The Adult Orphan
We all keep it in mind that our parents are going to die one day, but even though we know this is inevitable, many people are bewildered by their degree of loss.
The adult orphans are easily forgotten, the lucky ones whose parents had a good innings. These are the people who are expected after a few months or even weeks to dust themselves down, put their feelings behind them and get back to a normal, happy life.
There's no established term, yet losing your parents is one of adult life’s most significant rites of passage. While society recognises the loss that children feel when their parents die, adults are assumed to be fundamentally different, quickly dealing with the grief of losing the people that raised them from the cradle.
If only it were that simple. The impact of losing your parents goes way beyond organising the funeral and sorting out all the practical issues. Although its the natural order for parents to die before their children, this inevitability is no cushion to the pain, soul-searching and sheer feeling of rudderlessness that so often follows.
On being told that a parent has died the next question is often "How old were they?". Although age is often used as currency for suggesting someone has had a good life, for the child who has lost their parent this has no bearing. It only allows others to quantify the loss.
Our parents act as a store for our memories, and these memories are the ones that form our identity. Its like loosing a reference libary that has always been available for checking in when we feel uncertain, We identify ourselves through our relationships with our parents, and on loosing them, we have to find new ways to define ourselves.
The death of the second parent can also trigger grief for other losses, in particular reactivating mourning for the first parent. We often don't have time to grieve for our first parent when our focus is on supporting the surviving parent.Thus, we feel unprepared for the second parent’s death, which can plunge us into what can feel like a pit of emotion as we struggle with grief that had not previously been fully acknowledged.
As our parents get older and their health deteriorates, you can be left with questions you would like to have asked, and things you would like to have said.
The death of our parents will affect family bonds, Every sibling will have had a different relationship with their parents, You can have five people in a room crying for completely different reasons.
Relationships with partners can also be affected by a parental death. We can find our partners insufficiently sympathetic when seeking out support, This can leave the bereaved partner angry and resentful.
Mid life orphans are compelled to examine the past, dredging up both meaningful and unpleasant memories. Expressing our ambivalent feelings about our deceased parents allows us a measure of comfort, and, at the same time, encourages our personal growth. By really getting to know our parents rather than keeping them on a pedestal, allows us to to think about them in a more gentle way.
Ultimately we must make conscious decisions to move on, if only with tiny, tentative steps.
After a parent dies we continue to carry their voice in our heads at some level, as a belief system. Death doesn't end the relationship.
The primitive fear that we experience from childhood that our parents might not be there next morning when we wake up, is what makes losing parents so shocking, yet the enormity of the loss can ultimately be liberating.
Although things will never be the same again, after we recover, our reaction to death will have changed, and the realisation that we can survive death, can be transforming.
I can offer counselling support, if you have experienced a bereavement, and want to talk through the loss.