Losing a parent is hard. In addition to mourning the person who’s gone, survivors face a refigured future and family.
For those in stepfamilies, the aftermath of loss can be even more complex.
“For children of intact families, there’s some conflict, but there’s an element of ‘We’re going to stay together,’” said the Rev. Amy Ziettlow, of Baton Rouge, who is involved in research on the subject.
Older children of “fractured families,” though, are “trying to figure out — ‘Do we stay together?’” she said.
They’re wondering, “Do I have to hang out with you? Do I have to do Christmas with you? Do I feel bad if I don’t?” said Ziettlow, a Lutheran minister.
Ziettlow and her colleague, Elizabeth Marquardt, the director of the Center for Marriage and Family at the Institute of American Values in New York, have joined in research aimed at providing guidance for families in times of loss.
Last year the women received, through the Institute of American Values, a three-year, $400,000 grant from the Lilly Endowment to study how the deaths of parents and stepparents are affecting the adult children of Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980.
“How We Live When Our Parents Die” is the name of the project, with the ultimate result to be a book.
Ziettlow and Marquardt met 10 years ago when they were both students at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Both in their 30s and the mothers of young children, they themselves are members of Generation X.
Their parents, like those of the young to mid-life adults they’re interviewing for the project, are baby boomers.
Fifty percent of baby boomers, those in the age range of 46 to 65, are divorced, Ziettlow said.
“We were the first generation of kids to see such a high divorce rate ... it was becoming normal,” Ziettlow said of herself and others of her generation, many of whose parents split up.
Aside from that rather ignominious contribution, baby boomers also “were the first generation to challenge politics, religion” and other aspects of life.
“They’re going to approach aging and the end of life and death on their own terms,” Ziettlow said.
And there’s another thing.
“Baby boomers did not have as many children” as earlier generations, Ziettlow said.
“There’s fewer of us providing for them” emotionally, spiritually and sometimes financially, said Ziettlow, who is an affiliate scholar of the above-mentioned Institute of American Values.
Ziettlow and Marquardt hope to interview 100 adults for the book, with half of those being people whose parents were married at the time of the death and the other half being those whose parents were divorced, divorced and remarried or never married at the time of the loss, or who lost a stepparent.
The two women have found potential participants by a simple mechanism, through the obituaries that appear in this newspaper.
In November, the researchers sent out letters, describing the project, to young- to mid-life adults who had lost a parent or stepparent a year earlier. Another set of letters will go out this month to those who lost a parent or stepparent in December 2010 or January 2011. Potential participants are asked to contact the researchers by phone or email.
The researchers touch base by phone with those they don’t hear back from, Ziettlow said.
“Obviously, we are very pastoral” in our conversations, she said.
For the stories included in the book, the names and places will be changed to protect participants’ privacy.
By early January, Ziettlow and Marquardt will have interviewed 29 people, Ziettlow said in late December.
The researchers are seeking face-to-face interviews. Participants in the in-person interviews are paid $50 for their time and any travel expenses.
In Baton Rouge, the interviews are being held at three churches, First Christian Church — where Ziettlow’s husband, the Rev. Michael Karunas, is pastor — First United Methodist Church and New Hope Baptist Church.
For those living in other areas of the state or outside the state, Ziettlow and Marquardt arrange to meet in a church or another setting that’s comfortable for the participant.
Ziettlow said that Louisiana is a good place to base the research.
“People here seem to have large families” and, as adults, often live near their families or at least in the state, she said.
“About 50 percent of the letters went to people in Louisiana,” Ziettlow said.
Ziettlow and her husband moved to Baton Rouge in 2004 from Illinois, where they had both been serving churches. Here, Ziettlow, who had also been a chaplain with a hospice in Illinois, joined The Hospice of Baton Rouge as the coordinator of volunteers and later became the chief officer of operations.
She is serving as the chaplain for pediatric patients with the nonprofit hospice program, and left her role as chief officer of operations, when she received the research grant, she said.
Together, Ziettlow and her colleague Marquardt represent family types that will be covered in their book.
Ziettlow’s parents are still married to each other; Marquardt’s parents are divorced.
“My experience growing up in a divorced family was something I spent a lot of my young adult years thinking about,” Marquardt said.
She pursued an earlier study, also funded by the Lilly Endowment, a private, philanthropic foundation based in Indianapolis, which resulted in a book, “Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce,” published in 2005.
“My struggle was really to try to understand and articulate how, even if you love both parents very much, and even if they are both still a part of your life, their divorce is nevertheless quite hard for a child,” Marquardt said.
The interviews that Marquardt and Ziettlow conduct with participants for the “How Do We Live When Our Parents Die” project take about two hours.
In the interview, the participants have a chance to talk about the family they knew when they were little, the circumstances of the death of the parent or stepparent; how the uniqueness of the family shaped the response to the death and what the comforts and challenges of planning for the funeral were, Ziettlow said.
“Did you know what your parents wanted you to do?” is one question, she said.
“Were there any moments of beauty? Was there support from relatives? Conflict?” she said.
The interview also covers the year following the loss and the spiritual aspects of coping with the experience, Ziettlow said.
“At the first year (mark), things are still raw, but they’re beginning to think about the future,” she said.
“People say, ‘I’m beginning to think beyond making it this day,’” she said.
“We hope to lift up stories: ‘Here’s what people say is helpful,’” she said.
“I’ve heard a lot about doctors: ‘Just treat us like people, slow down. Just talk to us like a person,’” is what people in the study wanted — and often didn’t get from the doctors they met through their loved one’s illness or unexpected death, Ziettlow said.
Participants help the researchers by drawing a “stick figure” representation of their family, so Ziettlow and Marquardt can have all the relationships correct, she said.
“They’re just beautiful, beautiful stories about how amazing parents can be for you,” Ziettelow said of the interviews.
She said that she and Marquardt hope to begin writing the book in the summer of 2012.
The working name of the book right now is “Homeward Bound,” with a subtitle of “Aging, Death and Dying in an Era of High Family Fragmentation,” Marquardt said.
Marquardt and Ziettlow are still recruiting for the study and “are especially interested in reaching out to grown sons and to stepchildren,” Marquardt said in an email.
“We hope that any adult whose parent or stepparent died in Baton Rouge in the fall of 2010 will contact us to be a part of the study ... We truly feel that telling their story will be beneficial to them and will help others,” said Marquardt, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ziettlow can be reached at email@example.com.