My personal experience, which I do not claim to be a universal one, was that after my mother died when she was 28 and I was seven, life went on, and I came to accept the new normal fairly quickly.
It had not occurred to me that my life might have been different until one evening when I was about thirteen or fourteen, and spending the week-end with my maternal grandparents. By that time, my younger brother and I had acquired a troubled (you don't want to know) stepmother and four step-siblings, two of whom lived with us in Ohio and two with their father in Florida, and I had already been in boarding school for two or three years. My grandmother broke down ~ the one and only time I was ever witness to such an extraordinary event ~ and sobbed that our lives "would have been so different if your mother had lived."
What an astonishing thought! How had I missed that idea?
For some inexplicable reason, I've been thinking about that alternative reality recently. My husband says, "You can't know," but I have a whole narrative worked out that differs considerably from the real one.
I would have grown up in Florida, to which my parents were trying to move from Ohio. I would have grown up TWO BLOCKS FROM THE BEACH, where they had built a house.
I might have still gone to boarding school (always my dad's dream, since that had been his experience), but not until high school, and with a sense of enthusiasm and adventure, rather than dread and despair. And I would have done well, because I would have been excited and full of energy, and would have been receiving encouraging letters from my mom every couple of days.
I would have gone to Vanderbilt or another southern school, because my roots would have been in the south. (In reality, my 12th grade religion teacher tried to get me to consider colleges down south. He was from North Carolina, and considered us all far too parochial in our New England snobbishness at the ripe old ages of 17 and 18. He had a point.)
I would have majored in biology in college, because I love science and because I would have been so well supported emotionally in high school that I would not have given up when I first stumbled in math, and I would not have abandoned all of the preparation needed for college-level science courses. My MOTHER would have made sure that I did no such thing.
And then I would have gone to med school and become a brain surgeon, just as I had planned back when I was eleven.
So . . . I guess if my mother had lived, I would be Meredith Grey.
Of course, Meredith has mother issues, too.
But if MY mother had lived . . . I would be a surgeon in Jacksonville FL and she would be around, all the time.
It's a great fantasy.