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Talking to Our Parents After They're Gone

They’ll always be Mom and Dad — and we'll always seek their advice 

By Akiko Busch

Much has been written recently about the conversations many of us are having, or should be having, with our aging parents. Topics include health care, retirement finances, aging in place, end-of-life considerations and more. But those of us whose mothers or fathers are no longer living are still having our own discussions with them.

It is a different manner of conversation, of course, and the subjects are more likely to wander to our own adult kids, professional challenges, enduring or frayed friendships and other assorted life passages. And though clearly an act of the imagination, such exchanges can be helpful in thinking things through from another point of view.

(MORE: The Single Most Important Discussion You Can Have)

Advice From Parents After They’re Gone

Whether we view this as some connection to the afterlife or a just a different perspective from a source of trusted wisdom, the dialogues, even when they’re abstract and inconclusive, are still full of meaning. They might be based on words that were actually spoken or simply emerge from a conviction, a set of memories or, if we’re lucky, a sense of abiding support that has been ingrained in us.

For instance, my father’s simple-yet-effective parenting style is still guiding me. Though he adored his daughters, like many men of his generation he was a somewhat detached parent. One January, when I had a term off from college, I mentioned as offhandedly as I possibly could that I’d be driving for five days to take a newspaper internship on the other side of the country.

Rather than quiz me, try to pin me down or talk me out of it, he just raised an eyebrow and said, “A lot of water over the dam,” meaning that my elaborate scheming was over and done with and not something to dwell on. He understood that when you are young, the path you take is erratic, volatile, full of unpredictable swerves and sudden turns — and that trying to change my mind would be of little use.

Those words came back to me often when my twin sons were in college and my father long gone; he had died several years before their birth. His wry acceptance of my whims is a refreshing antidote to modern helicopter parenting. It was also, I realized, an affirmation of his confidence in me in spite of my sometimes questionable choices.

More than once I have taken his implicit advice and let my sons carry on in their own capricious exploits without probing questions or smothering admonitions.

At other times, I seek more complex counsel. In my late 50s, I am nearly the age my mother was when she died of a brain tumor. I know how she faced her struggle with courage and grace —and fear — but I don’t know how she actually endured. I have not yet asked her about this, and yet I feel certain that should I ever receive a bad diagnosis of my own, her voice will be there.

(MORE: Why I Tried to Call My Mom, Even Though She's Gone)

Her support now arrives under different circumstances. Though my mother was an inveterate hostess, it is no longer her tarragon chicken recipe or instructions for gold-leafing a chocolate mousse that interest me. I am more curious to ask her about the gracious yet unyielding way in which she handled the visit of one of her dearest friends, who had become a hardened alcoholic.

The only thing I remember of that evening is that my mother had locked up all the liquor in the house, and that in the small hours of the morning, she’d found her friend trying to pry open the cabinets with her fingernails. The incident did nothing to impair the friendship that continued until the other woman's death.

They’re Still Our Parents


When one of my close friends was losing herself to alcohol, the only advice I sought was my mother’s, and I engaged her in one of those imaginative conversations. “How did you do that?” I asked her. “What did you say? How did you remain a trusted ally?”

And if my mother’s actual words were imprecise, the message was clear. It had to do with simultaneous love, dispassion and calm, and how all of these can converge when necessary.

Though her mother died two years ago, my friend Danica continues to look to her for direction, whether about kids or career. “I often talk to her at the same times we used to talk — when I’m in the car, on my cell phone,” Danica tells me. Sometimes the conversation just covers day-to-day parenting advice. “I have a daughter who would give me a hard time, and my mother would just say, ‘Calm down. This is OK. It’s all part of the process.’

“But I also seek her out when I’m scared. Recently I had to give a presentation to more than 40 people. I really wasn't sure what direction it would go. I was fretting. And I went to the ocean in Santa Monica to walk. ‘I can’t do this,’ I said to her. And in my head, I heard her say: ‘Be expansive. Own the room.’ I’m really open to her guidance. I really want to believe that she’s there.”

I suspect that many of us engage in such discourse as we approach the age our parents were when they died. For some who lost our parents at an early age, this is the only opportunity to have an adult exchange with them.

What We Can Tell Them

The conversation can go both ways. Not long ago, I was with my sons in their Brooklyn apartment. I knew something about their lives: how one careens around the city on his bike and the other on his skateboard; their less than fastidious living arrangements; their sketchy eating habits. Their media diet, as far as I knew, consisted of videos, video games, iTunes and ESPN.

Now, in an apartment filled with books — film scripts by Werner Herzog, political history by Howard Zinn, Japanese novels, Brazilian poetry — I saw that they had become readers. I couldn’t help but imagine the pleasure my father, who had been a writer, might feel on seeing their vast, improvisational library. And as I have so many times before, I imagined introducing them.

But then I knew that being a grandfather, as opposed to a father, he might be prone to lavish praise and exaggerated pronouncements of pride. So before he had the chance to go overboard congratulating them on their literacy, I told him, “A lot of water over the dam.”

Akiko Busch writes about design, culture and the natural world for a variety of publications. Her most recent book, The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, was published by Yale University Press in April 2013. Read More
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