Earlier this year, women’s average life expectancy climbed above 80 for the first time. Of course, that’s just a statistic, and statistics pale in the face of real-life circumstances. When breast cancer killed Elizabeth Edwards today at the age of 61, she bucked that trend. But there’s another trend that she personified — that of women over 40 having babies.
In April, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the birth rate for women between the ages of 40 and 44 jumped 4% in 2008 from the year before just as the birth rate for women under 40 dropped. Taken together, these two bits of information usually mean older women who have babies will be around to watch them grow up. (More on Time.com: Why It’s Harder For Older Women to Have Healthy Babies)
Not so for Edwards, whose two younger children are 10 and 12. “It’s always a gamble but it’s like that for people at all ages,” says Elizabeth Gregory, who wrote Ready: Why Women Are Embracing the New Later Motherhood and is director of the women’s studies program at the University of Houston. At 53, Gregory is also the mother of a 6-year-old and a 13-year-old.
Regardless of what you think about Edwards’ choices – her decision to publicly support her subsequently estranged husband, John Edwards, in his presidential campaign after her cancer returned in 2007, her eventual decision to leave him earlier this year once his infidelity became tabloid fodder — it is hard not to feel sympathy for what Edwards has lost as a mother. (More on Time.com: Study: MRI May Detect More Cases of Recurrent Breast Cancer)
Edwards’ situation, of course, was both tragic and unique. She did not intend to become a poster child for delayed childbearing, just as she didn’t seek to become a role model for people battling cancer or women whose husbands cheated on them. Her first-born, 16-year-old Wade, died in a car accident in 1996 as he drove to the family’s beach house off the coast of North Carolina. Devastated, she became a fixture at his gravesite, reading aloud from his high school textbooks. She had a teenage daughter, Cate, but she decided she wanted more children.
Kids are lots of work; they throw tantrums, they’re demanding and irascible and can be exasperating in spades, but they exude joy, and she desperately needed that. She was 48 when she delivered Emma Claire and 50 when Jack arrived, diving back into the thicket of early childhood at an age when most people are closer to becoming grandparents — and some already are. She may have been referring to the challenges of parenthood when she posted on her Facebook page the day before she died that “there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human.” (More on Time.com: Want to Freeze Your Biological Clock? One Doc Says, Go for It)
Publicly, she spoke enthusiastically about homeschooling the kids, who became familiar figures as they clowned around on the campaign trail. She took them to playgrounds and to Target and referenced a “dying letter” that she was writing to her children that was really more of a guide to living than a somber missive.
Letters from deceased parents become treasures, says Grace Christ, a professor of social work at Columbia University, who once led a community group where a mother dying of cancer wondered aloud whether she should tell her children how sick she was. Another participant, a man in his fifties, shared that his father had written him a letter before he died. “I’ve had it with me every day of my life,” he said.
Now that Edwards is gone, her children — like any children whose parents have died — will have to grieve, then carry on. But unlike other children in similar circumstances, the announcement of each stage of their mother’s battle with cancer was headline news. “Everything is so public in that family,” says Christ, who is also author of Healing Children’s Grief: Surviving a Parent’s Death from Cancer.
In her book — an analysis of 88 families and 175 kids who were tracked by a study before and after their parents died — Christ found that when children were appropriately prepared, a parent’s death actually brought relief. “Death is always shocking even when you’re prepared,” says Christ, who says it’s important for a dying parent to emphasize three things — I love you, I don’t want to leave you, it’s not your fault. “But you can prepare them so that after, they are able to begin to move ahead with their lives. There is a kind of confidence.” (More on Time.com: Family Health History: ‘Best Kept Secret’ in Care)
For children, preparation also involves knowing who is going to take care of them and what will happen to them. Although the Edwardses were living apart, John Edwards had moved back into their sprawling Chapel Hill, N.C., home as his wife grew sicker. The assumption is that he will raise the children.
“Having John there is critical for the kids,” says Christ. “He has to be there and help them through this. This is a time for the family to come together, to forgive if they can and apologize if they can, to put aside the anger and the resentment for the sake of everyone.
“You want the kids to leave with the feeling that their mother loves them and wishes wonderful things for them, that they will be taken care of,” she says. “Then the mourning takes place after.”