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Last week, Amanda wrote about Elizabeth Marquardt’s fascinating studies on the inner lives of children of divorce. On Sunday, Marquardt had an equally fascinating essay in the Washington Post about the living—and dying—of the adults of divorce.

Here’s a bit from the beginning:

My friend isn’t alone in her uncertainty. Because of profound changes in how Americans organize and sustain — and often break up — our families, our nation will soon confront a never-before-seen shift in how we die and whom we’ll have around us when we do. And the likelihood is that on every level, we will be dying much more alone.

Reduced birth rates, widespread divorce, single-parent childbearing, remarriage and what we might call “re-divorce” are poised to usher in an era of uncertain obligation and complicated grief for the many adults confronting the aging and dying of their divorced parents, stepparents and ex-stepparents. And compared with the generations before them, these dying parents and parent figures will be far less likely to find comfort and help in the nearby presence of grown daughters and sons.

She closes with this:

The situation with stepparents is even more complex. In his study, Temple University’s Davey found that aging stepparents were only half as likely as biological parents to receive care from grown children. “Society does not yet have a clear set of expectations for stepchildren’s responsibility,” he observed.

You can say that again. All stepchildren and stepparents forge a relationship in their own way. Some become deeply attached, some are virtually strangers, many fall somewhere in between. Even when stepchildren and stepparents are close, the deep ambiguity of the relationship can make losing a stepparent to death or divorce a profoundly lonely experience for the child. A friend told me about a colleague who had recently nursed her beloved stepmother, a woman she had grown up with, during a long illness. Even as she mourned her stepmother’s death, the woman was mystified and hurt by the lack of support she had received from many friends and co-workers, who’d wondered why she would go out of her way to provide long-term, hands-on care to someone who was “only” a stepmother.

Her story was all too familiar to me. When I was 13, my beloved stepfather took his own life. He and my mother had been divorced for several years, but from the time I was 3 years old until they separated when I was 9, he had been my in-the-home father, a man I’d fallen in love with not long after my mother had. His death was devastating for all of us, but my immense grief, which stretched through my teenage years and into my 20s, was made all the more lonely and isolating because almost no one around me — friends, teachers, many members of my extended family — recognized that I’d lost anyone of importance at all.

As the generation that ushered in widespread divorce ages, an epidemic of such lonely grief may well sweep in behind it. Much of the expert literature on death and dying implicitly assumes an intact family experience. It assumes that people grow up with their mothers and fathers, who are married to each other when one of them dies. Some scholars are beginning to investigate aging and dying in families already visited by divorce. But most scholars and the public still give scant attention to the loss of other parent figures or to the deeply complicating, long-lasting effects of family fragmentation.

Nearly 40 percent of today’s adults have experienced their parents’ divorce. Increasing numbers of younger adults were born to parents who never married each other at all. I am certain, because I’m one of those living it, that the painful contours of the new American way of death will be discovered and defined by my own generation for years to come.



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