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Losing your parent or parents is never easy, however old you are. I was 25 when my mother passed away and then just this last year I lost my father. There is and will always be so much I wish I had done or said but you can never say enough after they are gone to fill the void. When you loose you parents you then realize your own mortality and then the fact that you are no longer anyone’s child is really hard to swallow…
On a bitterly cold and rainy November morning in 1994, my mother died of a stroke. The shock of her death, although expected, was like a punch to the stomach. It was the first bereavement I’d experienced up close other than my grandparents. For weeks, a cloak of confusion, rage and disbelief descended. By contrast, my fathers death, 17 years later, held no shock like that did. It arrived clearly signposted with age and the slow degradation that goes with it for us all.
At 42 I’d become an adult orphan, a member of the club that nobody wants to join but most will. One parent dying was devastating; but when my both died it changed me for ever. I felt anchorless, as if I was no longer anyone’s child. I may have looked the same but something inside me shifted.
I liken being an adult orphan to being the only tree left standing in a forest. For me it’s as if my roots have been hacked away: my parents are the reason I’m here, what held me up. They had been the one stable point during my whole life, the constant. Yes, I’m an adult and can stand alone. But there are times I still need my mother and father, times I feel very alone. I have a wonderful wife and family and now a granddaughter and wonderful friends. I’m grateful for all of them. But they’re not my parents.
My parents with their faults and strengths made me who I am. They taught me to learn from their mistakes as well as my own. To love all and to care for the whole of humanity. They had a strong work ethic and a lot of hope. One of the biggest things they taught me was forgiveness and looking for the good in all things..
They weren’t young when they died – in their 60s and 80s respectfully – but somehow their ageing had taken me by surprise. I remember visiting my dad one day just after he’d washed his hair and hadn’t had time to slick it down with his usual squirt of V05 for men. It was almost completely grey. When had this happened? When had he got old? The V05 had always made his hair look much darker, and we used to look at old photos and joke about his “movie star” looks, while my mom rolled her eyes. To accept your parents have aged is to accept that you have too, and I suppose I’ve never really felt my age. But after they died I was faced with the uncomfortable reality of my own mortality. Of course, my brain knew that my parents wouldn’t live for ever. My heart, however, hadn’t quite caught up.
Yeas on it still affects me. When I hear someone whinge about visiting their parents at Christmas, it’s all I can do not to groan out loud. I want to shake them (and possibly give them a good, hard slap). I want to say, “Don’t you realise how lucky you are?” But, of course, I don’t. Instead, I make some comment about how they should enjoy it while they can, as both of my parents have died and there’s nothing I’d love more than to be in their position. An uncomfortable silence usually follows along with a muttered, “Yes, I guess you’re right,” and a swift change of subject. I can see the realization in their eyes that I am right. We can not take them for granted just as our children are doing us. I guess that is part of being human.
If discussing death is still taboo in 21st-century United States, multiply that by 10 and you get an idea of how people react when you say you’ve lost both parents. They just don’t know what to do with that information. (You don’t need to do anything, by the way – a simple “I’m sorry to hear that” is always appreciated.) I have taken all of the good from them and because of that they will live on in me and in my children.
There’s an awkwardness, almost embarrassment, attached to being an adult orphan – not for me, for others. I find this frustrating and stupid. In a day and age when it seems no subject is off limits for scrutiny – sex, addictions, which celeb did what to who – this most everyday of subjects is avoided. I don’t wear an “adult orphan” badge. I don’t go round saying, “Hello, I’m Don and both of my parents are dead.” Although, I see quite a few that do and seem to mention it every chance they get. They are not special and it did not just happen to them. I wonder when I see this, if they have something that was left unsaid. But if it does come up in conversation I don’t shy away from it either. I believe that we’re all more the same than we are different, and life stages such as this are what bring us together.
Yet I can almost taste other people’s aversion if I broach the subject. As if it’s bad form to talk about it at all. There is a time and a place for it though. Maybe this is connected to the fact that we all know we’ll have to confront adult orphanhood at some point. My personal experience, by the way, is that the middle-aged are the worst. People in their 40s just don’t want to discuss death or bereavement, as if by talking about it, they may catch it too. Perhaps it’s too close to home and they don’t want to see what is waiting for them down the road. Children, on the other hand, seem more relaxed. When my eldest son saw photos of my parents he said, “Yeah, they look really old!” as if it all made sense to him. And the young will ask the two questions most of us want answers to: how old were they? What did they die of? They try to make sense of it. I’ve found that most people over 60 seem more relaxed to have these conversations, too, perhaps because many have been through it or the fact that they are close to this death as well.
When my parents died there were some very good friends, great family members and lovely colleagues, all of whom rallied round. But there were also some hideous experiences. And unfortunately they tended to leave a more lasting impression. I remember going to work in a particular office a few weeks after my mother had died. It was a place I was known, where I’d worked shifts now and then, and where they knew what had happened as I’d worked there during my mom’s illness. On my first day back, nobody said a word. Nothing. In fact, they didn’t mention it the whole week. It was like running around yelling: “Don’t mention the war!” Only one person acknowledged my bereavement, as we were buying lunch. Adult orphans are expected to just get on with their grief quietly. We’re allowed a week’s grace at the most, then after that we’re expected to have dealt with it. To have got over it.
To anyone who hasn’t lost their parents, here’s some news: you never get over it. I’m not trying to startle you. It’s a fact. You get through it, yes, and you’ll probably get used to it, but you don’t get over it. A piece of your life jigsaw has been removed and, however much you rearrange the other pieces, they never quite fit in the same way again. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. For me it makes complete sense that everything changes; if we accept that, in some profound way, our parents help shape who we are then surely their deaths will affect us deeply too?
One of the biggest things that you need to know is that I felt extreme guilt, especially when my mother passed away. I know that I said everything to her that I could and that she knew how much I loved her but you will feel like you did not do something you should have. That is a false feeling. We are human, we are adults with lives as they are or were. One thing that i know I could have done different is to never take them for granted and think that they will always be there. They wont! Just as you will not be for your children. Make the most of every day that you can with your parents if they are still here. Make the most of every moment with your children so that they do not feel that feeling.
The difficult times are still there, but they ebb and flow and I’ve learned to accept them. Birthdays can be hard, as can the anniversary of a parent’s death. Not every time, not every year, but occasionally. There’s no rhyme or reason to when it might happen. I can be fine for months, maybe a year, then the smallest thing can make my heart dip; seeing a young child with grandparents sometimes does it because my mom never really got to know our children and my father and mom never got to see our granddaughter. A smell or a sound can trigger some very strong emotions and memories. Thank God for those memories!!!
Grief can do strange things to you. An emotion that often rears its head is envy. It’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s there all the same. It usually burns low, but increases slightly in certain situations. That would be something I write in another post.
My parents were by no means perfect and I wasn’t the ideal son. There had been some huge rows over the years, mostly about my unwillingness to do what was expected. (Getting married without telling them while I was in the Marine Corps – That did not last long by the way but I did get two great kids out of it.) But despite all the conflicts I think that, overall, we eventually had outstanding relationship. And over time, that relationship with them has continued. Because despite my initial feeling that, once they were both dead, I was no longer anyone’s son, I now realise that isn’t true. I’m still their son: I always will be. And they’ll always be my parents. I carry them with me each day. I love them more and I feel that my relationship with them is even stronger now.