It’s the club that no one asked to join.
The only requirement for membership: having a dead parent. I’ve been a member since I was eight–and–a–half, when my dad died. We don’t have meetings, and there’s no official indoctrination, but those of us who have experienced the loss of a parent at a young age have an implicit bond that allows us to connect in a way that others just can’t understand. And once you’re a member of the club, you’re a member for life.
I didn’t think my father’s death would follow me to college. I thought I could leave my father’s death out of my identity, back in my hometown. Instead, I realized how integral this childhood experience was to every part of my life, especially as I entered adulthood. I found that the subject of parents and family were topics I constantly avoided, a part of my identity I didn’t quite know how to express without sending conversations in still–nascent friendships into devastatingly uncomfortable spirals.
It’s estimated that 1 in 14 children will lose a parent or sibling by the time they’re 18; having a dead parent is a more common experience than many think. Yet I struggled to find people I could relate to—after all, social conventions render grief taboo in public spaces. As a result, members of the club hide in plain sight.
The death of a close family member is an experience that puts a barrier between you and everyone around you, something you carry that just can’t be articulated to those who haven’t gone through the same thing.
Stephen Mack (C ’23) and I bond over our dead dads in the back of the Starbucks at 39th and Walnut streets.
His dad died when he was 12 years old.
“There’s a lot of trauma, not just my father passing, but everything that came after,” says Stephen. “That’s hard to express or explain to people, because it's a trauma that most people here [at Penn] are fortunate enough not to have had.”
Stephen has been able to share his story with friends, but even so, what he’s experienced creates a degree of separation from the background of the typical Penn student. Some of the details of his father’s death aren’t things he feels totally comfortable sharing. Most people in Stephen’s life know that his father passed away, but everything else that comes with that loss is more difficult to express, especially when he doesn’t know people with similar experiences.
“We carry these things with us to Penn, and it’s good because we have [physical] distance from them, but that distance isn’t necessarily there emotionally,” he says.
Ben Kaplan’s (C ’22) loss is slightly more recent than Stephen’s or my own; his mother passed away in the spring of his senior year of high school from breast cancer. He tells me the whole story on a bench at 40th and Locust streets, from her diagnosis in elementary school, to remission, to her re–diagnosis during his junior year of high school, to nights praying in her hospital room, to the strangeness of the mourning period, to his family’s pilgrimage to Israel to bury her.
“There are just certain things in life that are harder because a parent isn’t there,” says Ben. In high school, his mom had been his central source of motivation and encouragement. When he started college, he was missing an entire support system he had known for most of his life. While his friends call their parents to talk about exams or their job search, Ben is forced to be more self–reliant as he enters into the adult world.
“I just don’t know how to talk to my friends about this thing that I’m missing," he says. "It’s not that I’m sad—it’s just that there’s something that isn’t there, something missing that just makes everything a little harder."
The experience of having a dead parent isn’t just the sense of loss; it also shapes the way we interact with the people around us, especially on campus. “It comes up more often than you think,” says Stephen. “People ask, ‘What do your parents do?’ and then it just becomes an awkward conversation.”
Ben has experienced something similar. “I usually just say ‘doctors,’ he says. “And if they ask about my mom specifically—well, I just don’t know how to respond. It’s not always the right time to go there.”
I can relate to their discomfort—when people ask me what my father does for a living, I have a dialogue with myself, a certain internal crisis: Should I lie or change the subject? I always eventually tell the truth, but saying, “He’s dead,” is usually a pretty good conversation killer.
Ben, Stephen, and I have very different experiences of grieving our parents, but I can relate to almost everything they say. All of us have coped with the deaths of our parents, but the impact of the loss never goes away. “That’s one thing that people don’t understand. There’s repercussions that last years—decades, even—after a parent's death. It follows you,” says Stephen.
“It’s weird—the people I speak to most now have no idea who my mom was,” says Ben. “No matter how long they’re in your life, your parents are such a crucial part of who you are. I just don’t even know how to open up about it.”
Ben has a kippah that his mother crocheted for him before she died. It’s tattered, and the colors change shades in places because she ran out of yarn while making it, but he wears it every Sabbath anyway, even if he feels like others don’t understand why he has something so worn. “I don’t want to explain it. It’s just too awkward,” he says.
There aren’t words to explain how you hold onto someone you lost or the seemingly strange ways you remember them. Ben holds his grief with his kippah and in the speeches he gives to remember his mother on the anniversary of her death. We don’t all have the same experience of loss, but what we have in common bonds us.
Some write essays and poems. Others start nonprofits or run marathons. And for Jamie–Lee Josselyn (C ’05)—associate director for recruitment at the Kelly Writers House, instructor for Penn’s Creative Writing Program, and a member of the club since her mom’s death when she was twelve years old—expressing grief involved a podcast.
The topic of dead parents has been a conversation around the Kelly Writers House for years. Students and staff at the Writers House, a center and home base for writers and community art programs, found an informal community by talking about their parents’ deaths, which for many was also a subject of their writing. Year after year, friendships grew over the shared experience of loss, often over cups of tea in the shared kitchen. This community calls themselves the Dead Parents Society.
In fact, these conversations happened so often that Jamie–Lee decided to turn them into an actual podcast, also called Dead Parents Society. Now, it’s created a platform for grieving people and students to come together both on Penn’s campus and beyond.
It all started when Jamie–Lee won the Beltran Family Teaching Award in 2017, which allowed her to host a live event at the Writers House. She had an idea: What if Dead Parents Society became an official, live event? In the spring of 2018, writers gathered and read pieces about losing a parent in front of an audience: Dead Parents Society, live at Kelly Writers House.
Then, Jamie–Lee received the Bassini Apprenticeship through the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, which allowed her to work with students on a longer–term project of choice. It was the perfect opportunity to make Dead Parents Society into something more official—to transform it into a true fixture at the Writers House and translate late–night kitchen conversations into a public practice of writing about and recording grief.
Jamie–Lee is an avid podcast listener. “It’s very intimate, in a way,” she says. “I like to pretend I’m friends with the people who host the podcasts.” And because she considered every person with whom she had conversations about their dead parents to be her friends, it felt like the perfect formula. Thus, the Dead Parents Society podcast was born.
The Dead Parents Society podcast isn’t a support group, nor is the community from which it originated. For grieving students at Penn, CAPS has “Living with Loss,” a grief support group for students coping with the death of a significant person in their lives. But, unlike a support group, Dead Parents Society is not just about coming together to talk about the trauma of a parent dying or coping with loss. It’s about finding community around everything that comes after the death of a parent, about having intentional conversations on how that loss shapes the way you view the world.
“I think it’s something people want to connect over, but don’t always have the opportunity,” says Jamie–Lee. “We’re the grieving friends you always wanted.”
In a post–COVID–19 world where more and more people are grieving, where conversations about mental health are becoming less stigmatized, the Dead Parents Society podcast might be the perfect platform for more open conversations about how death, loss, and grief shape the world we inhabit.
Since the pandemic, Jamie–Lee has brought non–Penn students on the podcast to talk about grief more generally. Writers, teachers, and even fellow podcast hosts come together to talk about how loss, particularly loss of close loved ones like parents, shapes the way we live our lives.
“I think that the conversations I was hoping to start back in 2018 are easier for people to have, not because of my podcast, but just because of what’s been going on,” says Jamie–Lee.
Despite Jamie–Lee’s conversations on the podcast, having a dead parent is still isolating, especially as a young adult.
“We don’t talk about it. Who knows how many people have gone through it here?” says Ben. He’s right—it's hard to know how many students at Penn are navigating life with a dead parent, and when conversations about loss are so difficult to have, it’s a challenge to find others with that shared experience.
But when you do encounter a fellow member of the club, it’s easy to feel an automatic sort of affinity with them. “I think it's nice to have someone that, whether or not the story is even anything near similar to mine, the loss and the experience is similar to some extent,” says Ben.
Jamie–Lee hopes that the Dead Parents Society podcast might help people feel more comfortable having conversations about death and grief. “I hope for the students, [the podcast] can be an outlet. We don't always feel like we can bring this stuff up, even though it's quite often on our minds,” she says.
“The reason we tell these stories and write these stories and talk about these stories on the podcast is not only for our own benefit. It’s for the benefit of other people, for people who have experienced the same things as us—a parent dying—but also people who haven’t,” says Jamie–Lee. It’s not just a podcast for people with dead parents, but an invitation to talk about death more openly. She hopes that the podcast can provide a space where people can find catharsis and community in conversations about death, even if they haven’t personally experienced such a loss.
“It’s easy to minimize grief,” she says, “but I think by knowing that people are listening and feeling connected—possibly even people who share these stories but aren’t quite yet up for telling them—that’s a real service.”
Somewhere down the line, Jamie–Lee envisions a Dead Parents Society anthology book that collects the stories of people who have written about the loss of parents and interweaves commentary from other writers with shared experiences. What began as quiet conversations among people with shared trauma has bloomed into a collection of voices and community of grievers. The important thing is keeping the dialogue around grief and loss alive for members of the Dead Parents Society everywhere.
At the end of my conversation with Ben, I thank him for sharing so much of his story. He shrugs and says, “When someone’s a member of the club, it’s chill to say anything, you know?”
We laugh. “Yeah, I know,” I say, because I do.