by Jeanne Safer; New York, Basic Books, 2008, 215 pages, $25 softcover
Dr. Harris is chief executive officer for clinical affairs for Community Connections in Washington D.C.
In Death Benefits, psychologist and psychotherapist Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., has written a highly personal and somewhat controversial book about the advantages that pass to an adult when a parent dies. She views parental loss in adulthood as an opportunity for personal growth that may be missed because of guilt, denial, and prohibitions against benefiting from the loss of a parent. Although Safer asserts that these benefits are available to all adults when a parent dies, her examples tend to highlight parents who have heaped considerable emotional abuse on their children.
Safer's clinical vignettes, starting with the story of her own controlling, narcissistic mother, depict parents who seemed incapable of feeling pleased and who routinely found fault with even their very successful children. Tyrannical fathers are paired with depressed, complaining, and inconsolable mothers to produce a profile of emotionally abusive parents. It is not surprising, then, that many of the 60 men and women whom Safer interviewed for her book felt relieved, free, and even joyful at the parent's death.
If Safer's monograph had been intended as a book about emotional abuse, its impact, and the eventual release that comes with the death of the abuser, most readers might agree with her clinical insights and conclusions. But it is not. Death Benefits is a book about adult parental loss in general and about the benefits that all or, at the very least, most adults experience when a parent dies. Her desire to generalize from her personal experience and the stories told by her small and questionably selected sample reveals the real weakness of her book. She is not just writing a personal memoir; she is defining what she believes to be a near universal phenomenon when she asserts about parental loss that "nothing else in adult life has so much unrecognized potential to help us become more fulfilled human beings."
These limitations noted, Safer's book does offer a useful self-help formula for dealing with any significant adult loss, be it the loss of a parent, a close friend, or a spouse. She provides the reader-mourner with four straightforward questions that can serve as a guide in processing any significant loss. Her questions empower the bereaved to assess not only what they got from the deceased that was important and warrants saving and cherishing but also what was bequeathed that needs to be discarded, both psychologically and literally. The process, which begins with an honest assessment of the parent's life and character, helps to facilitate memory and mourning in general. By empowering the reader to actively choose what legacies will become part of one's own growing and evolving self, Safer makes mourning into an active and potentially creative process.