Phyllis Cohen Deitch was 18 and a freshman in college when her father died after a brief but brutal illness. If there was one lesson she learned from her mother, it was this: You carry on.
“My mother made sure that everybody stayed together,” Deitch says of the woman suddenly thrust into the role of handling family finances and singlehandedly raising three children, one of them barely 8.
“Her attitude was — we have to keep going.”
Now a licensed marriage and family therapist and life coach, the Pennsylvania native recalls that unspoken legacy as Mother’s Day approaches.
“My mother was very strong. She took care of whatever needed to be taken care of. Even though she was anxious and overwhelmed at times, overall there was this rock-solidness,” says Deitch, who weaves that memory and others into a new book exploring the lingering impact of early parental loss.
Too Soon to Say ‘Goodbye’ combines Deitch’s psychological expertise with her own journey. It also offers stories of more than 100 adults who have lost one or both parents, whether during childhood, adolescence or young adulthood.
In her many years of practice, Deitch says, she became aware of a pattern: Within the first few minutes of a therapy session, new patients would invariably say something like: “I was 6 (or 8 or 12 or 22) when my father (or mother) died,” and then quickly add, “But that’s not why I’m here.”
Yet invariably, at a fundamental level, it was why they were there.
“Early traumas continue to reside just beneath the surface, and tend to become a mark of identification carried from that awful moment forward throughout life,” Deitch writes in the book’s introduction.
“Even those who believed they were no longer affected because the trauma happened so long ago still seemed burdened in some way. Since I, too, share this burden, I began to pay closer attention.”
Although many of the feelings her patients expressed were universal — sadness, regret, guilt, anger — Deitch soon came to understand that an individual’s stage of development at the time a parent dies plays an enormous role in how that loss ultimately plays out.
“If a woman is very young when her mother dies, for example, she won’t have someone to let her know how beautiful she is in the way only a mother can,” says Deitch, who worked with B’nai B’rith Career and Counseling Service in Jenkintown in the 1980s and 1990s.
That dynamic in turn can lead to feelings of inadequacy, shame and abandonment that linger well into adulthood, the family therapist notes.
Nor are sons immune. Deitch writes that for a young boy or a teen, losing a father means losing a masculine role model. It means having to become “the man of the house” way too soon, and it means carrying the burden of being strong for the grieving mother.
In most cases, Deitch suggests, the presence of a supportive, caring adult can go a long way toward helping a grieving child or teen heal.
“Most people don’t know what to do with these kids, so they ignore the topic, which gives the kids the idea that losing a parent is a shanda, a shame,” the Voorhees resident says.
“What the child really needs is a stable adult who’s there for the child, without judgment, who can accept all the emotions” that come with losing a loved one.
Deitch began writing the book when she was 50, a milestone that coincided with the birth of her first grandchild. More than 20 years later, she continues to work closely with this bereaved population. Recently, the author facilitated a two-part group therapy session at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, N.J., that attracted seven synagogue members rang-ing in age from their 40s to their 70s.
Designed as an opportunity for participants to share how early parental loss affected them, the gatherings touched on relationships with spouses, business associates, friends, children and grandchildren — further evidence, Deitch says, that the impact of such loss echoes through ensuing generations.
For Deitch and for her patients, holidays and anniversaries loom large in the aftermath of a parent’s loss: the actual date of death, to be sure, but also the late mother or father’s birthday, a wedding, the birth of one’s own child.
And, of course, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
“The first Mother’s Day can be very painful, especially if the parent who died was young. You wonder how you’re going to get through,” Deitch says.
You will get through, she assures her patients. Among techniques she suggests as the holiday grows near:
• Buy a shrub or tree, or plant a flat of colorful annuals in your mother’s memory.
• Honor her by speaking about her to your family: Make a toast to her good traits and share an experience so your children carry away a tangible memory of the grandmother they have never known.
• Do an activity that reflects something she loved, such as taking a nature walk or planning a trip to a special vacation spot.
• If your child was named for your mother, either in English or in Hebrew, make that child feel how special that name is and why you chose to keep it alive.
• Visit the cemetery where she is buried for a graveside “chat,” bringing Mom up to date on family events.