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When Our Best Friends, Our Parents, Die

Longer adult friendships with parents are new, generationally.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

I never had a Grandma and Grandpa that matched the storybook pictures. When I was a grandkid in the 1960s, the average lifespan was the late 60’s. Both grandfathers had died before I was born, and both grandmothers were frail and/or had dementia.

It is a newer phenomenon for the boomer generation that in our late 60’s we can be best friends with our still-living parents.

Many articles and books tell you how to manage your dysfunctional parent-adult child relationship. What happens when you become good friends?

Especially as we enter or leave domestic partnerships, become empty nesters, move to different life stages, our relationships with our parents change. What happens when we are both retired?

Especially for those who never married, the family of origin might be the primary family of reference. Adult children progress from having to visit their parents to vacationing with their parents or moving close to or even in with their parents.

Intergenerational living has been promoted through the development of accessory dwelling units (the granny pod), co-housing, or other housing types. I have friends who live with adult children, whether the parent/grandparent has a suite in a large house or the adult child has moved in to be a caregiver — or some variation. We all know that the last years of life moves to more dependence.

Stephanie Coontz is one of my favorite writers on the family. She wrote The Way We Never Were; first published in 1992 and updated in 2016. The book undermines the nostalgia for the good old days of family life that existed more often in myth than experience.

But I don’s see anything in her or other sociologists’ discussion of the family that covers the new phenomenon of a life-long friendship between adult parents and their adult children.

In 1960, the average life expectancy for a male in America was 66, and for his wife, it was 71. And that is the sexist way it would have been stated.

In 2022, the average life expectancy for someone alive at age 65 is another 20 years. I have, as a baby boomer, any number of friends who are involved with their 90-year-old parents in some way — as support, caretaker, adult friend.

I also have friends who are awash in grief from the two distinct, but often intertwined roles of caregiver and friend, as we negotiate healthcare, homecare, nursing homes, hospice. This journey becomes a preview.

Families often have a shorthand that only their members understand.

The Taylor family has specific rules for Monopoly. The required dishes on Christmas Eve at the Olsons’ house include meatballs. The order in which presents are opened. The jigsaw puzzle reserved for winter storms. The summer vacations at the shore. The restaurant we always go to for birthdays.

Maybe this is why who gets Grandma’s serving tray can become so fraught. It’s not only who gets the tray, it’s having the tray every holiday to pass down the table like we always did. The person who has the serving tray has the serving tray holiday memories.

More than the stuff, however, is the mourning.

I saved up yardwork tasks for my fathers’ visits, like pruning the shrubs. He stayed useful by keeping busy. Our best moments were out fishing, with the lines in the lake, and his running commentary on the loons or the clouds or the wind action on the water. It’s where we negotiated the tougher topics — you can’t escape each other in a boat.

When my father was in his final illness, he had a moment of lucidity and turned to me and said “I’m sorry. You will have such hard decisions to make.”

Mourning for a parent is an understood passage, but mourning a parent who was also a primary friendship of forty years is a double whammy. The grief can be deep.

We have been granted more time. Now we need more understanding, and rituals and relationships to support our evolving sense of family.

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3 Responses

  1. SingingFrogPress
    | Reply

    I feel like I’m beginning to be connected to my kids in this way–as adult to adult parent/child/friend. It’s good!

  2. Jean Powers
    | Reply

    That was beautiful, Sharon.

  3. Becky Reid
    | Reply

    Sharon – I can truly identify with the concept of being friends with a parent as an adult. I had this with my father and cherish the time we had together before he died.

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