the target audience being middle-aged readers.
She outlines four practices to 'cultivate death benefits': making the decision to learn from the death; giving self permission to learn; being receptive; and 'activation', where, amongst other actions, one constructs a narrative of the parent's history. The book is divided into four parts: the changes that come with death, benefits to 'body, mind and spirit', 'seeing parents with new eyes', and insights. Safer provides an outline of her thesis in the introduction and then also summarizes it at the end.
There is a satisfyingly organized structure to this book, which makes it easy to read and understand. The author writes clearly, uses both her own autobiography appropriately to illustrate her central thesis, and the biographies of her interviewees. It is a useful book for the general reader looking for some guidance around the issue of the death of parents and the resolution (or otherwise) of conflict.
The introductory chapter is a little irritating in its 'sales pitch' tone, but it did provide a good outline of the contents. The author is a bit over-prescriptive at times. There is one reference to maternal death 'curing' schizophrenia which I think should have been left out, primarily because of the unfortunate history of blaming mothers for causing mental illness in their children. (The 'study' also involved only three patients.)
But the strengths of the book transcend these minor problems. Safer's story of her journey with her mother Esther, and the willingness of the author to reveal so much of her own conflict, are generous and form a strong backbone for her thesis.
Safer has the capacity to write succinctly and well, capturing the essence of something in a single sentence: 'Whatever the nature of the bond, parents never leave us; after death they simply move their residence from the outer world to the inner and accompany us for the rest of our lives.' She emphasizes the need to be active about the process of obtaining death benefits, and consciously taking a psychological inventory of the parent's character. What you learn about why your mother or father behaved badly or well is important; then you can decide what aspects of their characters you wish to keep, and which you do not. A bit like choosing which piece of your mother's furniture you would like, but with much more significant results.
There are some extraordinarily powerful stories from Safer's interviewees. One woman spoke of her perceived rejection by her mother when she told her she was lesbian, only to find, five years after her death, a note from her mother that changed everything. Two sisters, who were abused by their alcoholic father and who hadn't seen him for twenty-five years, drive to his deathbed, to find the monster greatly reduced and almost unrecognizable. His confession to the priest before his death is greatly healing for the two women. Another woman whose mother had always disliked her, and viewed her as a rival for her husband since her birth, comes to fundamentally alter that toxic relationship as her mother becomes more and more ill, reaching a place of love where once there was only hatred.
Despite Safer recommending that everyone can obtain some benefit from the death of their parent(s), this will obviously be truer for some than others. I was impressed by her description of the 'Deathspace', where adult children reconsider their dead parents, and where 'truly terrible parents lose their power'. But for those whose parents have been more positive than negative in their lives, there are few examples for them to follow here, and it may be more difficult for them to see how this book could help. There is an example in the chapter on religion of a man finding strength and solace from a dream of him being lifted up in his deeply religious mother's arms, of God as Mother. But we do not find out if it helped his marriage, and are left instead with an uneasy picture of religious obsession and control.
Generally speaking, this is a worthwhile book that I recommend, despite the occasional reservation.
© 2009 Sue Bond
Sue Bond has degrees in medicine and literature and a Master of Arts in Creative Writing. She reviews for online and print publications. She lives in Queensland, Australia