Author Allison Gilbert made me aware of a problem I’d never considered: how do you raise children without the help of grandparents? By the time I finished reading her book, Parentless Parents: How the Loss of Our Mothers and Fathers Impacts the Way We Raise Our Children, I felt deep compassion for her plight and the 1,300 parentless parents from across the United States she surveyed.
Through her research, Gilbert explains how the absence of grandparents impacts everyday parenting decisions as well as the relationships they have with their spouses and in-laws. She also offers positive ways of keeping alive the memory of one’s parents, and finding support and understanding from other parentless parents.
Gilbert is brutally honest as she shares her pain over the loss of both her parents and the impact that loss has had on raising her young son and daughter. She describes it as a three-way loss: she no longer has her parents; her children don’t have their grandparents; and her parents never got to be grandparents.
She writes openly about craving the unconditional love from her parents she so misses, the resentment she feels towards her husband’s parents, and the jealousy she feels when friends and neighbors mention their parents or she sees grandparents doing activities with their grandchildren. Early in the book she even admits to feeling so bitter that for a week she kept track of how many times she came across other people’s parents and how often friends mentioned their parents in conversation.
The book and the process of writing it appear to have been a catharsis for Gilbert. By the end she has gone from feeling sorry for herself to feeling empowered, from excluding her in-laws to including them, and from envy to embracing her own joy and blessings. A huge part of the shift she experienced came from polling, studying, and interviewing 1,300 parentless parents and witnessing a movement of Parentless Parent support groups spring up across the country.
She describes a focus group she conducted in southern California that had a transformative impact on an “otherwise isolating experience.” She writes in vivid detail about the bonding that takes place among the participants. It is so heart-warming, I felt myself cheering for all of them that they’d found each other.
Gilbert asked the focus group to summarize the biggest issue that makes parentless parents different from parents who have their parents. The participants told her parenting feels heavier—it’s a bigger responsibility keeping family history alive because you don’t have the information or the stories that your parents, if they were alive, would share. Throughout the book she shares poignant stories of other parents’ ways of coping with their loss.
I hope that young parents who still have their parents in their lives will recognize how fortunate they are and have more empathy for their friends who’ve lost their parents. After finishing Gilbert’s book, I have an even deeper appreciation of my 88-year-old mother who has lived long enough to be a great-grandmother.
Gilbert ends her book by confessing that she was guilty of pitting her in-laws against the memory of her parents and that “absence and presence can coexist.” She finally realized that she was so preoccupied with imagining what her parents would do and say that she forgot to have faith in herself. This is an excellent lesson for all of us. By facing the good and bad in our parents, whether they are living or deceased, we can take what worked and what we admired and reject what we found troubling. It’s called growing up and being a parent to yourself.