Newsday ''Afterward, I couldn't break myself of the habit of reading the newpaper obituaries,'' says one woman about what she started doing differently when her parents died.
''I was nearly 40 and had never shown any interest in (obits), but suddenly I was compelled each morning to find out who else had died, how old they were, what it was that killed them, even before I'd drunk my tea -- morbid, eh?''
Spending far too much money -- because of a new awareness of her own mortality -- is one change that Suzanne Davis, another adult orphan, says she's noticed in her own habits since her parents died last year, within six weeks of each other.
''I grew up poor and have always kept within a budget and hunted for bargains,'' says Davis, a retired English teacher. ''But lately I've been shopping for clothes, nonstop. The other day I paid full price -- $200! -- for a sweater, a cotton sweater, not even angora or cashmere.'' Her rationale, she says, is a new awareness of the fragility of life. ''I justify spending now -- especially if my husband raises an eyebrow -- by saying, I might be dead next year, I want to be able to wear and enjoy this. If I don't do it now, when? The thought of my own lifespan is never very far from my mind.''
As baby boomers age and lose both parents to death, more and more are finding themselves in the situation of feeling death has crept closer. Two recent books explore the phenomenon in depth: Jane Brooks' ''Midlife Orphan: Facing Life's Changes Now That Your Parents Are Gone'' (Berkley, $13) and Alexander Levy's ''The Orphaned Adult: Understanding and Coping With Grief and Change After the Death of Our Parents'' (Perseus, $24).
And Brooklyn author Dave Eggers' memoir, ''A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius'' (Simon & Schuster, $23), tells of the aftermath of the death of both of his parents, within five weeks of each other. He was 21 and was left to raise his 8-year-old brother.
Levy, a psychologist living near Pittsburgh, is a midlife orphan. The death of each parent, he says, is very different: ''The first heralds the beginning of the transition, but the death of the second is the beginning of the real adulthood. All of a sudden, you are without the insulation between you and death.
''Their deaths are most commonly our first exposure to profound personal loss,'' he adds. ''And what our parents' deaths make us feel is a sense of being unprotected in the shadow of the primitive truths we dread. We react much like our earliest reaction to life itself -- with the frightened scream of the newborn, the heartbroken sobs of the inconsolable infant, the toddler's pure breath-holding rage.''
''When they called me to tell me that my mother had died, I had a sense of abandonment, as if I were a little kid,'' says Brooks, who was 47 at the time. ''I didn't really feel it was something I could confess to others: I felt regressed to this childlike feeling of, 'I'm all alone now!' -- even though I have kids and a family of my own.''
Brooks decided to interview other adult orphans and write a book. She set up a Web site (www.midlifeorphan.com) on the subject.
Among her own many losses after her mother died, says Brooks, who lives in suburban Philadelphia, was the bridge her mother provided between her and her hometown. ''There's no one left now to deliver the gossip about the people back home,'' she says. ''It's as if my last link to the past is severed.''
Davis, who lives in Manhattan, says she is very aware of suddenly being defined as the older generation in the family. ''You do feel much more like an adult,'' says Brooks. ''But for all that, there's nobody to criticize you or put in their two cents about your every move, there's the feeling that there's no one to watch over you like your parents did.''
Family discord often follows on the heels of the death of the last remaining parent, says Levy, sometimes triggered by bickering over the inheritance, whether money or heirlooms.
''Parents are like the conductors in the symphony,'' he says. ''When they are gone and the musicians have to keep playing without them, it's bound to be somewhat noisy for a while. When there's a significant death in any group, power must be redistributed, roles reassigned and reclaimed. It's a chaotic time with all kinds of justifications and old injuries resurfacing, a process of realignment and reorientation.''
The things people say can be alarmingly and mindlessly offensive, says Levy, who makes some suggestions in his book to help the bereaved deal with unfortunate remarks.
Those who hadn't gone through it had little sympathy for how devastated Brooks felt: ''Somehow, because it's expected for elderly parents to die, people expect you to get over it within weeks -- you don't get sympathy for this the way you do for other losses. It is the natural order of life, but at the same time, it doesn't mean that the loss is less. If your parents die young, you feel cheated; if they live long, you've had that much longer to become accustomed to having them around.''
''We're so intolerant of people's mourning,'' says Levy.
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