People expect to live as long as their parents did..

Like all generalisations this is not always true, but where it is true, it can affect relationships –  particularly when someone is ill.

Sometimes people make plans which are obviously based on the assumption that they will not be around for much longer, without realising that this is because they are approaching the age one of their parents was when they died or became ill.  Others know this is what they are doing.

They may start planning for their own death some years before they reach the age a parent was when they died.

  • They may decide to start enjoying life, or doing something they have always wanted to do, ‘before it is too late’.
  • They may think about what they are going to leave behind, and begin to make plans for themselves or for others, such as their children or partners.
  • They may decide to spend all their money, assuming they will not need it beyond a certain age.  (When they actually pass this age, still alive, they may regret this decision..)
  • They may talk about their own death with their family – who may be surprised and feel such talk is premature.

An illness may add strength to the belief that someone only has a certain amount of time left, even if a doctor (or Wikipedia) would say they have a lot longer.

  • People who are more frightened of dying may seek ways of ‘not growing up’, as if they can avoid dying by never becoming an adult.
  • Attachments to other people may become an issue, because losing people you care about is one of the things which can frighten people about dying.  Some people try to loosen the attachment their children feel towards them, in the hope of preparing them by ‘teaching them to be more independent’.  This may actually undermine their children’s sense of a having had a loving parent they can carry around ‘inside themselves’ for the rest of their lives, and make it harder for their children, rather than easier.

Each person in the family may have their own beliefs about how long someone is going to live.  Unless these things are spoken about, no-one may realise how much they differ.  And speaking about them may not be easy if someone has a serious illness: the question  ‘So how much longer do you think you have to live, then?’  may no longer seem appropriate for light conversation.  Talking about something can be interpreted as ‘wishing it would happen’, so talking about death or dying can frighten people or just seem socially unacceptable or strange.  Particularly when someone is frightened by an illness, they can feel more superstitious and more suspicious of other people’s motives than they would normally.  On the other hand, there may be a great relief in bringing these thoughts into the open.  Timing and setting matter as much as intention.

Becoming seriously ill while your parents are still healthy and vigorous can seem particularly unfair. It feels wrong in so many ways.  Children should outlive their parents; they should be able to take care of their parents as their parents get old – and when this is not happening, everyone can feel cheated.

Age may not be the only ‘marker’ for when someone expects to get ill ‘like my mother did’, or ‘like my father’.  A woman whose mother became ill when he or she was a child (of, say, 10) may be afraid to have children because this would mean ‘the countdown has begun’; that she will get ill when her child reaches that age (10, or whatever it was).  Men can feel similarly if it was their father who became ill.

The effect seems to be stronger (in my experience) between mothers and daughters and fathers and sons, but where people see close physical resemblances with the parent of the opposite sex this can also affect them.  For example, having a living, healthy father can help to shake a conviction that a woman is sure to get ill at the age her mother was when her mother became ill.

In fact, of course, many people outlive the age at which their parents died.

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About thetroublewithillness

I've been a counsellor for people with physical illnesses for a long time now, and learnt a lot about what it's like living with your own or someone else's illness. I want to pass some of this on.
This entry was posted in carers, children with ill parents, counselling, emotions related to illness, grieving processes, health, illness, talking about feelings. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to People expect to live as long as their parents did..

  1. Gabriel Segal says:

    Thanks. That’s very interesting. A couple of questions.
    (1) Is the expectation of death at the same age as a parent conscious or
    unconscious, or sort of wavering between the two?

    (2) “And speaking about them may not be easy if someone has a serious
    illness: the question ’So how much longer do you think you have to live,
    then?’ may no longer seem appropriate for light conversation. Talking
    about something can be interpreted as ‘wishing it would happen’, so talking
    about death or dying can frighten people or just seem socially unacceptable
    or strange. Particularly when someone is frightened by an illness, they can
    feel more superstitious and more suspicious of other people’s motives than
    they would normally. On the other hand, there may be a great relief in
    bringing these thoughts into the open. Timing and setting matter as much as
    intention.”

    Could you elaborate on this? I would like to know more about the
    pros and cons of bringing it into the open.

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