You can't 'overdo it' when learning good qualities from your parents

  • My independent mother, Eleanor, at home in her 80s. Now I have that mirror in my own dining room.

    My independent mother, Eleanor, at home in her 80s. Now I have that mirror in my own dining room. Courtesy of Susan Anderson-Khleif

  • My independent mother, Eleanor, at home in her 80s. Now I have that mirror in my own dining room.

    My independent mother, Eleanor, at home in her 80s. Now I have that mirror in my own dining room. Courtesy of Susan Anderson-Khleif

Updated 8/28/2020 3:22 PM

Recently my dear sister, Mary, told me something that our mother said to her a couple years before she died. Mother said: "We raised you all to be independent, but maybe I overdid it."

I never heard her say that, but I understand what she meant. She wanted us to be independent but not to rebel against her wishes or even oppose her. Well, it doesn't work that way.


With independence comes a lot of free thinking, self-reliance, confidence and trusting your own mind. We always stayed close to our parents but we were very independent as teenagers and young adults And this quality was passed on to the grandchildren. So by the time Mom was 82 or so, she probably did indeed wonder whether she had overdone it!

But my feeling is that she gave us a great gift -- a free spirit and ability to think for ourselves, solve problems when needed, and make our own way as adults. These are qualities we need in grief -- whether grieving over a beloved spouse or partner, parent or best friend. We certainly need these qualities to manage long-term grief.

Mother was an unusual and eccentric person in some ways, with a spicy personality. Loving but determined, she knew what she wanted and she made it happen. If she disagreed with the issue or topic, she did not conform to social pressures growing up in a small Oklahoma town, nor in our small hometown in Minnesota. She was quite a positive role model for us growing up.

She did not go too far, or "over do it." She gave us strength -- backed-up by my father's calm and gentle ways. He was such a good teacher. Even though he was a businessman, he had been a flight instructor in World War II. So he taught us how to drive (at age 14½), how to fish, how to swim and dive, how to be honest and generous, how to row a boat, how to be good people. They were both pilots, unusual for a woman in her day.

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As soon as we kids got driver's licenses, Mom had us do all the grocery shopping and run most of the errands. I even took Mom's check down to the grocery to pay the monthly bill and collect the green stamps. (In those days, they had local accounts, not credit cards.) We loved it because we got to drive -- and we'd add our favorites to the grocery "list." Mine were chocolate éclairs or cream puffs filled with real whipped cream.

The store had a great bakery. My two younger siblings were given cars of their own. By then, Dad had figured out it was safer (for the family cars and the wallet) that they drive their own, older cars. Mom let us buy our own clothes and charge them at the two local clothing stores. Independence came in little lessons.

I don't think I could have coped and managed my husband Baheej's death, nor the recent deaths of my two brothers, without a large streak of independence. So, thanks, Mom and Dad!

Some people need to learn independence later in life, but it can be done. When my Grandfather Anderson died at age 59, my grandmother, who was the same age, did not even know how to drive. She knew nothing about their family finances or the business. Yet she ran the house, raised my father and was an expert gardener. People used to drive by their house just to look at her gardens and window boxes full of colorful begonias.


However, grandmother got herself together and learned to be much more independent after grandfather died. It took her a couple years, but she did it, and even became a world traveler (on group tours, by herself).

So the point is: Independence is a quality that can be learned and cultivated. And it is certainly needed in grief when one is much more on their own than before.

The earlier we learn, the better -- but it's never too late.

• Susan Anderson-Khleif of Sleepy Hollow has a doctorate in family sociology from Harvard, taught at Wellesley College and is a retired Motorola executive. Contact her at or see her blog See previous columns at

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