Reflections of an adult orphan

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.


Meandering as an art form


I want to recommend artistic creation as a way to change your life rhythm and enhance your quality time with anyone who interacts at a different pace than you.

The rings pictured here were all created as I sat patiently with someone I love who suffers with Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy Body Dementia (LBD). For my loved one movement is very slow… and self-expression even slower. Frequently the complete thought never makes it into the world. Lots of partial thoughts, and lots of guessing: “was this what you were trying to say?” Frequently the guesses are wrong. So frustrating for both of us.

It is tempting to want to rush him through things, or help him with his movements or his thoughts in order to reach the goal more quickly. Generally speaking, I think this is a very bad idea. During this visit I learned to quietly allow him to go at his own pace and do most things himself, as I read his body language to determine when he needed or wanted some assistance.

One of my best strategies for living comfortably within his life rhythm during this visit was bead weaving. It would go something like this:

– Pick up a bead, skip a bead, thread the needle through a bead and pull the string through…

– “So, did you ever live on a farm?”

– …feel the bead click into place. Pick up a bead, skip a bead, thread the needle through a bead…

– “Well, in Wyoming….. we lived near farms.”

– Pull the thread through until the bead clicks into place, pick up a bead…

– “So there were farms near where you lived as a kid in Wyoming?”

– Skip a bead, thread the needle through a bead…

– “Yes, that’s right. The people were….  like those three little girls….”

– Pull the thread through until the bead clicks into place… Pick up a bead…

– “You mean the farmers were Korean, like the little girls from your old neighborhood?”

– Skip a bead, thread the needle through a bead, pull the thread through…

– “Yes, they were Korean.” (grateful look and a nod – glad I was able to make the connection.) “After the war…. ”

– …feel the bead click into place, turn the beadwork to begin the next row, pick up a bead…

– “They were gone.”

– “You mean their land was taken from them, like the Japanese who were put in the internment camps?”

– Skip a bead, thread the needle through a bead…

– “Yes, it was a terrible thing.”

– Pull the thread through…


Through conversations like this, I have learned a few things about my loved one that I never knew before, and I’m not sure I would have been able to carry on the conversation as effectively if I were trying to “drive toward” some knowledge, or had a goal in mind. I was simply meandering with him, starting with a random question, and trusting that it would take us somewhere… much like a thread weaves its way through the beads, eventually creating a fabric that can be shaped to form something useful. I’m still not sure I have the facts of the story entirely correct. His memory might have been hazy – perhaps his long-ago neighbors were actually Japanese; it would match American history a bit better – but what matters is the quality of the moment we shared, when he recalled his feeling of sadness for neighbors who were lost.