Politics & Policy

Dr. Safer Is In

Parental lessons.

Jeanne Safer, a psychotherapist and author, has a new book out: Death Benefits: How Losing a Parent Can Change an Adult’s Life — For the Better.

Yes, light fare for Mother’s Day.

On the eve of the book’s release, Safer recently talked to National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez about parents, children, life, death, and benefits.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: What kind of Mother’s Day gift is this? To say adult children are better off with their mothers and fathers dead?

Jeanne Safer: That’s exactly what I’m saying. Since nobody’s parents live forever, it’s actually comforting to realize that some good (often, a lot of good) can come of losing them. You can get some of the best death benefits from the death of a wonderful parent, by the way.

Lopez: You quote Auberon Waugh: “Perhaps nobody is completely grown-up until both his parents are dead.” That can’t possibly be true.

Safer: It was true for Auberon Waugh! He really found his own voice as a writer after his father Evelyn died.

Lopez: John McCain’s mother is still around. That hasn’t seemed to hurt him? Or is she to blame for his 2000 miss? That’s one pretty long childhood.

Safer: In McCain’s case, I suspect that his deceased father is the more relevant parent. McCain’s father and grandfather (for whom he was named) were the first four-star admiral father and son in the U.S. Navy — a rank John S. McCain III never attained. Admiral McCain died in 1981; his son left the Navy that year. He first ran for Congress in 1982, and won. Sounds like a death benefit to me.

Lopez: Is it possible to not wait for death for benefits? How do adults go about having a healthy relationship with their parents before death?

Safer: It’s not only possible, it’s smart, to try to get some emotional distance and understanding of parents as people while they’re alive. You ask the same questions (you’ll find some of them on the cover of my book and on my website, JeanneSaferPhD.com) — it’s just that they may become easier to answer postmortem.

Lopez: Is there a message about personal responsibility in Death Benefits?

Safer: Absolutely. After your parents are gone, you really know that there’s nobody to blame or to credit but yourself. It’s incredibly liberating not to be a victim any more, as many of my subjects discovered. One woman said, “I am now the keeper of my destiny, of how extraordinary or how pedestrian my life becomes.”

Lopez: Do you find that a “Death Benefit” is often religion? Again, do you find stories of children who have successfully used religion to help them better their relationships with a parent is living?

Safer: Of course religion helps some people better their tie with a living parent, but the surprising news is how many use it to better their relationship with one who’s dead. People told me about powerful, transformative religious epiphanies after losing their parents. Some reconnected with childhood faith, some finally felt free to go their own way, which led to another faith their parents might not approve of.

Lopez: You write about your relationship with your mother and a remarkable conversation you got to have with her before she left this world. What might she say about the book?

Safer: I think she would be moved, proud, and delighted — and she’d love that fabulous photograph of her at 90 that I put in the book. Writing it made me appreciate her extraordinary qualities and I feel I understand her more than I ever thought I could. It gave her back to me.


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