Unhinged, uprooted, un-buoyed. Having lost both of my parents in the course of three years, I feel like a transcendent door slammed somewhere, and my world is still reverberating from the finality of it. Sometimes I forget they are gone. At odd moments, it occurs to me I haven’t picked up the phone to call them in a very long time – and then I remember why that is, and the echo of the loss startles me, and the painful reverberation begins again.
This concept of “adult orphan” is a new one for me – but a quick Google search shows that for the past decade others have been exploring it. I come on the very heels of the Baby Boom generation, with boomers ahead of me becoming mid-life orphans in droves. According to a 2008 article on the topic in the LA Times, by the time 65% of Americans turn 60, they will have lost both parents.
The LA Times article also shares insights from psychologists who have been surprised to discover that the loss of both parents in mid-life can kindle a rebirth, a re-awakening. I admit that around the edges of that numinous slammed door in my psyche, there is energy and light. Something new is coming – I can feel it. In my inner world, resplendent with mixed metaphors, a key has turned in a lock, and a tumbler that hasn’t moved in years is turning – shifting – creating an inner transformation of space. Right now the new space still feels like an ache and a sorrow, but I am also aware of a growing certainty that THIS is the time for me to grab hold of my life in ways I haven’t in the past, and stop dilly-dallying (to use a term my parents passed down to me from their own parents.)
Be that as it may, it is important for me – and for other adult orphans – to acknowledge the grief, the loss, the gaping emptiness left behind when an elder parent is lost. Otherwise, we risk becoming depressed or ill with what psychologists describe as “disenfranchised grief.” Yes, my parents were in their early 80’s when they passed. Yes, they both lived enriched, fulfilled lives. Truly, the grief is not about a life ended too soon. Let’s be honest – we grieve for ourselves, for the wise support we can no longer depend upon, and for the vast wealth of experience and history that has been lost to us. We grieve that we never asked the questions that we can now never ask.
For those of you who have lost your parents – I found a particularly helpful online resource here – and plan to look up some of the books and authors cited. Please feel free to share your own reflections on being a mid-life orphan.